BALTIMORE, Md. — Baltimoreans rely on libraries throughout the city for access to computers and internet service so when libraries were forced to close down because of the coronavirus pandemic, many families struggled.
"The Enoch Pratt Free Library is one of the largest providers of free internet service in the entire state of Maryland so we knew immediately that this was going to be a challenge for the entire city. That's why we started working so quickly," said Meghan McCorkell, the Marketing and Communications Director for Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Right now, they have drive-up WiFi access at eight of their locations so you can use the wifi from inside, outside. You can walk up too, as long as you can properly socially distance from others. They're working on setting up three mobile hotspots throughout the community using their book buggy, bookmobile and mobile job center. So far, the bookmobile is the only one up and running.
"If you’re near one of those vehicles up to 60 devices can connect to our free WiFi. In addition we’re actually lending hot spots, so you can come pick up a hot spot just like you pick up a book at the library," said McCorkell. They're lending out hotspots and tablets that are already WiFi connected. You can rent them using them their sidewalk service which is available at 12 locations now, 14 starting in August. McCorkell added, "finding connectivity for our community was number one on our list and that is what we have been working on non stop since the closure."
These are some short term solutions. They're hoping to have some more long term solutions in the future like being able to supply WiFi to an entire neighborhood but that takes money and help from partners.
In addition with helping the digital divide in Baltimore they're also making sure people are staying engaged and active during this uncertain time. They offer a ton of programs online, like tutoring.
"Say your child is doing an algebra problem and I know it’s been a really long time since I’ve taken algebra. They can actually log in and a live tutor can actually log in and work on a digital black board with them to show how to do that problem and actually teach the child how to do it. So it kind of let’s you off the hook from learning algebra again," said McCorkell.
They also have story time with sing-a-longs for younger kids, yoga classes, craft time, cooking classes and a bunch more.
"Fantasy Sci-fi book club where you talked about fantasy Sci-fi, fantasy books you were reading, stuff like that. Now, every Tuesday and Thursday I participate in something called storytelling where they teach you how to improve your storytelling," said Norah Surcel-Debes. Norah is a ten-year-old who typically uses the Govans Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. She said, "it's just super welcoming, there are so many books. Like you don't have to, you can just stay there and read, you don't have to check anything out!"
She's a little nervous to start fifth grade but has definitely gotten a hang of this whole virtual interaction thing. She said, "every week I have FaceTime cooking thing with one of my best friends and lunch with one of my friends."
"It's hard managing jobs and taking care of the children, making sure everyone has what they need and everyone is in a good place in terms of their mental health," explained Alexandra Surcel, Norah's mom. She added, "making sure our kids feel connected to us, to each other, have outlets to their stress or anxiety because being in a pandemic isn’t easy for anybody."
Alexandra and her husband, John Debes, both get to work from home right now and don't have any connectivity issues. John said, "I think we worry about a lot of the people who don’t have the same advantages we do especially a lot of people in this city don’t have good internet or don’t have the computers they need. We want our government to take care of the people who are really struggling."
So they were both pleased to hear about the resources the Enoch Pratt Free Library. "We hope to that everyone will take advantage of the programs," said John. Alexandra added, "I hope to see the library do what they do best, fill the void for it's most vulnerable in the community."
All of the services from the library are free, you just need a library card. For more information head over to their website, prattlibrary.org.