Brick and stone buildings built in the early 1900s stand shoulder to shoulder along Main Street of Perkins, Oklahoma, serving as a downtown for the community of 2,800.

The Perkins Public Library, which is raising money to renovate a big old building on Main, currently occupies more modest quarters - jammed with books ‑ a short walk from the city’s intermediate and middle schools.

In 2018, when the school district cut its in-town bus service, it unleashed a tsunami of young people on the Perkins Public Library, a place where kids hang out until their parents fetch them after work.

“We average from 20 to 30 kids coming to the library unattended every day after school,” Alison Bloyd, library director, told the Kansas City Fed last year. “This creates several challenges; seating and crowd control being the most basic.”

Many students come to the library five days a week and keeping them quietly productive is a challenge. While the library has initiated other structured activities, it wanted to provide more in-depth programming and educational opportunities.

Enter the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Late in 2019, the Kansas City Fed pledged to donate 75 laptops to nonprofits around the Tenth District. It was part of an ongoing effort by the Bank’s community development team to narrow the digital divide. It followed an initial donation of 25 laptops to a Kansas City nonprofit, as well as “Disconnected,” a layperson’s guide to digital inclusion, and a conference of state broadband coordinators.

Jeremy Hegle, senior community development advisor, contacted Bloyd to see if she would be interested in some donated laptops. Turned out, she was.

Bloyd said their youth service librarian wanted to start a coding club to engage the students hanging around after school. Coding clubs help put a lucrative, in-demand career within arm’s reach, and offer students other benefits, such as critical thinking skills, persistence, creativity and determination. The library’s coding club would help replace one the school district eliminated in 2019 due to budget issues. The seven laptops from the Kansas City Fed meant club members wouldn’t have to share devices.

It was a win/win, and then …

“We took some time to plan the coding club,” Bloyd told Hegle in a Zoom interview in May. “We expected to implement it right after spring break, which is when COVID-19 hit.” The library closed to the public two days before the first coding club program was scheduled. “It was pretty distressing for everybody,” she said.

The library was closed to the public that first month, during Phase One of Oklahoma’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but librarians were there to answer phones.

“The calls that we were getting were just heartbreaking,” Bloyd said. “People were desperate to get into the library to use the public computers. People desperately needed our resources and our assistance. Answering the phones became a really hard thing to do here.”

Laptops helps residents in survival mode

Library staff members used a few of the donated laptops for social distancing, but the rest were just sitting there.

“We knew that our library patrons were needing them to apply for benefits, to track their stimulus payments, to do teledoctor conferences,” Bloyd said. “And that’s when we decided we were going to get them checked out as soon as we could do it safely.”

At first, the library paired laptops with Wi-Fi hotspots it offered through an Oklahoma State University program. Patrons were “absolutely thrilled.” The library, in southern Payne County, serves that and two other fairly rural counties. Stillwater, the Payne County seat, is home to Oklahoma State University.

The library has free, unsecured 24/7 Wi-Fi in its building and parking lot. “With the shutdown,” Bloyd said, “it became the only free public Wi-Fi available in Perkins.” The parking lot has become a popular place, with even OSU professors parking and using Wi-Fi to upload their lectures for students to view.

When Oklahoma entered Phase Two of its response to COVID-19, the library began offering window service, checking out laptops so people could use them in their cars with the library’s free Wi-Fi. “They just use it in the parking lot and return it before they leave,” Bloyd said.

Borrowers are using the laptops to survive the economic devastation the pandemic has wrought. “The more desperate people were getting, the more they wanted to share their situation and explain what their need was,” Bloyd said. They often needed a librarian’s help, and the laptops made it possible.

“The librarian stands inside the window and the library patron stands outside the window, and the laptop sits on the windowsill between us,” Bloyd said. “We talk through the glass while the librarian does reference searches or helps direct them to services they’re seeking.” That wouldn’t be possible with the library’s desktop computers, she said. “How could we have used them to accommodate this new reality?”

You can help

The need for donated computer equipment has never been greater. The Kansas City Fed encourages other employers to donate used computers to be refurbished and provided to nonprofits and individuals who desperately need them. For more information or to be a #LaptopHero by donating computers, visit our web page.

Author

Jennifer Wilding

Community Development Specialist

Jennifer Wilding, who joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in August 2018 as a community development specialist, supports the community development team in addressing i…