On a bright, sunny day in Norman, Oklahoma, patrons of Pioneer Library System (PLS) are browsing available titles, messaging friends and family, and powering up personal devices.
The twist? Those patrons are doing this all outside while sitting at benches placed throughout the community—sometimes mere steps away from their own homes.
PLS is one of a growing number of libraries nationwide to install high-tech, solar-powered benches that offer more than just a place to rest; they also provide free Wi-Fi and charging stations. In this case, benches also advertise library resources via QR codes, which direct users to a digital collection of popular ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and other media available on the Libby app.
Staffers at libraries that have purchased these benches say the primary goal is to help address the digital divide, which became more apparent during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These benches were a clear way for us to provide access to resources and tools that enrich lives and to deliver equitable access to online services that are essential to personal well-being and success,” says Kelly Sitzman, PLS’s director of communications and employment development. PLS began installing the benches last June.
PLS’s six Wi-Fi-enabled benches, called Information Stations, were manufactured by and purchased from EnGoPlanet Energy Solutions, a technology company based in Houston. Each bench has a lighted poster display and is equipped with a solar panel to power charging pads and ports. It also serves as a hotspot, which can support 16 users at a time.
The same idea is being deployed in Newaygo, Michigan, which installed three benches last June as well. Kelly Tinkham, director of Newaygo Area District Library (NADL), reports that traffic to the library’s parking lot increased during the pandemic, even as the building remained closed. Residents and travelers alike, she says, would access the library’s free Wi-Fi service from the comfort of their cars.
NADL serves a community of about 7,500 residents, in addition to tourists who regularly visit for outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, and ice fishing on the nearby Muskegon River. Tinkham says about a third of households in Newaygo County do not have access to high-speed internet.
Once COVID-19 hit, the demand for digital access was greater than the supply, Tinkham says. That led NAPL’s staff to find a longer-term solution—even after library doors reopened.
“The benches are fulfilling our intention to address connectivity needs,” Tinkham says.
Like NADL, PLS had to find ways to better provide Wi-Fi to three counties in its geographically diverse service area. The library system serves communities ranging from towns with populations as small as 25 people to larger areas like Norman and southwest Oklahoma City.
“While many rural areas [in our library system] didn’t have access to the internet, customers in our urban areas were living without, as well,” Sitzman says.
Finding the funding
In Louisiana, Beauregard Parish Library (BPL) ordered 11 similar benches from Sun Charge Systems, an Alabama-based company that sells solar-powered benches with charging stations. To be cost effective, BPL retrofitted the benches to also include Wi-Fi hotspots, says library director Erin Chesnutt.
BPL covered the purchase with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Of an approximately $47,000 grant, more than half went toward the bench project.
These benches were a clear way for us to provide access to resources and tools that enrich lives. —Kelly Sitzman, director of communications and employment development at Pioneer Library System in Oklahoma
According to Chesnutt, BPL wanted to use its ARPA funds on a program that would benefit the parish even if its branches underwent unexpected closures, like they did during the pandemic and have during natural disasters. In 2020, Beauregard Parish was devastated by Hurricane Laura, which temporarily left 90% of the parish, which has a population of about 36,000, without power.
Though there is some risk that the benches could also be damaged during hurricanes, Chesnutt notes, the hope is that they’ll remain available for patrons to contact family members or make other needed calls, like to their insurance companies.
“If your battery is dead and you have no power to recharge, then this is a very good option to recharge your phone so you can keep doing what you need to do to help your family in the recovery process,” Chesnutt says.
NADL also leveraged ARPA funds, using a $41,000 grant to improve digital access throughout its community. The grant paid for the benches’ installation as well as other projects like establishing Wi-Fi in the outdoor spaces adjacent to the library and making laptops and hotspots available for checkout. By contrast, PLS received approval from its board of trustees to purchase its six benches—which cost $6,000 each—using operational funds.
So far, Tinkham says, the benches are popular among city tourists, offering a space for them to connect and charge devices after long days of outdoor activities. At PLS, feedback from patrons has been overwhelmingly positive, Sitzman says, noting that one of its most used benches is located on a popular walking trail. She adds that the benches have helped enhance city parks and even the look of the local landscape.
“It’s another way to reduce barriers to libraries and internet access,” Sitzman says. “It’s important that our strategic plan doesn’t just check boxes but that it really takes measured steps to produce outcomes and impact.”