Rogers LTE Hotspot

Kitchener Public Library users can borrow these Wi-Fi LTE hotspots for up to three weeks. The library was the first in Canada to offer the hotspots on loan. (Rogers)

The Kitchener Public Library has won an award for an innovative initiative that allows users to borrow the internet.

The Ontario Library Association will present library staff with the Ontario Library Information Technology Association (OLITA) Project Award for its wi-fi lending program.

"We thought we had a good chance at least of being recognized and then when I found out we did, in fact, win the award, I was quite excited and immediately alerted the other people that were involved in implementing this project," Lesa Balch, the senior manager of service development at the Kitchener Public Library, told CBC News on Thursday.

Range of people use devices

In October, the Kitchener Public Library became the first library in the country to lend wi-fi hotspot devices much the same way people borrow books, magazines or DVDs. The program was started because statistics show nearly a quarter of people living in Waterloo Region – 23 per cent – do not have internet access. 

"In most cases, it's people who cannot afford the internet." - Lesa Balch, Kitchener Public Library

"It's a real range of people that are looking to use the internet outside of library hours and in most cases it's people who cannot afford the internet," Balch said of the people coming in to borrow the 18 connection hot sticks that are available.

"It's really across the board. In some cases it is students, in a lot of cases it's just the general public … wanting to try it. I haven't heard, but I'm hoping in some cases, it's job seekers who are looking for employment opportunities."

When the program was launched last fall, library CEO Mary Chevreau said the hotspots would be available to anyone with a library card and would offer those who cannot afford to have the internet in their home the chance to connect.

"The library is the greatest equalizer in our society," she said.

'They're always checked out'

The wi-fi hotspot devices – also called internet sticks – have been quite popular at the central library, the only location where they are available. The library initially was not allowing people to put their names on a wait list for the devices, but changed that due to overwhelming demand.

"As soon as one is returned, it might sit on the shelf for an hour or so and it's checked out again," Balch said, noting people watch the holds list and as soon as their name pops up, they go into the library. "They're never sitting on the shelf, they're always checked out."

The library also had to reduce the amount of time library patrons could have the devices, from three weeks to two, to meet demand.

Expanding the program

Now that the program has proven to be so popular, Balch said staff want to get more internet sticks.

"The demand for these has just been so phenomenal that we want to be able to expand this service so that more people in the community can use it," she said.

"Moving forward, we are looking to investigate other fundraising opportunities or donation or grant opportunities to allow us to expand the service."