NP library Blakenship ws

Stefanie Blankenship, director of the North Providence Union Free Library, stands next to an example of the library’s new “Any Place Office Space” kits for patrons to check out. The kits include one laptop and charger, one wireless printer and charger, one mobile hot spot and charger, one USB flash drive, one wireless mouse, and printer paper. (Breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Wanting to provide more residents with access to technology and bridge the digital gap in town, staff at the North Providence Union Free Library have created what they’re calling “Any Place Office Space” kits for patrons to check out and use from the comfort of their home or anywhere they choose.

The 10 kits, funded in part by an $11,250 grant from the Rhode Island Office of Library & Information Services using funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, include one laptop and charger, one wireless printer and charger, one mobile hot spot and charger, one USB flash drive, one wireless mouse, and printer paper. Kits will be loaned out from June 3 through Aug. 18, with the last day of return no later than Sept. 15, according to staff. People can take out a kit for any period of time, with a maximum of three months, and will be able to keep the flash drive.

“I’m very honored and appreciative for the opportunity to serve our town (and provide) services they need,” Library Director Stefanie Blankenship told The Breeze, adding that she’s grateful for the Library of Rhode Island grant. “The staff is happy, patrons are happy, the town is happy. Everyone seems really excited (about the program).” OLIS awarded 16 Library of Rhode Island grants totaling $431,000 to R.I. libraries and consortia this year. When the call for grant applications went out, Blankenship said she wanted to apply for funding for a project that focused on equity related to technology and broadband access. “It was really a no-brainer,” she said.

People might not realize it but there is a digital divide in North Providence, she said. Broadband access is expensive, as is equipment such as computers, printers, and printer ink.

When the library reopened last July after being closed for several months due to the pandemic, the need for office equipment was evident, Blankenship said. From July to April, the library’s eight public computers were booked, and in that time, the library saw 3,303 computer sessions, 5,300 print jobs, and 115 mobile hot spot rentals with 61 renewals, she said, noting that the library’s 21 hot spots were never on the shelf. Those hot spots will continue to be loaned out but demand is still high.

With people stuck at home, many residents were left without broadband access, computers, and printers. The purpose of the project, according to the grant application, “is to provide much needed access to information resources. Without home computers or broadband service, many people are left without the resources for school, jobs, entertainment, and personal development and wellness.”

Many people need these tools to work or learn from home, file for unemployment, apply to jobs, do their taxes, and sign up for COVID-19 testing or vaccinations, Blankenship said.

In addition to Blankenship, Michael Crispino, technology librarian, and Liz D’Amore, deputy director, worked on putting together this project. The program will help library staff learn of patrons’ specific needs, Blankenship said, noting that some may only need a mobile hot spot or printer while others may need the entire kit. After the three-month period runs out, staff will evaluate whether to continue with the kits, which may require more grant funding.

While the state has opened up and patrons can use the computers and printers at the library again, having these to-go kits is a good option for people who still might not feel safe being out, Blankenship said. Prior to the pandemic, the library offered 30 public computers but now has about 14 in use to keep some distancing in place and make patrons feel more comfortable.

Restrictions on time spent at the library have been lifted as well, following state guidelines.

Blankenship said she believes North Providence has the only library in the state that includes loaning out wireless printers. 
Two of the 10 kits were loaned out last Wednesday, Blankenship said, adding that the people who checked them out were quite excited to borrow them, including one patron who kept coming to the library to print out documents.

The kits are perfect for households that have only one computer but multiple people now needing more access to it, she said.

A survey will be included with each kit for borrowers to share how they used the equipment and “how the quality of their work improved by having access to these services,” states the application.

Library staff will evaluate whether there is a need for more at-home office kits in the future or if 10 were enough and whether to expand or scale back the program.

To make an appointment to pick up a kit, call the administration office at 401-353-5600, ext. 801, 802, or 804. Borrowers must be 18 or older, sign a contract, and have a valid library card. If a resident doesn’t have a library card, they can sign up for one that day, Blankenship noted. They must allow participate in a brief training session with the technology librarian prior to borrowing a kit.

As part of the contract, patrons agree to call the library if they have any issues with equipment and won’t use the equipment for illegal or illicit purposes. 
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