Bustling Cedar Park, Texas, is home to one of the fastest-growing urban communities in the U.S., located just 20 minutes north of downtown Austin along the tech corridor. As the city’s population has grown, Cedar Park Public Library has continually levelled-up its services, spaces and resources to meet the changing and expanding needs of local residents.
For more than seven years, the Edge program has played a vital role in guiding and strengthening this evolution of the library’s community impact, helping to ensure the library is intentionally addressing the local digital inclusion gap.
“Edge helps us think about how we are providing spaces and infrastructure to support digital readiness, as well as what kinds of programs and support materials we provide,” said Library Director Julia Mitschke.
When the library was first getting started with Edge, the program was particularly helpful for surfacing and addressing an issue with Wi-Fi availability at the library. Edge helped the library recognize that its Wi-Fi offerings were not up to par with the evolving demands of technology and users, and the library quickly acted to strengthen on-site connectivity and fill dead-zones.
An important part of filling its Wi-Fi connectivity gap was advocating for city funding to increase wireless access points, and the Edge Assessment was an important tool for making that case. Over time, Edge has continued to play an important role in helping the library effectively communicate its needs for greater financial support.
“Edge offers a straightforward and concrete way to explain our needs,” said Mitschke. “We can clearly say that, given the number of users we have and the way our technology is utilized, we do not have the ideal level of resources in some areas. We can point to what are best practices and say ‘this is why this investment for the library should be in the city’s budget.’”
Mitschke also shared that Edge has helped establish credibility for some of the library’s existing digital resources and services. For many stakeholders, the wide range of digital activities and needs being met at the library may not be obvious at a glance, even when visiting the library’s spaces. For instance – Edge can help demonstrate that social media access is important for taking online classes and other important uses beyond just entertainment.
In addition to identifying Wi-Fi access needs, Edge has helped guide technology upgrades in available computers, tablets, software and more. From their most recent Edge Assessment – completed on the Edge 2.0 platform in 2019 – the library identified key components needed to make accessibility improvements for library users and how to strengthen digital content creation and multimedia production programs and offerings.
Based on a high need identified among local families, the team has paid particular attention to children who are on the autism spectrum focusing on what spaces, programs and tools can help reduce access barriers for sensory learners. The city also has a growing senior population as well as a significant homeschooling community (around 8% of local youth library users are homeschooled), and Edge has helped the library meet the accessibility needs of those users as well.
With the rise of COVID-19, the library’s work to increase accessibility has shifted to focus heavily on available digital resources. “So many people are only accessing the library virtually right now,” said Mitschke. “A big thing for us is making sure that the resources we have are user-friendly and easy to access.”
The library has reprioritized funding from print materials to expand digital services during the pandemic. The library’s Edge data and the Edge Assessment have been valuable for guiding decisions about which digital services are priorities for expansion.
During COVID-19, the library introduced new recorded and live video content offered to patrons via WebEx and Facebook Live. In the first months of the pandemic, the library saw e-book usage increase a staggering 33%, and the usage has remained at that level after the library reopened physically to the public.
Although these expanded virtual offerings have been well-received, the library is also concerned about ensuring that community members who lack digital access are not being left behind. To that end, the library has a renewed focus on reaching patrons by phone and email in addition to maximizing interactions during the limited curbside and in-person services currently offered.
As the library continues to evolve and change amid the pandemic, Mitschke is confident that “virtual programming and curbside services are here to stay.” Parents are finding it convenient to grab library items without having to get their kids out of the car, and families are loving the ability to access virtual programming on-demand at home, rather than always needing to come into the branch. The library will continue to adapt to new realities in the future, always informed by what is needed by the community in Cedar Park.
However, as the library continues to contend with the impact of the pandemic, gathering feedback on the library’s offerings and assessing local needs is especially challenging. Conducting traditional focus groups and in-person outreach simply is not possible. Informed by the Edge Assessment, the library team plans to conduct a community scan to understand what patrons need, relying on online and phone-based surveys to collect feedback.
Community input is especially vital for the library right now as it is actively working toward the construction of a new building that will open in the coming years. Mitschke notes that Edge has been valuable for both the planning of the new space as well advocating for necessary funding support.
“Before we pour the concrete, it is important that we have the infrastructure for strong connectivity. Edge is going to be particularly useful for things like making the case for a fiber network and applying for E-rate money,” said Mitschke.
Mitschke also added, “flexibility will be the number one priority in the planning process for the layout of the new building as we look to continue serving a wide range of needs in the future.”
Edge has helped the library in its planning for the new building, considering the many possible adaptations of library spaces to support digital inclusion, as well as the rapid pace of technology shifts. “Even before the building opens, we know technology will change,” noted Mitschke.
Beyond the planning process for the new building, Edge has become an integral part of the library’s overall strategic planning approach. The library uses its Edge Assessment results and the framework of the Assessment to continually identify and act on opportunities for growth.
Mitschke has led her team through the process of completing the Edge Assessment three times, and shares the following advice for libraries who are just starting with Edge:
“This is a really great Assessment that will point out some growth opportunities for you and it’s going to provide you with some great tools to advocate for your resource needs going forward – but it’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. The key to success is tailoring it to your community’s needs.”