Diversity & Inclusion
Arts / Internet

Baltimore libraries are extending free Wi-Fi outside neighborhood branches

During the pandemic, Enoch Pratt Free Library and Baltimore County Public Libraries are boosting signals around buildings to continue providing internet access at multiple locations.

Enoch Pratt Free Library's Waverly Branch has Wi-Fi signal around the building. (Photo by Flickr user Baltimore Heritage, obtained under a Creative Commons license)
Updated at 7:35 p.m. to clarify a statement, 6/4/20

To create a bridge over the the digital divide at a time when buildings are closed to the public, library systems in Baltimore city and Baltimore County are extending Wi-Fi outside local branches.

The city’s Enoch Pratt Free Library extended Wi-Fi around eight neighborhood libraries with an initiative it calls Drive-In Wi-Fi. To use Wi-Fi outside of these branches, you don’t need a car (despite the name) or a library card.

It’s a way that the libraries can continue to serve as a hub for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you stand outside the Central Library first thing in the morning, there’s a line outside of people waiting to get in,” Meghan McCorkell, Director of Marketing & Communications for Enoch Pratt Free Library, said about times when the libraries are open. “And that’s because pretty much everything you have to do nowadays is on a computer.”

Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Drive-In Wi-Fi at the following locations, per the Pratt:

  • Brooklyn Branch, 300 E. Patapsco Ave
  • Edmondson Ave Branch, 4430 Edmondson Ave
  • Forest Park Branch, 3023 Garrison Blvd
  • Herring Run Branch, 3801 Erdman Ave
  • Northwood Branch, 4420 Loch Raven Blvd.
  • Orleans St Branch, 1303 Orleans St.
  • Patterson Park Branch, 159 N Linwood Ave
  • Waverly Branch, 400 E. 33rd St.

You do not need a library card to access Wi-Fi. You do need to enter a password:

  • Network: epfl-wpa
  • Password: epfl-wpa

In Baltimore city, many people do not have tech access at home. According to an Abell Foundation report, 40% of Baltimore city households don’t have internet service and one and three households don’t have a laptop or desktop computer. With stay-at-home orders bringing about a period of distance learning and remote work, digital access has become even more critical, according to previous reporting by Technical.ly. It has also brought about a new focus on addressing the digital divide: Enoch Pratt Free Library is among 50 organizations that joined the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition to address these challenges.

Many Baltimore residents depend on libraries for internet access but when buildings closed due to the pandemic the door was also closed to internet access for many who use libraries to apply for jobs, government assistance like unemployment, and education.

“Our mission is to provide access,” said McCorkell. “People think about a library and they think books. When we think about a library, we think about information and opportunity.”

Drive-In Wi-Fi was something both the county and the city libraries started working on the moment the stay at home order was sent out. In order to put it into action, Pratt libraries needed to alter their infrastructure. The way certain branches are designed makes it harder for signals to travel outside the building.

To expand Wi-Fi in the eight branches, the cost was just under $20,000 in equipment. To scale Drive-In Wi-Fi to all libraries in the city, McCorkell estimates it would cost a little under $40,000. The library is searching for the funds to expand the program and  previously-begun efforts to extend digital access into communities, such as the Wash and Learn Initiative, which set up computers and internet access at local laundromats. They would love to have residents be able to checkout mobile hotspots and bring internet to their homes.

“The library is in a unique position,” said McCorkell. “We look at what are the needs of our community, and how can we fulfill them. So we’re always trying to be innovative…Beyond checking out books, what more things can we check out to help enrich the lives of everyone around us.”

Baltimore County extends Wi-Fi to the parking lot

At Baltimore County Public Libraries, Wi-Fi access is available in parking lots at 10 branches. In most cases, the county libraries boosted their Wi-Fi range to open up internet access.

“Access to the internet now is so critical for everyone,” said Erica Palmisano of Baltimore County Public Libraries’ communications department. “and we want to make sure that our communities have access to it.”

In Baltimore County, Wi-Fi is available in the parking lot at the following locations:

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Enoch Pratt Free Library
Series: Coronavirus

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