In Spring Hill, Tenn., people often lurk outside the library on their laptops — before it opens and after it closes.
Librarian Jennifer Urban says it’s not that they’re just mooching the free Wi-Fi. The cost may be one aspect, but this town of about 30,000 people is also growing fast, she says, so fast that Internet providers can’t keep up with home construction.
“There are subdivisions here that no one in the subdivision has Internet access, for one reason or another,” she says.
So the city decided to start offering something new: mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, for lease. Chicago does it, Seattle does it, New York City does it — and now, so does Spring Hill.
The library has about 20 of these devices, and people check them out like a book, for a week at a time. Because hotspots create Wi-Fi connections using mobile data, the service is not cheap, coming up at $10,000 per year in mobile data costs.
But Urban argues it’s a good fit for the evolution of the library, while maintaining its purpose: to connect people to knowledge. And in their first year, the mobile hotspots have been the most popular item in the library — by far — with a regular waiting list of two dozen people.
“This, I can say, was about the only thing that I can remember that never got a single negative reaction,” says city spokesman Jamie Page about a Facebook post announcing the arrival of the hotspots. “It truly was accepted and, you know, embraced with opens arms.”
With this on-the-go Internet offering, libraries around the country are hoping to help connect those who might not be able to afford the service otherwise. But it can serve many purposes.
Keith Morris, as a library regular, was one of the first to hear about the new offering in Spring Hill. He checked out a hotspot for a family road trip to the West Coast.
“We got pretty good reception in Yellowstone, so that was kind of exciting,” he says. He used the hotspot to stay on top of his work email but also to post some of the videos his family recorded on the trip.
The growing demand for these devices has librarians adjusting to provide more tech support, and Urban says there’s also an emerging discussion about how to handle what content gets accessed through the Wi-Fi that hotspots provide, given that libraries typically do put filters on their computers to block some content like pornography.
“Within the library world there’s a little bit of eyebrow raising, as far as, you know, how will you regulate this?” she says. “And what kind of limitations will you place on it?”
But the bigger challenge, she says, has been a familiar one: getting hotspots returned on time.
Morris says when he returned his hotspot, he wasn’t sure if he could toss the hotspot in the return bin for the books.
“I might have got a late fee,” he says. “I returned it after hours … but I secured it very well.”
Urban says now the library began putting stickers on the boxes, telling the patrons to return hotspots to the desk. She has also tripled the late fee to $3 per day.
“It’s a learning process for us as well as for everyone else,” Urban says.
So far, two hotspots haven’t come back at all, so Urban had to shut off their service remotely. Though she’s holding out hope to see them again.
“You never know. Things show up,” she says. “Books, other things, they can be lost — I’ve had things that are lost for 5 or 6 years that get returned.”
A version of this story was first published by Nashville Public Radio.