What Happens When Libraries Stop Sharing Wi-Fi?

Source: KQED

Nestled between the heart of the Castro and Mission Dolores Park, the Harvey Milk library branch is a gem within San Francisco’s public library system. At the entrance is a fireplace with stylish reading chairs, and beyond rows of books and LPs is a colorful kids’ section where the library hosts story times for toddlers and babies.

Michael Lambert, city librarian, recently wrote in an email to library staff addressing concerns raised about the Wi-Fi hours at the Harvey Milk branch.

He cited “individuals camping on the roof of the Branch, hacking into the Branch’s electrical power, and breaking into a small closet on the exterior perimeter of the building,” among acts of vandalism that led to the change.

But email records obtained by HDizz show that those incidents dated back to as early as 2015, before the 2017 study on crime in the area was released, and that the library for several years pushed back against cutting off Wi-Fi at night.

Lambert wrote that the Harvey Milk branch was the first to bring on a fixed security officer, however, and that other branches have since replicated that practice. He added that the library has worked with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department and Public Works to remove needles and other waste from the sidewalk area outside the library and improve landscaping.

Hollywood said he feels that people like him are being blamed for city-wide problems and punished for using a public service.

He also doesn’t plan to leave the area he’s called home base for several years, despite having a tougher time connecting online there at night.

“I know the librarians here. I talk to them all the time,” Hollywood said. But the decision to discontinue Wi-Fi at night, he added, “doesn’t help anyone. It only hurts people.”

Digital divide

Even in high-tech San Francisco, internet access is uneven. Unlike some rural areas that struggle with connectivity, fiber-optic cables and infrastructure are available here. But for people with lower or no incomes, monthly internet plans don’t always fit the budget.

Nearly 124,000 San Francisco residents are eligible for discounted or free internet through the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, but only 26% of those eligible are enrolled, according to a press release from the city.

ShelterTech, a technology nonprofit, found that less than half of the people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area have access to reliable internet. Often, public libraries are a primary source of internet access for them.

“For those who are trapped in poverty and have many other circumstances that make daily existence difficult, it is even more challenging if you’re not connected to the internet,” said Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund. “This is as much a problem if not more so today if you’re trying to navigate any system or get assistance, find shelter, find food and help without having the internet.”

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