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Smart Libraries Q&A: Wi-Fi during the pandemic

Smart Libraries Newsletter [May 2020]


Our library has closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to provide Wi-Fi connectivity for use by our patrons from our parking lot and grounds. Are there any security issues or other concerns that we should address?

Leaving a library's Wi-Fi network operating while it is closed should not incur significant security risks. Given that some patrons may lack internet access in their homes, allowing Wi-Fi access from the vicinity of a library building would be appreciated. Coffee shops and other commercial establishments in the area may likewise be closed, further limiting opportunities for gaining access to the internet for critical tasks such as applying for benefits. Libraries providing unattended exterior Wi-Fi service will want to consider a few issues.

Leaving the library's Wi-Fi service active when the library is closed poses no additional concerns compared to its open hours. Regardless of whether the Wi-Fi service is offered within a building or is accessed from outside the building, the network should be configured in a way that segregates its communication away from more sensitive services and systems that reside on the library's staff network. Such segregation can be accomplished by implementing physically separate network equipment or through configuring separate zones in the firewalls, routers, or Ethernet switches for public and staff computing. Separation of network traffic into zones is a well-established practice needed for libraries to provide controlled internet access for public computers and patron devices. If these basic safeguards have been implemented for a library's public Wi-Fi access and public computers, use from outside the building poses no additional risk.

Network printers, scanners, or other devices usually available to those in the library should be switched off to avoid accidental use and consumption of print and toner while the library is closed.

Apart from security concerns, it may be difficult to provide usable Wi-Fi service to parking lots or other exterior locations unless they are quite close to the building. The exterior range of Wi-Fi devices deployed for interior coverage will be limited. Some libraries may have previously implemented Wi-Fi access points for outdoor coverage. Those that have not, may be able to install one or more outdoor wireless access points that can be safely used by patrons. Libraries that require users to use their library card number or a password may want to provide an alternative mechanism. Log-in details can be provided on a Wi-Fi splash page, for example.

The library can direct network administrators to capture and report statistics on the use of Wi-Fi network during periods of closure. Useful measures would include the number of network sessions by hour of day and the volume of bandwidth delivered. These statistics will help document the use of Wi-Fi as one of the emergency services that the library can offer. Access to a library's exterior Wi-Fi should be implemented in ways consistent with mandates or recommendations for persons to maintain safe distances from each other. This concern does not necessarily need to be addressed in-person, though signage could be provided to remind those visiting the library premises to use the Wi-Fi to follow appropriate distancing practices.

The library may opt to take other proactive measures to facilitate internet access during times of crisis. Some libraries may have existing programs for lending Wi-Fi hot spots. These devices include cellular data plans supported by the library and enable internet access for households lacking other alternatives. Wi-Fi hotspot loaning programs have become popular services. However, the limited number of devices libraries are able to provide can only make a small dent in the digital divide that seems especially problematic during times of crisis.

Other libraries are using their bookmobiles to provide Wi-Fi access to their communities. While it may not be possible to lend materials due to health concerns, bookmobiles can be placed in areas with anticipated need, providing access to ebooks in addition to general internet connectivity.

Providing access to the internet through public Wi-Fi services has become an essential library service. Although building closures may preclude normal methods of access, libraries can provide access to locations where it can be safely used. If the library has followed standard practices in deploying its public Wi-Fi networks, such access does not pose additional security risks.

View Citation
Publication Year:2020
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 40 Number 05
Issue:May 2020
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smart Libraries Q&A
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:25152
Last Update:2022-12-05 14:42:00
Date Created:2020-05-12 14:41:28