King County Library System Expands Digital Equity and Technology Access

Throughout the pandemic, the King County Library System has been proactive identifying and addressing community needs through innovative services and programs.

Among our initiatives is a strong focus on digital equity. One of KCLS’ core values is providing King County residents with equitable access to information and services, and technology offers a portal.

The pandemic has been a time of increased need and opportunities for online connections with friends and family, and to successfully search for jobs, housing, medical and other help. Yet many people in tech-savvy King County do not own computers or smartphones or have reliable access to Wi-Fi and other technology.  

KCLS already provides computers and Wi-Fi in its buildings, but efforts to expand patron access to technology and assistance have gone well beyond that. The Library System increased Wi-Fi access for patrons by installing signal extenders (antennas) in the parking lots of 45 libraries. As a result, Wi-Fi connections increased 30% over the previous year.

The Library System recognizes that in addition to technology access, many people need help learning to use technology. Through the Digital Navigators program, patrons can get one-on-one mentoring from trained staff to find, evaluate, create and communicate information online–also known as digital literacy.

In addition, KCLS was nationally recognized with a 2021 Government Technology Special Districts Award for Technology Innovation for its work in bridging the digital gap between technology haves and have-nots.

The award honors the Library System for installing exterior library lockers for contactless 24/7 materials pickup; delivering laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to communities in need, and providing “Teleconnect” videoconferencing technology that allows patrons to “visit” health-care providers virtually.

Hotspots and laptops were instrumental in expanding access for residents in assisted living and retirement centers, homeless communities, refugee organizations and service-provider locations. In total, 4,560 residents were served.

KCLS secured a $364,480 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant to advance digital equity and increase services in 2022. The grant will expand public access to KCLS’ collection and resources, including two new outside pickup lockers for library patrons to check out library materials 24/7; the creation of an online programming and public production studio; library study room upgrades to support online meetings, and language-line expansion to further serve diverse communities.

Grant funding awarded to the KCLS Foundation (KCLSF) made possible such technology and increased access. Funding included one grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and two from King County (King County Office of Equity and Social Justice/Digital Equity for Adults with Barriers to Access grant and a COVID-19 Community Response Fund grant).

KCLS will continue to stay on top of digital equity needs and trends in 2022. I was honored to be appointed to the Washington State Digital Equity Forum, formed last year by the state Legislature, to develop recommendations to advance digital connectivity in Washington State. The Forum, co-facilitated by the state Broadband Office and the state Office of Equity, is expected to deliver a report to the Legislature in December prior to the 2023 legislative session.

I look forward to sharing further developments in 2022, and in the meantime, stay connected to your local KCLS library!