Burlington County Library System’s $45K grant award will help close digital divide

Burlington County Board Deputy Director Tom Pullion announced that the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) was awarded a $45,103 grant that will fund a library hotspot and device lending program to help close the digital divide and provide technology access to the county’s disadvantaged population hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The library’s application was one of only 68 – out of more than 1,700 submitted this year – selected to share $13.8 million in Fiscal Year 2020 CARES Act Grants for Museum and Libraries funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), according to information provided by the county on Oct. 14.

The grant award will enable BCLS to partner with other county agencies and local nonprofit organizations to bring internet connectivity and technology access to those residents who need it the most, particularly at this challenging time. Specifically, BCLS will use the funds to purchase tablets and accessories as well as enter into a one-year service plan for hotspots, according to the statement

“Since the start of the pandemic every part of Burlington County’s government – from our Health, Public Safety and Human Services departments to the Burlington County Library System – has gone above and beyond to try to help our residents through this crisis. This grant award reflects that commitment,” Pullion, the freeholder liaison to the BCLS, in the statement.

“The closing of libraries due to the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the digital literacy divide in rural Burlington County, which has a large number of households without computers or internet access,” Ranjna Das, director of the BCLS, said in the statement. “With our partners, we will conduct outreach, promote the library lending program and inform the public about the availability of hotspots and devices for borrowing. We also plan to create simple tutorials to meet the digital literacy needs of our economically distressed populations.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, more than 21,000 households in Burlington County do not have internet access and more than 13,000 households do not have computers. In many areas of Burlington County, anywhere from 20-40% of residents are without the means to access basic technology. There are significant socioeconomic impacts of having a high number of households without access to the internet that has become a necessity for work, social interaction, benefits access, household financial management, education and leisure, according to the statement.

The grant funding will enable BCLS to lend hotspots and tablets to residents demonstrating the highest level of need, including Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program participants, those with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, and the homeless, according to the statement.

To promote the program, BCLS will partner with the Burlington County Health Department and the Department of Human Services. Other partners will include local services organization that work with disadvantaged populations, such as Oaks Integrated Care and Servicios Latinos de Burlington County.

“As pillars of our communities, libraries and museums bring people together by providing important programs, services, and collections,” IMLS Director Crosby Kemper said in the statement. ”These institutions are trusted spaces where people can learn, explore and grow. IMLS is proud to support their initiatives through our grants as they educate and enhance their communities.”

In addition to providing internet access, the planned library hotspot and device lending program will make all digital resources offered by BCLS available at home, including 60 online databases focusing on history, health, careers, business and more; ESL and foreign language lessons from Rosetta Stone; streaming video via Kanopy; access to thousands of research and homework resources; as well as a digital collection with more than15,000 ebooks and audiobooks, according to the statement.