MARION — Almost every day, Marion Library Director Hollie Trenary sees people sitting in their cars in the parking lot outside to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi.
Since the library closed March 16, Wi-Fi has been boosted as far outside the building and into the parking lot as possible to be accessible to patrons who don’t have it in their homes.
“Without connection to the internet, people feel really cut off from information,” Trenary said in an interview this week. “I’m sitting here now, and there are a couple of people who have been in the parking lot for several hours today connecting to the Wi-Fi.”
Jenn Coleman, 45, of Marion, doesn’t have Wi-Fi at her house, so she comes to the Marion Public Library a few times a week.
“It gets us out of the house, so we’re not feeling like we’re trapped. It’s the quickest, easiest place.”
Osage Municipal Utilities, which provides internet service in its market north of Waterloo, also is taking the initiative to expand access. The utility is providing free internet there to K-12 and college students as schools and college campuses are closed.
The Metro Library Network — Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha and Marion — have 98 Wi-Fi hot spots available for checkout. Currently, there is a hold list of 185 people waiting for a hot spot.
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Trenary said she is on the lookout for people returning hot spots so she can redistribute them to people who need them.
While the libraries are not letting anyone check out physical books at the moment, Trenary said if a hot spot came in she would call people on the waiting list and arrange for them to pick it up.
“It’s crucial to some families and households,” she said.
The hot spots come with a set amount of data and reload on the 15th of each month.
While Wi-Fi and mobile hot spots increase the ability to connect to the internet, they do not help those without devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets in the first place.
Jeaneal Weeks, director of the Hiawatha Public Library, said the “part of our service I worry most about” is not only Wi-Fi but the lack of computer access since the libraries are closed.
“Our computers used to always be full,” Weeks said. “I had to turn someone away yesterday who needed to apply for a job. The look on their face when we turn them away is almost like panic. I just don’t know how to reach them.”
Like at the Marion library, the Hiawatha library makes Wi-Fi accessible in its parking lot, too, and there have been people parked outside there in the evenings.
Weeks said the library also has been issuing library cards over the phone so people can access its digital resources.
Since public Wi-Fi already is available in downtown Cedar Rapids, the Downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library hasn’t pushed out its Wi-Fi farther. But the password has been turned off, so anyone can access it in the parking lot.
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“We are doing everything we can for people to be able to access library services remotely,” Director Dara Schmidt said. “Libraries are very resilient. We always have been an institution that responds to community needs.”
Annually, 30 percent of the Cedar Rapids library’s budget is spent on digital resources. Schmidt said the library is diverting more funds that would have gone to buy physical items to digital items in the last quarter of this fiscal year.
The library is also continuing its phone and email reference service, forwarding callers from the library’s main line to employees working at home. Hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
On a regular work day, Schmidt said, the library averages between 10 and 20 calls an hour.
“It’s hard to even imagine what people are doing right now because there are so many people who public libraries are their only resource for a computer and internet access,” Schmidt said. “For libraries and library staff, it’s heartbreaking when we have to close. We know we are people’s lifeline.”
Other libraries across Eastern Iowa also provide access to Wi-Fi. In the area around the North Liberty Community Center, users can connect to “Library FREE” or “North Liberty” without a password.
Melanie Harrison, with the North Liberty Public Library, said the library is working to boost that reach farther out of the building.
The City of North Liberty has Wi-Fi access at Penn Meadows Park that is available year around.
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