ARPA Grants Help Austin Public Library Bridge Digital Divide

Council approves $450K for accessibility and outreach programs

Austin Central Library (Photo by John Anderson)

Last week, City Council approved three resolutions that will direct $450,000 in grant money from the American Rescue Plan Act to the Austin Public Library system's new public outreach and accessibility programs. With expanded language access, digital literacy, and telehealth programs, APL hopes to "have the community understand or see us as more than a library, and also a library without walls," says Emi Johnson, director of the library's Innovations and Improvement office.

More than half of the grant will go to the Texas Digital Navigators program, adding seven temporary employees that will teach digital literacy to populations that have difficulty accessing or using the internet at home. According to the city and UT-Austin's 2019 Digital Inclusion Survey, those who do not have home access are "far less likely to use city locations with free public WiFi than people who already have Internet connections at home," and "76% of non-users reported that they do not know enough to go online themselves or that they would need help." Using demographic data from this survey and the city's 2017 Community Health Assessment, APL identified five branches, mostly in the Eastern Crescent, that need digital navigation services, and two Housing Authority of Travis County properties where navigators can set up in community spaces.

Digital navigators are "connectors and linkers" – helping with job searches, grocery shopping, coordinating rides, anything the customer might need. One of the goals of the program is to reduce social isolation, connecting older adults with family and friends through Google Hangouts or FaceTime – but navigators can also connect with essential health services, an increasingly vital function in light of the pandemic. "The targets of this grant were residents who were most impacted by COVID: older adults who were homebound or had less access, immigrants or refugee populations, individuals that have limited English proficiency," explains Johnson. In addition, two community service coordinators will focus on assisting people experiencing homelessness.

But for this to be meaningful, John­son says, it's "not only technology, but: 'Do you need interpreters, translators? Do you need the instructions in Spanish or Vietnamese or Chi­nese?' Our publications, our outreach materials ... all of our guides will have to be translated." To this end, $150,072 of the grant funding is allotted for bridging language barriers. "We need to consider adaptive equipment and assistive devices as well," Johnson adds. "If we're building capacity, we want our navigators and our coordinators to be confident and culturally competent in working with residents coming from all walks of life."

Other community partners include Austin Free-Net, Coming of Age Austin, and the Austin Film Society for future radio and TV marketing. "Our goal, ideally, would be that we are equipped and staffed to provide these across all locations," says Johnson. But "the other part, of course, is how do we sustain these programs?" The grant ends in August 2022, "a short period of time to lay the groundwork. But we're going to use this as a baseline, continuing to seek support and funding for growing this type of pilot. All of our residents, wherever they are, should have some type of quality library resources and information."

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American Public Library, Austin City Council, American Rescue Plan Act, Austin Public Library, Emi Johnson

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