In places with no internet connectivity, Alberta libraries offer a lifeline

When you look at the total geographic region that the Peace Library System covers, you get a good sense of some of the challenges faced by its IT Services Manager, Janet Ayles. Peace Library basically serves the entire top-left corner of Alberta. With 46 libraries spread over 238,000 square kilometres, Ayles sees a broad range of needs from communities both large small, accessible and remote.

I spoke to her about what it’s like to manage the IT needs of so many far-reaching libraries. I also wanted to find out how these libraries are making use of the internet they receive through Cybera. Since 2016, the Peace Library System has been buying a 100 Mbps connection through the Internet Buying Group. At first glance, this seems like a fairly large connection for just a simple group of libraries.

However, that connection doesn’t seem so large when you consider that 38 different libraries are sharing it, and many of those libraries are, themselves, filling a surprisingly large connectivity need.

“The reality is we serve several communities where local residents have poor — or no — internet connection, so we have a lot of people coming into the library just to access the internet,” says Ayles. “You can actually see the usage spike after school ends, when all the kids come straight to the library to get on our wifi.”

Many of these students use the library’s internet to do homework and access online learning resources, as well as to play video games or download movies to later watch at home. Ayles says they also see many adults (including former oil patch workers) coming in to their libraries to do online coursework or certification tests. Many are also forced to come in just to fill in government forms, since so many public services have now moved online.

“In some communities, there are people who only become members to access the internet,” says Ayles. And since the recent economic downturn began, the library’s membership numbers have gone up.

She adds that some of the largest demands for internet and wifi are coming from libraries located near First Nations communities. “There’s one region that doesn’t even have cell phone service. Their library is literally the hub of the community, and has become a gathering place for local youth.”

For Ayles and her team, one of the biggest challenges of filling this digital need is ensuring that the internet is running at all times (even after hours, as some people will gather near libraries just to access the wifi). The Peace Library System also offers learning programs and free online resources (such as Homework Help, and access to tutorial sites such as Lynda.com), to help residents retrain or develop new skills.

Their work is a great demonstration of the evolving role of libraries in a digitized world, and how many continue to be a central hub for information and learning.

But it also is an example of how important internet is to people of all ages and locations, and, sadly, how there are still many areas across Alberta — and Canada — that are desperately in need of improved access to digital communications. We still have a long way to go to meet this need!