Located in the foothills of rural western North Carolina, Alexander County Library (ACL) faces significant challenges in bridging internet access gaps across its service area due to the size of the county and the size of the library system. As a primarily rural community, large parts of Alexander County do not have easy access to the internet or the cable wiring to provide that access, particularly in the northern region. While ACL serves a population of around 37,000 people, it is comprised of only two locations: the central library in the northern county seat of Taylorsville and a small branch library in the southern township of Bethlehem. With only 12 staff members and no IT professionals on staff, ACL was well positioned to benefit from Edge when the State Library of North Carolina invited them to be one of twenty libraries statewide to participate in the initial “soft launch” of the Edge Initiative.
Prior to joining Edge, the Alexander County Library was fairly behind in its technology capacity. Despite being a central source of information and internet access for residents, there was a combined total of only 13 public use computers at the library’s two locations. When the State Library of North Carolina asked ACL to participate in Edge, Director Laura Crooks saw great value in the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the library’s technology resources and services.
“At the time, I could say, ‘We don’t have enough computers!’ until I was blue in the face, but we needed the data,” Crooks said. “Knowing that Edge was going to be a technology assessment implemented on the state and national level, I had to jump on the opportunity to take it.”
After taking the assessment, Crooks realized just how far the library lagged behind its peers in both resources and services. They provided one-on-one technical support, but didn’t offer any digital literacy classes. They had wireless networks with manageable bandwidth, but no ebooks. At the time, they had only just acquired time management software. In every Edge Benchmark category, there was room for ACL to make significant improvement.
While the Edge Assessment identified a large number of gaps to address, Crooks decided to tackle the most visible problem: device hours per capita. Device hours per capita is a useful measure of a library’s level of technology access for the community, demonstrating how much computer time a library is capable of providing to each member of its community per year. Given limited space in the library itself, she started by acquiring more plug-ins for patrons’ laptops, but realized that more could be done to expand the library’s technological capacity.
But with Alexander County Library being “very set in its ways,” Crooks knew that it would be hard to make substantial changes without a strong foundation to make a case for improvements. Armed with the extensive set of data from the assessment, the next step was to present the library’s findings to the county commissioners.
Crooks took the information to the county commissioners, stating that the library needed to provide more services to the community, but could not do so with the resources at hand. The assessment data, combined with the fact that the library had been asked by the state to participate in a national evaluation initiative, impressed the commissioners. According to Crooks, having concrete data created a greater level of awareness among the commissioners about the specific needs of the library and garnered greater support from the county government. The presentation also attracted important local media coverage on television and in the newspaper.
When ACL had the opportunity to apply for a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant administered by the state library for those that completed the Edge Assessment, they had the full support of the county government. ACL was able to purchase five new tablets with LSTA funding, as well as an additional tablet from the library’s budget, which is funded by the county. The new devices increased their device hours per capita from 0.76 to 1.15, which allows the library to provide internet access to patrons for longer periods of time and optimizes the amount and quality of work that patrons can accomplish using library resources.
Energized by the success with county commissioners, ACL now looks toward a future of possibilities instead of a community “set in its ways.” Since receiving the LSTA grant for the tablets, the library works with its Board of Trustees to actively search and apply for funding opportunities using the information collected through Edge. ACL has also begun partnering with other community organizations, including a program with a local senior center to provide its first digital literacy classes.