What are the options for building a digital equity strategy in your library? On this show Alexandra Houff, Digital Equity and Virtual Services Manager with the Baltimore County Public Library, talks about her library system’s work in this area as well as the opportunity for all libraries to create access that is supportable, sustainable, and scalable.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession. 

What are the options for building a digital equity strategy in your library? On this show, Alexandra Houff, Digital Equity and Virtual Services Manager with the Baltimore County Public Library, talks about her library system’s work in this area, as well as the opportunity for all libraries to create access that is supportable, sustainable, and scalable.     Enjoy the show! 

Alex, welcome to the show.

Alexandra Houff:

Hi, how are you? It’s good to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1:  I’m good, thanks. It’s good to have you here. Today we are talking about building a digital equity strategy in our libraries. As we start, what is important about doing this?  01:22 

Alexandra Houff:

It’s really important to think about public libraries in their role as community hubs. They’re among the last remaining free spaces available to everyone who wants to use them, regardless of economic, or social status, or gender or age, or any other restriction that may be found elsewhere. You know, it’s not like the Department of Aging where you have to be a certain age. 

Libraries are often the first, and sometimes only, place that many communities can access technology like 3D printing, or virtual reality, and learn skills related to those technologies without any kind of need to pay for that, or have any kind of expectations about performance, or any of those kinds of things. 

There’s not too many other areas where you can find such a diverse cross-section of community members congregating simultaneously. They’re all in the same place at the same time. Some people are using the library for the books. Some people are using it for the programs. Some people are using it for the features and resources that they have—like passports. Some people are using it just for the internet and the computers, and it’s all for free. While in a lot of people’s minds, that’s probably a standard, but if you really break it down, and really think about it, it’s kind of an amazing place. Because of all of that, it’s really important that digital equity have a space there in an area that is so open and so welcoming, and so filled with people who want to just help you with those kinds of skills and resources.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  This does make it important for libraries to build digital equity strategies. You say this work requires long-term strategy and vision combined with on-the-ground flexibility and agility. Will you explain this?  03:13 

Alexandra Houff:

None of this work happens in a straight line, right? One of the things that we’ve learned as we’ve been doing this for the last—libraries do it on a regular basis anyway. It’s baked into the work that we do as librarians. As a result of the pandemic, it really opened the curtains for a lot of people to see this, but it’s not a surprise to any librarian who works with the public on a regular basis. 

That being said, you really need to be able to look down the road and see what you’ve got—what you’re looking at with your communities, what you’re hearing from your branches, and be able to say, Okay, here is our end goal. This is what we want to be able to do. And, be able to visualize and back out from that. What exactly are the steps that you’re going to have to take to get to that end goal? 

That being said, as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s not a straight line, a lot of that stuff can go off the rails pretty quickly. You can run into issues with your internet provider. You can run into issues with—like for example, when we were doing Chromebook giveaways, we’d have a line full of 150 people, and all of a sudden the library would close for a weather-related incident.

You have to be able to pivot on the fly, right there as you’re working, and you have to be comfortable with that. While you’re talking about getting to this end goal, you also have to realize that it can be very messy to get to that. You have to be able to be agile enough to make those changes as you’re working through it, and realize you may have digital navigators who don’t show up. 

It’s a lot of on-the-ground work that feeds the whole process of getting to the vision. I think that’s kind of what I mean. You need to have a staff that’s willing to do that and feel uncomfortable at times and be willing to say, You know, I don’t know the best way to actually address this issue. So, let’s go back to the drawing board, and really think about it, and maybe rework our plan and not be so committed to this course of action that we can’t stop and turn. We’re seeing that right now with the ACP, and we’ll get into that a little bit later. That is a prime example of requiring some flexibility and some agility.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  And I do want to jump in on the ACP program. What you’re talking about is the National Affordable Connectivity Program. Your library used this to create digital equity in Baltimore County. Will you talk about this, and your next steps?  06:06 

Alexandra Houff:

For people who aren’t familiar with it, the Affordable Connectivity Program was a federal program. It came into being as a follow-on from the Emergency Broadband Benefit that came out as a result of the pandemic. It was part of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act. There’s another ‘I’ in there somewhere, but I can’t remember what it is. It’s IIJA. It was a revolutionary kind of approach that the federal government would provide $30 towards internet connectivity for people who qualified, and there was a list of qualifications. 

It got a slow start. We started doing it in summer of ’22. We really built a lot of our program, and a lot of our digital equity plans around—it was kind of a risky move because it was going to run out of money. There was only a certain amount of money, and it could potentially run out of money if the government decided to not refund it, which is where we find ourselves right now. However, we made the decision early on that it was more important to get people who were unconnected—connected for however long we could, so it would give us an opportunity to leverage the digital literacy side of things, get them to understand what it was that they may have been missing without that connectivity—get them involved in the kind of socio-economic and community environments of what the internet brings to the table when you have that connectivity, and you don’t have to worry about it. We did make that final decision to say, We’re going to go ahead and do this and we’re going to wrap a lot of our digital equity around it, and we’ll deal with the consequences of not being refunded when that time comes. 

I do know that there are plenty of people who are colleagues that decided to go in the other direction and just say, You know what? We’re not going to put a lot of eggs in that basket. And that’s totally fine—just a different way of looking at it. We did find that we had about 43,000 people in Baltimore County alone who took advantage of the Affordable Connectivity Program. So, that in my mind, helped justify our decision, because we really did have a lot of people who took advantage of it. 

One of the other things that we found was really great about it was we had the fortunate opportunity to work with a program in the state that gave us an opportunity to give away Chromebooks. As a result of that, I was able to bundle some digital navigators into this Chromebook giveaway.

What we found early on was that just getting people to the table about the ACP wasn’t incentive enough because the digital literacy level wasn’t there to a point where people could understand what the benefit of the Affordable Connectivity Program was. But if you’re giving them a Chromebook and you have them sitting there with you, and you’re talking to them, and you can have face-to-face conversations, you can really just move them down the line and say, Okay, you could save some money on your internet if you go over to these tables over here, and talk to these people, and they can help you get signed up for it. 

The fact that they were bundled and right there in the same place, and we were going to the people really helped create a very synergistic environment for those two things. So, that’s what made our ACP efforts so successful. The other thing that was so great about it was it gave us an opportunity to have face-to-face conversations with people. We could hear from them exactly what their struggles were when it came to internet connectivity, to using devices, kind of access they had—so while we’re sad that ACP is not being refunded as of right now, I’m really grateful for the opportunity that we had to have those face-to-face conversations, because it gave us a foundation and a database of knowledge about what people are facing on a regular basis.

It increased our ability to take in that information, synthesize it and say, Okay, now this will help us moving forward as we’re trying to revamp our whole digital equity approach. We’re calling that a silver lining, if you will, because it is very, very sad that ACP hasn’t been refunded yet. I know there are people working on it. We still are as well, but we have to be realistic and think about what next steps are. We’re starting to leverage that information that we got as a result of those conversations to say, Okay, this is what we know needs to happen. We need to get better about talking, teaching people the language that ISPs use when they’re trying to sell you internet connectivity so that you’re not in a situation where you might find yourself spending a lot more money than you would. While teaching people how to use Excel and Word and all that stuff is really important, having people be able to have conversations with internet service providers so that they aren’t getting taken advantage of is another really, really big part of what we need to do. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  And I’m glad you were able to leverage the ACP program. I know a lot of other libraries are looking to create digital equity. What are some best practices when it comes to building digital equity initiatives?  12:07 

Alexandra Houff:

From my perspective, I think I probably won’t be telling anybody who does any kind of regular outreach with library communities, anything that they don’t already know. But one of the things that’s so important is actually knowing your communities. The way Baltimore County Public Library is set up is that I actually work in the administrative offices, I work in a department. Then there are nineteen branches, and mobile vehicles, and outreach vehicles. Instead of trying to create a digital equity strategy in a vacuum or in that administrative office, I went around to every branch and said, What do you think are your most pressing needs here as it relates to digital inequities, digital literacy, technology— education? 

We loan hotspots—as many libraries do. One of the things I wanted to know right out of the gate is, Anecdotally, how many of your hot spots that you lend out do you feel are going to people who need it as their only source of connectivity? Getting that information from people on the ground, working with the communities directly was invaluable because it was a way for us to say, Okay, we know that in these areas, people are using our hotspots to travel in the car with their children. But in these areas, they are using our hotspots because they have no other connectivity.

That gave us an opportunity to really focus our energies in those places. It doesn’t mean we ignored the other places, it just means we inverted the way we provided our technology education. We had some of those areas that would be more interested in 3D printing. That was something that they really would benefit from. We had other areas where they just needed devices. They needed devices. They needed hotspots. They needed connectivity. 

Where that was the case, we really pushed off some of the more, I don’t know—fun technology to the branches themselves. Then we helped support the areas that really needed the help with the digital equity piece. Basically what I’m saying is know your communities. I think that’s one of the biggest things we came away with from that. Also work in the hyper-local space. It’s really, really important to not try to create an agenda and then impose it. It’s better to work with the folks that need it at the very, very granular level. I know that there’s a lot of people who are like, Oh, we helped this many people. We did that, this, that, and the other thing, which is great, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s also great, but I would rather have two or three really well-served folks, than twenty-five people who were maybe helped on the surface, because what you do at that point is you embed your champions. At that point, you create an embedded group of people who know their communities, and know their areas and can say, Okay, this is what I learned, and I’m going to teach you.

The one last thing I would say from that—find other organizations that will help you identify the needs and work with them. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.  If your programs are geared towards people who have, who need, who are low income, or whatever, find the areas where they’re congregating. WIC farmers markets. We didn’t have to try to pre-qualify people for ACP, and pre-qualify people for our Chromebooks. We knew because they were WIC recipients that they would already qualify. We didn’t have to do a ton of work to try to get them—they were already there. We could just meet them where they were and go from there. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5:  Knowing and customizing these to your community makes a big difference. What are some service solutions that address digital inequities?  16:35 

Alexandra Houff:

I was looking at this question and I was thinking about it—well, service solutions. It depends on how you look at it and what you want to think about. There’s always the obvious things like the hot spots. We created a long-term lending program. Again, it was predicated on the Affordable Connectivity Program where we would say, Okay, we would lend you a router, a high speed router for six months. Over that period of time, we would also help get you signed up with the ACP so that when we took the router back, you had connectivity. It wasn’t like we were taking the router back and you were back where you started. 

That being said, now we got to figure out how we’re going to work through that. Our long-term lending has gone through the roof, as you can imagine. We’re trying to think of things that are slightly different. We’ve got the long-term lending. We’ve got hotspots, which a lot of places have. And then we also have the all-in-one LTE Chromebook so that we didn’t have to—we had such a huge demand for our hotspots that we couldn’t pull fifty out to bundle them with our Chromebook. We just got Chromebooks that were already connected to the internet. 

You have a really kind of niche group of people who have neither connectivity or a device.  A lot of people have at least one or the other, and they can connect a phone to it, or whatever. In this case, there’s a group of people who just don’t have either. If we can get them that in one device, that really, really helps. 

We do know that hotspots are a stopgap. They’re not a final solution. And I hate to just keep buying hotspots and hotspots and hotspots because again, you’re not solving the problem. But it’s kind of like going back to the ACP, do we do it, or don’t we? It’s better to get them connected for at least three weeks than not at all. So, I think you’ve got that. 

We’ve got Mobile Library Outreach where we bring all of those hotspots to folks, where we meet them at shelters. That’s a big piece of what we do. Obviously you have the public PCs and all the internet connectivity there. And we have extended Wi-Fi, and extended wireless access points. But I do think that one of the most valuable things that we can do as a system really does—it comes from that one-on-one interaction, and that one-on-one teaching of how to do that. Again, if you can get two or three people who really get it, then in their communities they become the people that are the techies, right? So, they’re not wholly beholden to the institution of the library if they need something in the middle of the night—not that your best friend is going to be able to come over and troubleshoot your machine. But you never know. 

I think those are the service points. One of the things that we always think about when we’re working in our department about anything that we take on—is it supportable, is it scalable, and is it sustainable? Those are all things that we try very, very hard to—that’s the filter we look at everything through because we don’t want to offer something and then take it away. Whatever services we provide have to be at least two of those three things to make sure that it’s going to be something that we actually implement. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: That’s wise. Creating solutions that are supportable, sustainable and scalable. And since we’re talking to librarians across the nation, we know there are very different needs in implementing this work in order to make our digital strategies fit our particular communities. Are there ways to tap into local entities in developing digital equity strategies?  20:14 

Alexandra Houff:

People ask me this all the time. I think we’re very fortunate in Baltimore County because we do have a core group of people who are in various agencies throughout the county that get together bi-weekly to discuss what we’re doing in this space, specifically. It was very robust over the pandemic, and it has tapered off a little bit, but there’s still a core group of people who talk regularly about how we can do this. We’re constantly talking about things that range from availability, where in Maryland and Baltimore County is no exception—you have a lot of areas that are rural and they don’t have the connectivity. They don’t actually have the fiber. You’re also talking about affordability and that. The people in this group represent the entities that can address both of those things. 

You’ve got the government infrastructure piece. You’ve got local government involved. They are the people who can get you that last mile wiring that can get you that fiber, that can get you that connectivity. And then you’ve got places like the library, or Aging, or Department of Economic and Workforce Development who can really focus on the affordability side of things, because the end result is the same if you don’t have the network or you can’t afford the network—the end result is you are not connected. They are similar approaches, and you need to make sure that you’re addressing all of those. Having that core community group and an understanding that it lives in the local government really helps because you can escalate as you need to where you need to. 

The other thing too is, as a library, we are just de facto community connectors. We have our hands on a lot of different things. We talk to the schools because we have an arrangement so that every school child in Baltimore County public schools, their student ID works as a library card. Which is not unique. There’s a lot of systems that have that nationwide. That means we have a relationship with schools. If we know that we’ve got a school that is particularly in the Title 1 area, or is a Community Eligibility Provision school, we know that they are probably going to qualify for our Chromebooks. We know that they have families that are going to qualify for those Chromebooks. So, reaching out to those folks and finding out how we can get over there and have those conversations, and what are those social workers doing, and how can we make those connections, is really vital to being successful in that as well. 

Then leveraging other relationships, for example, the Head Start program. We also know that there is a level of digital literacy with the families in those programs that they would really benefit from some education. So, If we can provide a situation where we can give you some child care, can we come to you? And we have a built-in classroom, a built-in cohort for digital literacy efforts right there. So, the children are already being taken care of—which because as we know, child care is a big barrier for people, specifically women, who need some digital literacy skills. We need to really think about how that works as well. 

We’re trying to find the local partners that will really help. We had The Abilities Network. We provided them with a lending lab of Chromebooks so that they can do their family success education with those Chromebooks. Because we had them available, and we just created a lab for them, and sent it out. Then we created that partnership, and that continues to happen. As they need information on how to connect to Zoom calls—we’re the first people they come to. So, cultivating those is really, really important to making sure that it’s successful, and that you’re not just so insular, you’re just looking at it from a library perspective. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7:  Sure. And there are resources and connections like these in all communities. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  25:03 

Alexandra Houff:

I think one of the things that people ask me a lot is, Oh, it’s overwhelming. It’s so much, it’s so big. It’s such a kind of a multi-tentacled thing. And it for sure is, but any of those social—any social project like that is going to be that. My biggest thing to folks is just get started. It’s important. It’s important to have a plan. It’s important to have a vision, but it’s equally important to get started. Every little bit helps. 

There’s nothing that you’re going to do that is in this space specifically that is going to be detrimental. It’s not. This is what I tell people as I’m teaching people technology, You’re not going to break anything. You’re not going to break anything if you take some baby steps. But if you don’t take any steps. Then you know it’s better to take some baby steps than no steps at all. 

The other thing too, is find the staff that are willing to put in the work. Just like a lot of social programs, it can be thankless. You have to be willing to—there is no ego in this. You can’t be like, I’m doing this for the accolades. That’s not—it’s not why you do it. You do it because you think technology is an equalizer, a rising tide lifts all boats. Not to be cliche about it, but it’s true. 

There is nothing in technology that one group of people should have access to and other people shouldn’t—and you can do so much with it. As I mentioned to you earlier—was just in Vietnam. We were doing a service project with some children’s homes in the hills of Vietnam. I had my girls over there, and these girls were over as residents of these homes. When it all came down to it, they didn’t speak each other’s language. They weren’t the same. They didn’t look the same. They were completely different. But when it came down to it, you put on the music and they could all do TikTok dances. They were just able to then play together for hours doing that. That’s technology at work right there. So, I think that’s the key. You need to find people who want to do that with you and who are willing to put in the work. I mean, we did hours and hours and hours of Chromebook giveaways. We did like thirty-eight events. And they are long, and you do it in the heat. You do it in the rain. You do it everywhere. I think that’s the key. Those are my two things. Just get started, and find the staff who are in it with you, and will do it with you. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  Do you have any favorite management or leadership books or resources, and why?  28:11 

Alexandra Houff:

That was like the hardest question of all of this—of all of the things, and all of the challenges that we’ve done with digital, I was like, Oh, I actually don’t, I don’t, and I don’t, because I just watch people. I watch people who are leaders where they are. I watch people who are leaders because they have natural leadership skills, but aren’t necessarily in leadership positions. I watch leaders, and look, and see what not to do. I see that a lot. 

I’m really more an observer of my environment and the people that I admire. I try to emulate what they are doing and try to pull little pieces from what people are actually doing. I don’t know if you pick this up, but I’m very much a let’s just do it, kind of person. I don’t sit, and I don’t read leadership. I just am, Okay, who’s doing work, and who do I admire, and how can I be like that? How can I inspire people to also want to be like that? 

I would love to tell you I have some magic bullet book that I read. I guess if I was really, really pushed, I would go back to Peter Drucker and his concept of social entrepreneurship. But ultimately, it’s just years of watching good and bad leaders and taking what I can from it, and just trying to put it in practice.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9:  People are amazing resources. Observing them, and then putting what you learn into action has clearly been an effective strategy. Alex, in closing, what do libraries mean to you personally?  29:56 

Alexandra Houff:

It’s funny, because it’s always that question in interviews that people have, I love books, and I do obviously. I do love books, but I’m not a traditional librarian in the way that you think of librarians. I’m a technology librarian. I’m kind of a strategy person. That’s just the way that I work. That being said, I’ve been involved in libraries since I was very, very young. I interviewed for this position back when I got it in 2018, or whatever—when I first started at Baltimore County Public Library. One of the things that I wanted to say was, I had a unicorn collection that was part of the Arbutus Branch library’s display when I was eight years old. From that point forward I was like, Anybody who wants to display my unicorns is okay by me. Libraries just mean to me that, like I said at the very beginning, you can find everyone in a library. You can find a Rockefeller to somebody who’s experiencing homelessness, and they’re all in the same place, and they’re all using it for different reasons, and how powerful is that?

It’s a place where you can go if you want to learn about leadership, you can find a leadership book. I won’t be in that aisle, I’ll probably be in the aisle where you learn about how to make meals for a lot of people really fast. But, I mean, those are things that you can find in libraries. Plus, you can print. You can get your passport. I think it’s such a valuable and incredible resource for so many people. And, the librarians there are always so—they love their jobs. They love helping people. That all sounds very, very basic, but it’s so, so true. I mean, I’ve yet to meet a librarian who’s like, I really hate my job. I think that librarians do it because they love it, and where else are you going to find a group of people like that? 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10:  What we are talking about today is building digital equity strategies for our organizations to ensure that we keep bringing everyone in, that no one is excluded because they do not have digital access. So I’m glad we got to have this conversation. Thank you so much for being here.  32:20 

Alexandra Houff:

Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes, tune in to Library Leadership Podcast.com, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right to your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time. 

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