Alamance County Public Libraries are offering internet access to neighborhoods in Burlington with limited or no access in partnership with the Alamance-Burlington School System, Morrow Town Task Force and Burlington Housing Authority.
North Carolina public schools were online for the remainder of the year and Alamance County libraries were also closed as a result of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay-at-Home order leaving many residents without internet access or a way to obtain it. The service is still running over the summer.
Alamance County Public Libraries Outreach Services Program’s goal was to provide internet access to the community, something they deem crucial.
The mobile cafe van was created in August of 2018 to provide Pop-Up Internet Service to residents in isolated parts of Alamance County with mobile library stops.
“With the Outreach program, we work with community groups, go to events and promote the library in general,” Outreach Coordinator Mary Beth Adams said. “We learned that many people in the community did not have access to the internet.”
According to Adams, the mobile cafe van provides access with an antenna that offers a 300-foot radius of Wi-Fi connectivity.
Elon alumna Donna Vanhook ‘07 is a community organizer with the Morrow Town Task Force. She works closely with a number of different organizations and helps connect people like Adams to others to better serve members of the community.
“The service was not in operation because of the pandemic, and I heard of students who did not have internet access to do their schoolwork,” Vanhook said.
Vanhook’s previous involvement with other community organizations aimed at bettering local residents prompted her to pursue communication with the libraries. She said that her role involved discussing a plan for how to get students internet access to complete their studies.
“The service was already available; it was just about coordinating times and places,” Vanhook said. “The coordination was all completed virtually in just a few days.”
Vanhook said a test run was done the Friday before Easter Monday to ensure people would be able to use this service from inside their homes.
“I was very pleased with how quickly things came together and how people benefited from the service,” Vanhook said. “I think that this service has relieved some anxiety in both parents and students.”
The coronavirus has forced people to work and study from home and the Alamance-Burlington School System wanted to help their students adapt by providing devices and hotspots.
“There are not enough devices for everyone,” Adams said. “We are so happy to be able to step in and have the mobile cafe [be] the library in the community.”
Adams said their service is important because of its purpose to provide internet access to community members without it. Some people lack access because of location, while for others it's a result of their personal circumstances.
Adams said some families may share one computer; therefore, they are serving an even greater number of people.
“We are connecting around 30 to 40 people each day at two different spots,” Adams said. “Sometimes in the same apartment complex and other times, in two separate ones.”
The mobile cafe van has benefited many community members but has also shed light on the number of residents who have limited or no access to the internet.
“The mobile cafe did address the digital divide,” Vanhook said. “There is a presumption that most young people have access to the internet, but that is not the case.”
Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the mobile cafe van offered users the opportunity to pick out books, but that service is currently suspended to keep residents safe.
“Kids want to look at every book, but we are then worrying about germs,” Adams said.
On their Facebook page, the Alamance County Public Libraries encouraged people in the neighborhoods utilizing their internet service to stay indoors or sit outside, following rules of social distancing from others.
“The difference in what we have done before and what we do now is that now we just provide internet access, parking it and turning on our router,” Adams said. “We don’t have the table out. We feel it's safer.”
Adams said that only offering internet access has kept residents from congregating in small areas and has limited the spread of germs altogether.
“When we decided to do this, and just offer internet access, the most important thing was to provide for the students,” Adams said.
The mobile cafe runs Monday through Friday, alternating stops each week.
“One week we will do the four northern stops and the next we will do the four southern stops,” Adams said. “We are seeing people every other week.”
Alamance libraries felt residents in East Burlington had somewhere to go when schools and libraries were open, but they now plan to include those apartment complexes in future routes.
“We know we’re not hitting every place,” Adams said. “We are trying to keep in contact with the Morrow Town Task Force and Burlington Housing Authority to see what we can do and how we can [reach] those who need it.”