An often unseen need
Logging on, signing in, browsing, messaging, streaming.
These are all modern-day activities that many folks may often take for granted. The modern age is a connected age, and the digital divide grows larger every day. Without affordable WiFi, available service, or data plans, many Halifax Regional Municipality residents can find themselves without access to the internet and all its offerings.
Halifax Public Libraries’ IT Team has been quietly working behind the scenes over the past two years to help bridge some of these divides in our communities by adding and boosting Library WiFi signals, at our branches, and even installing WiFi in community locations.
While you may not have known about or noticed this change, pass by any Library branch and you’ll see it in action. You’ll see activity bustling beyond Library walls. Whether it’s a teen typing up homework while lounging in a hammock in Keshen Goodman’s Outdoor Library, a family video calling in the park across the street from Halifax North Memorial Public Library, or a boat as it glides by Sheet Harbour Public Library to gather weather information, we’re sending signals, and you’re picking them up.
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A need to connect
When COVID-related closures hit in 2020, the wheels in our IT Team members' brains immediately began turning. There would be many, many impacts of libraries closing their doors. How could we help?
“People typically come into libraries for access to computers and access to the internet, and access to various devices. And they do so for a number of reasons: information, communication, entertainment,” says IT Manager, Kevin Crick. “Libraries were closed, and they couldn't access these devices and the internet. So, we looked at, ‘How do we reach those people who traditionally came into our branches?’ And one of the ways was to get gadgets in people's hands out in the community, and another way was to expand our WiFi footprint outside the borders of our Libraries.”
When schools shut down, many students were equipped with Chromebooks or tablets to use for remote schoolwork, yet they had no internet at home or adequate cell data to use them meaningfully. Community members were learning to navigate a new world of virtual healthcare, form-filling related to the CERB benefit or immigration documents, and Zoom check-ins with family, friends, or workplaces. Internet became more crucial than ever.
“Over the last couple of years with COVID, the Library has gone in,” says IT Supervisor, Kerri LaFond. “We've gone into all of our branches and beefed up the WiFi internally, meaning we've added more access points—better, stronger access points. And we've also helped the public by putting more access points out there and allowing them to have a better connection. We've gone onto the roofs of our buildings and put external access points out there, and blasted it out into the community.”
A Quick Timeline
- In August 2020 Halifax Public Libraries extended the WiFi at Halifax North Memorial Public Library, and in October 2020, added WiFi around the space for the soon-to-become Preston Township Library Office.
- In swift sequence, in Winter 2021, we extended WiFi at Musquodoboit Valley Library Office, and Keshen Goodman, Bedford, Captain William Spry, Tantallon, Sackville, Woodlawn, Cole Harbouur, and Musquodoboit Harbour Public Libraries.
- Sheet Harbour, Dartmouth North, and Alderney Gate followed in Fall 2021.
- Central Library’s internal and external WiFi project was completed in March 2022.
- In December 2021, with the installation of the Kiosk at the Saint Andrew’s Recreation Centre in Bayers Westwood, we added internal and external WiFi there; and Library internal and external WiFi has also accompanied the addition of the Library Kiosk at the Gordon R. Snow Community Centre in Fall River in June 2022.
Following the boosting of WiFi at each of these locations, we would see an immediate uptick of activity in the surrounding community. Students and parents would work out of cars in Library parking lots. Library regulars would browse on benches outside; or send their print jobs directly to our staff inside, who would deliver the pages to them via Curbside Pick-up.
At Sackville Public Library, for example, IT Specialist Andrew Curran recalls, “Once we put the WiFi on the roof there, a couple of staff members that take the bus said, ‘Oh, we can get the WiFi now at the bus stop! We can do some searches and find out when the bus is coming.” Andrew smiles knowing this instance is just one of many others that will go undocumented.
In the Bayers Westwood and Fall River communities, one would typically have to travel quite far to access Library service. The new Kiosks at these community centres, and their accompanying WiFi have added another layer and touchpoint for us to reach and support a new range of community members.
It was a natural progression of Library service to continue reaching out through WiFi in this way. “You can trust the Library. It's a safe space,” says Kevin. “And the fact that we also are encouraging critical thinking and providing the resources for balanced approaches to these things, I think that's especially important where you have a lot of noise out there.”
A point of pride
The IT Team feels a lot of pride in doing this work. Its impacts are indirect, but they’ve all had one-on-one conversations with community members who have shared how the connection has positively impacted their lives.
Through this feedback, Kevin says, “I feel like I'm doing some good. You know, it's not the total solution to everything, but it's a step in the right direction. And I feel, you know, there's a lot of for-profit things out there. A lot of people suspect there's going to be some hidden fee maybe, but there isn't.”
Andrew reflects on a favourite memory: “There was a gentleman that lives up the street from North Branch, and he used to sit out here at the Library trying to get WiFi through our building walls before we had put it on the roof. Even if it was raining, he would be sitting under the overhang and using WiFi. After boosting it, I'd seen him again and he said, ‘it's just great.’ He can now get it right to his room where he's staying. And so, it changed his life as well.”
As of Spring 2022, Kevin shares that Halifax Public Libraries is exceeding all of its records, in terms of the number of devices connecting to all of our internet access points. In the 2021-22 fiscal year, Halifax Public Libraries’ WiFi saw 4,912,687 unique connections.
He anticipates that this success will only continue to grow in the months to come. But most importantly, beyond that, there are record levels of unseen, unspoken connections.
“Sometimes, you know,” Kerri says, “You can just see it in people's faces as they're using it, just that they're able to keep on with their day. And it's wonderful to know that you contributed towards that.”
This story was originally published as part of the Library's 2021-22 Annual Report to our community. Read and explore the full report here.