CLP — Main in Oakland. Photo courtesy Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Americans do a lot of their living online these days. We shop online, connect with friends online, apply for jobs online and take classes online.

Imagine being one of the 15 percent of Pennsylvanians who have no internet connection in their homes. All of those roads are closed to them, even as the rest of us can access more and more online opportunities every day.

In an effort to close this dramatic digital gap, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) has created a new initiative: Library card holders can now borrow laptops and portable Wi-Fi hotspots for up to three weeks at a time. The program is funded by Grow with Google, an offshoot of the tech giant that promotes civic applications of Google technology.

Project leaders say access to the equipment will not only develop the local workforce, but also will greatly improve the quality of life in communities all over the Pittsburgh region.

Connectivity is a vital but missing resource for millions of Americans who lack reliable access to the internet, says CLP President and Director Mary Frances Cooper. Libraries are already helping by offering computer stations within their walls. This program is designed to expand that positive impact.

“Families who lack a connection or who are under-connected increasingly turn to their local libraries,” Cooper says. “So the services we provide have become a critical resource for computer and internet access.”

The equipment is currently available for borrowing at the Oakland, West End and Woods Run libraries. Representatives for the CLP say they plan on expanding the initiative into all 19 branches by the end of March 2019.

Closing the digital gap between the affluent and underserved neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh region has emerged as a major priority for City and County leaders in the last several years.

“For many Allegheny County residents who are looking to learn digital skills and for new job opportunities, the Carnegie Library has always been a starting point and today that is greatly enhanced with the ability to borrow a Wi-Fi hotspot and laptop,” says County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We look forward to working with Google about ways to expand these offerings throughout the county.”

Google already maintains an office in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square, and may well be expanding their local footprint in 2019.

In a blog post from February of this year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai referenced company plans to invest in new or expanded offices across nine different states, including Pennsylvania.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.