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Miami-Dade libraries turn to digital services during the pandemic

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Miami-Dade County Public Library System
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Two years ago, the vast majority of what the Miami-Dade Public Library System did was in person. Physical books, services and events were the bread and butter of the 49-branch system.

But the pandemic has changed that with remote work, remote schooling, and an explosion of digital books and services.

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“There’s a point now where the physical and the digital – you’re almost spending the same, whereas physical was huge,” said Rafael Costa, the assistant director of the library system. “People turned that leaf with COVID-19 and they stayed with digital.”

One of the clearest examples of this is the Community Internet Connectivity Initiative, which was launched last year with the rollout of 700 Samsung tablets with built-in internet access that residents can take home. The libraries also launched a “drive-up Wi-Fi” service that lets the public connect to the internet from library parking lots.

Recently, the library system announced the start of a Wi-Fi hotspot program, in hopes of expanding internet connection to areas of the county that don’t have or can’t afford internet service.

“More than one device can go ahead and connect to them, you can actually have 15 on each of the devices and you can use them anywhere, use them in your car, at home,” said Costa. “Right now we have 500 of them throughout the system and you can check them out at each of our locations and return them at any location.”

The 4G hotspots are lent for 30 days at a time, but loans can be extended three times if no one else is waiting for them, for a potential total of up to four months of loan time.

As the pandemic startedin March 2020, Miami-Dade County Public Schools lent tablets, laptops and other digital devices to more than 200,000 students as learning moved online. Yet for many students, connecting to the internet — much less at decent speeds — has remained a problem.

“There’s 20% of the county that does not have internet connection,” said Costa.

In the coming months, the library system will receive 2,000 laptops that it will begin to loan out to the community for a month at a time.

With the launch of the Community Internet Connectivity Initiative in May 2021, Costa said the library system did research into which areas might have the most demand for free internet access, with poorer areas with a mostly Black population topping the list. But the results from the tablet lending program have shown an almost equal distribution of demand.

“It’s really been popular throughout the county. Even in areas where you would consider affluent,” Costa said.

During the course of the pandemic, Miami-Dade public libraries have also played a key role in connecting members of the public to government services for things like applying for unemployment and Section 8 vouchers, and more recently for helping the county distribute hundreds of thousands of at-home COVID-19 tests during the omicron wave.

“We are more than just books,” said Costa. “I’m hoping that these last two years have proven that.”

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
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