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The Burlington County Board of Commissioners applauded the launch of a new wireless hotspot and tablet lending program at the Burlington County Library System, saying the initiative will help close the digital divide and ensure disadvantaged residents can access the internet.
Under the program, BCLS cardholders can now borrow tablet kits and mobile hotspots for three weeks, with the option to renew if there is no waiting list. The library began lending out a limited number of kits last month and continues to expand the numbers available each week.
“Burlington County was first in New Jersey to create a county library system because our residents realized that there should be a place where folks could borrow books and access the knowledge they contain,” said Commissioner Deputy Director Dan O’Connell, the Board’s liaison to the Library System. “A century later the library has continued to expand and evolve to meet our residents changing needs, and this device lending program is the perfect example. We know families without internet access are at a severe disadvantage at work and school and even accessing basic services, so I’m incredibly proud our county’s library system is stepping up to bridge this divide and make sure no one is left in the digital dark.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 18,500 households in Burlington County lacked internet access in 2019 and more than 11,000 did not have home computers. In some areas of the county, anywhere from 20% to 40% of the population lack access to basic technology, leaving them at a severe disadvantage in a host of areas, including work, social interaction, household financial management, education and entertainment.
“Over the past year, we’ve all learned how important it is to be able to connect digitally. Whether it’s been holiday dinners over Zoom, virtual ‘vacations’ through online tours or even renewing a vehicle registration online, we’ve had to discover new and creative ways to come together and go about our lives through technology,” said Ranjna Das, director of the Burlington County Library System. “But that makes it even more important for all residents to have access to the internet and the connections that this technology brings. With this program, BCLS is helping our community bridge the gaps so that no one is left behind.”
The tablets and hotspots were purchased and programmed with funding from a $45,103 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The library’s application for the grant was selected out of more than 1,700 submitted to share in $13.8 million in federal CARES Act funding for museums and libraries.
The library tablets are available for borrowing at the circulation desk at the Burlington County Library in Westampton and come loaded with essential apps for video conferencing, online school and job hunting, Microsoft Office and Google Drive, as well as the library’s entire collection of more than 15,000 ebooks and downloadable audiobooks. There are also additional resources preprogrammed, such as Udemy and Rosetta Stone.
“When the pandemic first began, our libraries succeeded in finding creative ways to continue programs and services and expand digital offerings. This lending program is the logical next step,” said Jonathan Chebra, chairman of the Burlington County Library Commission. “Now, even those who lack basic technology can gain access to the library’s large online collection and services and connect to the greater digital world.”
In addition to making the tablets available, the Burlington County Library System intends to partner with the Burlington County Department of Human Services and Burlington County Health Department to promote the availability of the tablets to disadvantaged populations.
“We’ve seen the challenges faced by those without internet connections and the disadvantages they face so we’re thrilled that the library is making this technology available and partnering with our Human Services and Health Department teams to make sure that the residents most in need are aware of it,” said Commissioner Director Felicia Hopson, the Board’s liaison to the Department of Human Services. “It’s creative partnerships like these that will help us emerge stronger from the pandemic.”
The tablets and hotspots will be available for three weeks initially with the option to renew for two weeks if there is no waiting list for the devices. Currently devices are available at only the Main Branch Library in Westampton, but they may be returned to there or the Bordentown, Cinnaminson, Evesham or Pemberton branches.
Devices will be remotely disabled if not returned on time, and a $2 per day late fee will be charged for up to 15 days. After 15 days, a device will be considered lost and a fee of replacement fee of $500 for a tablet kit and $90 for a hotspot will be charged.