Outdoor Library Wi-Fi Provides Access for Many


January 19, 2021
Celeste Bruno
Communications Director
1-800-952-7403 x208

When COVID 19 forced schools and business to switch to remote learning and working, it became clear that not everyone across the Commonwealth had access to high-speed internet in their homes or their communities. For the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), this wasn’t new information. Since the 1990’s the MBLC has worked to increase access particularly in rural areas. The MBLC supported efforts by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, OpenCape and CapeNet to ensure that public libraries in underserved areas can offer broadband and Wi-Fi to their residents.

Even before the pandemic, many residents relied on libraries for internet access. In fact, statewide statistics show that every minute there were 28 pubic library internet sessions. When libraries had to close their buildings due to COVID, outdoor library Wi-Fi access became a way for many to continue working and participating in school. As Deb O’Brien, public library director in New Marlborough, noted, “The library parking lot is filled with cars lately, pretty much all of the time, with residents and others using our Wi-Fi.  People are running extension cords from their vehicles to our electric outlets, some are setting up lawn chairs in the bed of their pickup trucks; even children are sitting in backseats of cars ostensibly trying to do their school work.”

While nearly 100% of public libraries offer Wi-Fi for walk-in users, not all offer a signal that can be used outdoors or when the library is closed. “With COVID , the library’s internet service became even more crucial just at the very moment when access to the building itself --along with its public computers-- is closed to the public or severely restricted.  We needed to understand what libraries are offering, and encourage 24*7 availability,” said MBLC Library Information Systems Specialist Paul Kissman.

The MBLC surveyed public libraries to determine which offered outdoor Wi-Fi, and when. So far, about half of the 370 public libraries have responded, almost all (89%) indicating that they have outdoor Wi-Fi. To make it easy for residents to find a library near them the MBLC has developed a Public Library Outdoor WIFI Map. Residents can browse the map, or enter their location to find libraries near them with offering outdoor Wi-Fi. The map also lets users know if a library PIN is needed, any necessary login information, and where the best signal is located.

Enabling and strengthening outdoor Wi-Fi, or leaving the signal on all night, is one of the many ways that libraries have adapted services even while their buildings are closed.  It is a stop-gap, partial solution that nevertheless incrementally helps bridge the digital divide for all residents, in all types of communities, not just communities lacking robust internet. Libraries are the public community anchor institution where connecting residents to the internet is not a convenience; it is central to their mission.

Public libraries wishing to add themselves to the map or update their information can do so through the statewide library directory.

The Board of Library Commissioners ( is the agency of state government with the statutory authority and responsibility to organize, develop, coordinate and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. The Board advises municipalities and library trustees on the operation and maintenance of public libraries, including construction and renovation. It administers state and federal grant programs for libraries and promotes cooperation among all types of libraries through regional library systems and automated resource sharing. It also works to ensure that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of their geographic location, social or economic status, age, level of physical or intellectual ability or cultural background, have access to essential new electronic information technologies and significant electronic databases.