Library expands ways to serve patrons: mobile hotspots, games

STUDENTS HID in their hoodies last March to stay warm while accessing the public library's WiFi connection after area schools went to remote learning. This prompted librarians to find a way to meet an identified need in the community with mobile hotspots.

A single refrain reverberated through all of the messaging from the Madison Public Library during the long months of closure in 2020: We miss our patrons.

The librarians missed those daily interactions with area residents which shaped the rhythm of their days. They missed the programs which drew people into the library. They missed the sound of voices, the sound of children encountering books, the sound of newspapers rattling as patrons settled down to read.

As they developed creative ways to serve patrons -- through recorded storytime and curbside pickup of borrowed books -- they were also aware of ways in which services could not be adapted. One of these was the library's WiFi connection.

"There were kids sitting outside this building in March because they needed Internet access because they didn't have it at home," recalled Director Nancy Sabbe.

The students were encouraged to go to the sheltered patio on the south side of the building, which was the best option the librarians could offer. However, seeing that need set the wheels in motion for a service which will become available as early as May 1: mobile hotspots.

"You turn it on. You find a network on your computer. You put in the password and you're good to go," explained systems librarian Melanie Argo.

Mobile hotspots, like smartphones, allow individuals to connect to the internet wherever there's a cell tower which allows access to service. They do this by transmitting that wireless signal to other devices, such as a computer or smart TV.

"It's an excellent tool for us to offer, but getting them was quite a process," Sabbe said.

Between recognizing the need and offering the service, the librarians had to research options and find the funding for the program. They had to determine which local provider offered the widest coverage area and make application, which was a lengthy process -- in part, because the provider initially provided the wrong paperwork.

In addition to purchasing the devices, which cost approximately $150 each, the library had to find a way to pay for the monthly service charge on each device. Initially, they hoped to pay for the new services with CARES Act funding. However, when they learned they would be required to put filters on all of the computers, they declined to accept the grant.

"That's something the library board has chosen not to do," Sabbe indicated. She explained that filters are costly and, while undoubtedly wise in school settings, are a form of censorship they did not choose to exercise.

When they realized they would not be receiving funding, they had to answer two questions, according to Sabbe. Do we still want these? How are we going to do it?

In the end, the delays which resulted from confusion during the application process proved to be a silver lining. Sabbe was able to find money in the library budget to pay for the service for the remaining portion of the fiscal year.

The library purchased five hotspots which will be available to adult patrons for a period of seven days. Library patrons cannot extend that checkout period by renewing the hotspot.

"They have to be returned to the building," Argo said. They cannot be placed in the media drop box outside the library, she said.

Patrons who do not return a hotspot will find the connection stops and they will be fined $5 per day for each day it is late, up to $25. If the hotpot is not returned, they will be charged for the device.

Patrons who borrow a hotspot will also be required to sign a policy form. A quick start guide is being developed. The information sheet currently available states, "Mobile hotspots help fulfill the Public Library's mission of providing appropriate technology by offering an access point to digital resources."

Sabbe said librarians are thrilled to be able to offer this service and noted this is part of the library's ongoing efforts to serve the people of Madison and Lake County.

"We keep trying to find things to be helpful," she said, "and we have lots of ideas."

Among the ideas recently implemented by children's librarian Lisa Martin is a game which uses the library's social media platforms to help young people develop critical thinking skills. It is based on the online game "Among Us."

"It takes place on a spaceship," Martin explained. "Among the crewmates, there is an imposter."

She began to engage elementary students in grades 4-6 by 3-D printing little figures and asking students to decorate them. In the video game, the imposter kills off crewmates. In the library game, the imposter doesn't engage in the assigned library task.

Martin posts the tasks on the library social media platforms, and young people use their deductive reasoning skills to determine the imposter. Thus far they've been asked to find a book in a series, find a book that goes with an online game and find a book that became a movie.

Ideas are also being developed for the library's summer reading program, which will be called "Tails and Tales."

"The hope is we can do a fun kickoff in the library with individual classes taking a safari tour of the library," Martin said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the library hosted a kickoff event for the summer reading program which packed the community room with young people. Last year, the library offered a summer reading program, but did not hold any of the events which were traditionally part of the program.

The library did, however, create an outdoor story walk which proved to be popular. That activity will be repeated this summer with the book "Giraffes Can't Dance" by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees.