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UT Researcher Receives $500,000 to Study Rural Library “Hotspot Lending”

AUSTIN, Texas – The Institute of Museum and Library Services, the federal agency spearheading grants to archives, museums and libraries, has awarded a $500,000 grant to a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin to study rural library “hotspot lending programs,” where libraries loan out devices that connect patrons to cellular networks.

Hotspot lending programs essentially move Internet connectivity into people’s homes by loaning out devices that connect to 3G or 4G cellular networks, and then allow patrons subsidized access to the Internet from anywhere on that network.

Sharon Strover, Philip G. Warner Regents Professor of Communication in the Moody College of Communication, will serve as lead investigator for the 20-month project: “At the Edges of the National Digital Platform: Rural Library Hotspot Lending Programs.”  A partnership with researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the project will examine the success of programs that seek to address the lack of digital access that often face rural communities. 

“Since the 1990s, libraries have been central to serving rural communities that either lacked Internet access or lacked affordable Internet access,” said Strover, who also is the director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute. “Hotspot lending programs serve as a potentially important step in addressing this digital divide in rural communities. However, to date there has been no formal, publicly available investigation of these programs.”

The project will gather qualitative and quantitative data from 24 rural libraries with hotspot lending program experience, focusing on librarians, users and community stakeholders.

Researchers will seek to understand to what extent hotspot lending programs are needed in the communities they serve; how Internet use changes among participating patrons; and what broader community outcomes occur as a result of improved Internet connectivity.

The grant was one of 40 awarded through the federal agency’s Laura Bush 21 Century Librarian Program, which supports investigating questions important to the libraries of the future, with particular attention to digital services and community engagement.

The project team includes scholars with backgrounds in communications, library science, economics and community development. As a result of the project, researchers will create a final research report and guidelines on rural library hotspot lending programs.

“Since the inception of the Internet, rural regions in the United States have experienced lower rates of connectivity, leaving them at a greater disadvantage of accessing information and services,” Strover said. “Results of this research should be useful to policymakers interested in expanding Internet connectivity in rural areas, the broader library community, rural economic and community development staff and scholars.”

Contacts: Sharon Strover, 512-471-6652; Lauren Phillips, 512-471-2182.

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