To Terry King, the Enoch Pratt Free Library has long meant more than a place to read books. Its branches have been venues for everything from seeing movies and meeting friends to getting one-on-one counsel about job searches and taxes, all for the low, low price of nothing.
So the closing of its 22 locations across the city due to the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for the East Baltimore resident. He has been worried, for instance, about whether the Pratt would reopen soon enough to help him with his taxes before the extended IRS deadline of July 15.
He now knows he won’t have to wait that long.
Starting this week, the Pratt is offering free Wi-Fi in the streets and parking lots surrounding eight of its locations, making its multiple services available online even for the whopping 40% of Baltimoreans who lack internet access at home.
The sites, each of which can support hundreds of digital devices, will include King’s own neighborhood library, the Herring Run Branch in Bel Air-Edison, which the 57-year-old city schools custodian says he normally visits several times a week.
He plans to use the service to connect virtually with librarians and to access other services, and so will many others he knows.
“This library is usually packed to the gills,” he said at a table outside the closed library branch, where he has been getting together regularly with a friend for several weeks. “It’s an anchor for the neighborhood. I think you’re going to see a lot of people here, signing on."
The use of nearby parking lots and streets as drive-in Wi-Fi hot spots has become a relatively common practice at public libraries across the country during the pandemic, including in Baltimore County, which has installed Wi-Fi capacity in the parking lots of 10 of its locations.
But the program in Baltimore has special resonance given the city’s ranking as among the worst in the United States for internet access.
About two in five city residents have no access to broadband internet at home, the third-worst rate in the country, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for national broadband access.
The U.S. Census Bureau also ranks Baltimore near the bottom among 296 American cities for internet access.
The problem has given rise to a number of public-interest campaigns in recent weeks.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen and City Council President Brandon Scott secured $3 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to support the provision of more devices and internet connections for city students.
Cohen says he’s impressed by the Pratt’s effort.
“If you can’t get online, you can’t learn, especially in the middle of this pandemic,” he said. "It’s hard to attend school. It’s hard to work. It’s hard to do any of the essential things we all need to do.
"The Pratt providing this service around its buildings is a great metaphor. Just as you should be able to get library books for free, you should be able to get internet access.”
Pratt officials began brainstorming ideas for increasing access as soon as it became clear that government restrictions on social gatherings meant the library — which draws some 1.7 million visitors to its branches each year — would have to close its buildings for the foreseeable future, Meghan McCorkell, a library spokeswoman, said.
The Pratt had already been adding programs to address what McCorkell calls “the incredible digital divide” in Baltimore, including last year’s Wash and Learn initiative that turned four laundromats into access points for digital learning and online community development.
“We’ve been doing that kind of equity work for years, and we knew the digital divide was only going to get deeper with the shutdowns,” McCorkell said.
Four of the sites — the Herring Run, Orleans Street, Patterson Park and Forest Park branches — have been making free Wi-Fi available in parking areas near their structures for several weeks, but the signals were comparatively weak, in many cases blocked or compromised by the kinds of physical obstructions that dot any urban landscape.
The Pratt has used $18,500 in emergency broadband education access funding from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to remedy those problems.
Contractors have been installing antennas at each location to expand Wi-Fi range and, in some cases, to direct signals around obstacles such as trees, architectural protrusions and external structures.
Where users once had to park in certain limited areas to gain access, they should as of this week be able to park anywhere along the curbs on all four sides of each building, or in the few parking lots that exist, McCorkell said.
It hasn’t always gone according to plan.
“A lot of our buildings are historic, so the contractors have had a few surprises,” McCorkell says. “At the Northwood Branch we had to run wires in places we didn’t expect. "
The Brooklyn, Edmondson, Waverly and Northwood branches also are part of the network.
Upload and download speeds will vary between 20 and 40 megabits per second, McCorkell said, generally enough to support the use of such internet services as YouTube and Amazon Video.
The Pratt has posted banners at all eight sites bearing the user ID and password needed to log on (both are “epfl-wpa”). Users need not have a library card.
McCorkell says the Pratt is also looking at putting together a budget and potential plan to put antennas up at its other locations across the city, and it is looking to outfit its three mobile units — the Bookmobile, Book Buggy, and Mobile Job Center — with Wi-Fi hot spots that could then provide access to up to 60 devices.
It’s all good news for King, a man who visits Herring Run and the flagship location downtown so often he says he knows most of the librarians by name, especially the ones who have been around for years.
He says he’ll enjoy logging in beside his neighborhood branch and chatting with his old friends one-on-one, not to mention simply checking his email every day.
Free outdoor Wi-Fi sites
300 E. Patapsco Ave.
4330 Edmondson Ave.
Forest Park Branch
3023 Garrison Blvd.
Herring Run Branch
3801 Erdman Ave.
4420 Loch Raven Blvd.
Orleans St. Branch
1303 Orleans St
Patterson Park Branch
158 N. Linwood Ave.
400 E. 33rd St.