Digital inclusion is critical to rural towns where patrons may not have access to internet service, and libraries are a wonderful resource for community members to gain access to the resources they need at no cost. As digital inclusion initiatives are being introduced across the nation, one rural library in Oklahoma – Okemah Public Library – is making a difference in its community.
Okemah Public Library is located in the largest city in Okfuskee County. Okemah is home to the Muscogee Indian Tribe, a federally-recognized tribe, and is the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. The community is located off of I-40 in eastern Oklahoma.
Okemah Public Library serves as a resource where patrons are welcome to check out books and laptops and access internet services. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the library was closed for two and a half months, but now services are fully up and running for the community to utilize.
The library has been a OneNet customer since 1999, when they initially installed a 56K circuit. The library upgraded to a T1 circuit in 2004. Throughout the years, they have continued to grow their circuit, and they have had a 100Mbps circuit since 2018.
Currently the library has six public computers. OneNet’s high-speed, quality service allows patrons to quickly and easily access the internet on these computers. The library also offers hotspots for checkout, allowing patrons to access the internet from home for school, work or entertainment resources. The library obtained these hotspots through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Science and Oklahoma Department of Libraries.
“The quality of our high-speed internet allows patrons to use our public computers to access emails, prepare resumes, do job searches, complete homework, and access state and federal websites related to unemployment and Social Security,” said Teresa Labbé, the library’s director. “We have two color printers available to patrons, and we have a large number of people that come use the public computers to print out items on their emails (for a fee).”
The Okemah Public Library is at the center of a new digital inclusion program in Oklahoma. The library has been chosen to be a pilot library for Oklahoma State University’s Digital Navigator Program. The Digital Navigator Program is a pilot effort funded through AARP that is currently running in five rural libraries across Oklahoma. The program provides funding to hire a local community member to help library patrons make the most of their technology devices and apply for various online resources. It is currently funded through the end of 2021, but OSU hopes to continue into 2022 with federal funding earmarked for digital inclusion initiatives.
The program offers assistance with a range of resources, such as how to set up a smartphone, sign up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, obtain low-cost broadband service or devices, or access options for telehealth. The digital navigators mostly work from the library but also travel to community events (like those sponsored through OSU’s Cooperative Extension) to make presentations and let people know about their services.
“My research has found that just making broadband available to communities is not enough…they need to adopt and productively use it to meaningfully impact their quality of life,” said Dr. Brian Whitacre, OSU Professor of Agriculture Economics. “The Digital Navigator Program is focused on helping people do just that. The navigator is a trusted local citizen that helps residents sign up for broadband access and figure out what it can do for them. This is a crucial role that can really change how people use the Internet to improve their day-to-day lives.”
“Cliff Peters, our digital navigator, has successfully signed up 10 individuals on EBB, which will help bridge the digital divide in our community. Because most of Oklahoma is tribal land, our patrons will be eligible for $75 toward their internet service,” Labbé said. “Cliff has advertised the program throughout the community, and we get walk-ins every day. Cliff and I are extremely happy with the success of the Digital Navigator Program!”
Another exciting project that is coming up for the library is the remodeling of the 1911 Presbyterian Church in the park near the library. It will become the library’s media center.
“I’ve applied for an Emergency Connectivity Grant to purchase 10 Chromebooks for the media center, which will be checked out to patrons on a weekly basis,” says Labbé.
OneNet is proud to serve Okemah Public Library and 71 other libraries throughout the state. Library internet services are funded through the E-Rate program, managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), to provide discounts that assist schools and libraries with affordable internet access and telecommunications services.
“Serving Oklahoma’s libraries has been an important part of OneNet’s mission since its inception,” said Sonja Wall, director of OneNet and OCAN services. “OneNet’s leadership is also passionate about digital inclusion in Oklahoma. We are thankful for the work libraries, such as Okemah Public Library, are doing to provide critical services within their communities.”
Story by Dominique Brignac, Strategic Communications Intern, Fall & Spring 2021