Grants to pay for installations and upgrades while libraries foot bill for ongoing costs
All of England’s public libraries are to be given government cash to install free Wi-Fi after a warning they face disaster without the technology.
The Arts Council has set aside £7.1 million with the aim of delivering the upgrades across the country by March next year.
Grants will be given to libraries with no Wi-Fi at all and to those where current connections fall “below the recommended technical specification”. But the funding will pay only for the initial installation or upgrade, with all ongoing costs – such as monthly fees and renewals – to be met by local authorities or partner bodies.
The Arts Council, acting on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is also stipulating that the free Wi-Fi must be “available until at least March 2018”.
Culture minister Ed Vaizey said: “Ensuring communities across England have access to free Wi-Fi boosts the digital economy and enables more people to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer. By channelling the support through libraries, we can ensure that this opportunity to become digitally aware is available to the whole community.”
Response to report
The move follows the alarming conclusions of the Independent Library Report for England last December and the closure of at least 324 public libraries since 2011. It called for free Wi-Fi – with “coffee, sofas and toilets” – describing as “astonishing” the fact that one third of libraries currently lack the technology.
Brian Ashley, director of libraries for the Arts Council, said: “Libraries have always been places of discovery and the sharing of knowledge and ideas. But now, libraries are becoming creative, making spaces as well.
“Alongside this, just as the digital world appears to take over more and more of our lives, people crave physical spaces where they can congregate and communicate. Uniquely, libraries sit at the cross-roads where the digital and physical spaces intersect, where knowledge is both stored and shared, and where people can choose to explore in privacy or as part of a community.
“Wi-Fi offers a new dimension in which these shifts can develop.”
Chaired by the author William Sieghart, the report also recommended that every library in the country be placed on a single digital network, with a national library card and catalogue. It urged the next government to deliver a boost to e-loans with a commitment to change copyright law to include them within the Public Lending Right.
Delivering his response, Vaizey also highlighted a £100,000 ‘Library Digital Inclusion Fund’ launched by the Tinder Foundation, in partnership with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. The fund allows libraries to bid for resources to help people learn basic digital skills and help them get online, aiming to help up to 15 library services across England.
The taskforce was set up to implement the recommendations of the Sieghart report and provide leadership to “reinvigorate the public service in England”.
Meanwhile, all applicants to the Wi-Fi fund must complete a project implementation plan template, with full details available here.