Hotspot in cold climate: Melbourne library that transformed lockdown for struggling families | Inequality



It was during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown that Coralie Kouvelas started noticing the cars.

The branch manager of the Thomastown library was one of the few employees working on site – arriving early, leaving late, and always seeing the same vehicles in the parking lot. Then one day she saw children sitting in it.

“I thought it was really unusual,” Kouvelas says. So she greeted people in one of the cars and found they were there for the kids to do their homework – using the library’s wireless internet.

“They mentioned that they don’t have wifi at home. One family had four children ranging in age from 19 to eight or nine. They were a family of migrants and they were scared enough, but more than anything they were incredibly embarrassed to be sitting in the parking lot, ”Kouvelas explains.

According to Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2021, 92% of Australians earning less than $ 52,000 per year would have to pay more than 5% of their household income to access a good and reliable Internet connection and 14% would have to pay more than 10%.

Kouvelas had thought of such statistics when she got to know the families in the parking lot, and these connections sowed the seed of a family support project in the town of Whittlesea, which covers the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Coralie Kouvelas noticed the same cars parked in the parking lot when the library was closed. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Oculi for The Guardian

Amid the lockdown, Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries allocated $ 50,000 for a pilot program to provide wifi dongles with 60GB per month of data to 100 families for a year. Learning from similar programs in the United States and Europe, the library partnered with a nonprofit support service, Whittlesea Community Connections, to help identify families in need, and Vodafone, which provided a suitable product.

Lani Silva, who lost her job due to the pandemic, was one of the first members of the community to sign up. She lives with her two daughters, Celina and Cindy (aged five and 10) and her sister, and struggles to make ends meet while she looks for work.

Silva had turned off the internet to cut expenses, but locked out home schooling without it was nearly impossible. While she had 4GB of data on her phone plan, her kids sometimes missed school because the connection was so bad. The family kept their spirits up by going out on bikes and picnicking in the yard, but that didn’t make up for the lost schooling. So when Silva heard about the hotspot program, she immediately wrote down her name.

“It made a big difference,” says Silva. “My God, that’s a lot. It takes a load off my shoulders.

“I have no income at the moment apart from Centrelink. My internet was $ 60 per month but I’m trying to get back to work and have to pay for things like a police [working with children] Check. The money I save on Internet bills, I use it for that.

The savings can also help her afford to send her children to swimming lessons, she says, “which are essential in this country, not for fun, but for their needs.”

One of the free internet dongles organized by the Thomastown Library for students who did not have internet access at home during the lockdown.
One of the free internet dongles organized by the Thomastown Library for students who did not have internet access at home during the lockdown. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Oculi for The Guardian

Many households accessing the hotspot program are migrant families who do not speak English well or people living in precarious housing, says Kouvelas.

“We have had schools that have taken over the hotspot for people who are in situations of domestic violence. It’s providing simple service and that’s vital, ”she says.

The hotspot pilot is currently operating at Lalor and Thomastown Libraries, but Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries CEO Jane Cowell says she hopes to expand the program to other parts of the region, library services, which encompass the town of Whittlesea. , Banyule City Council and Nillumbik County.

“We knew there was an Internet accessibility issue,” Cowell says.

“Access to technology and digital literacy are integral parts of contemporary public libraries, but it is also essential for every member of the community to participate in society. You are really excluded if you do not have this access. More and more government services are only accessible on the Internet. “

Cowell says it should be standard for public libraries to reconsider the nature of their collections and how they provide them.

“I see the hotspot as a collector’s item,” she says. “Previously, content only appeared in a book, but now it comes from internet access. How do you make that accessible to everyone in the community?”

Kouvelas says she is “extremely passionate” about having the best library service possible – “finding out what is needed and co-designing programs with the community.”

“As a public library service, we never say no to the community. Anyone can come in and use the space, and have a voice in the space, and they don’t have to pay. We are the last frontier, really.


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