The Walnut Hill zip code of 19139 is listed under the Federal Broadband Opportunities Program grant as one of the areas in Philadelphia most in need of digital literacy training.
The needs present in this zip code, along with those of 24 other zip codes throughout the city, are the impetus behind the creation of the Techmobile–a new way to reach residents who for a variety of reasons have not accessed the resources available at branch libraries in Philadelphia.
The Federal Broadband Technologies Opportunities grant has provided the Free Library with the funds needed to create the Techmobile and expand the points of entry available to Philadelphia residents.
The Techmobile was launched April 12 in a ribbon-cutting ceremony overseen by Mayor Nutter, Congressman Fattah and Free Library President Siobhan Reardon.
“The Techmobile was acquired through federal stimulus funds, and this is the only one thus far,” said Jennifer Donsky, the Free Library’s public technology coordinator. “It’s very novel, and there’s a lot of interest. I just hope very much that it creates awareness of what the library has to offer.”
In addition to the services offered by a standard book mobile, which allows users to check out and return books at a remote location, the Techmobile also offers digital technology such as e-books and social networking. On top of providing this access, the Techmobile also provides various training opportunities, such as the chance to learn about computer and email basics, or resume writing and job searching. “We wait for organizations to contact us, to request us to partner with them. We have different curricular units on our website that they can choose from,” Donsky said.
So far, the Techmobile has partnered with at least six community organizations and events throughout the city, including its debut at the People’s Emergency Center, an organization dedicated to helping formerly homeless women and families, on April 12.
“It’s really creating access to the library and its resources for people; being able to bring digital services to the community. We have a lot of digital services that are great to access if you have Internet at home; if you don’t have Internet at home or at school regularly, then it would be hard to find a place that does have library branch access,” said Techmobile Manager Joel Nichols. Many residents of the areas listed by the grant and members of organizations, such as the People’s Emergency Center, lack the access that would make the Library’s digital services available to them.
This week, the Techmobile had its first open access visit in Malcolm X Park in Walnut Hill. The Blackwell Regional Library, Walnut Hill’s arm of the Free Library, held a story time in the park, and Nichols said she thinks it would be a good opportunity to introduce the new mobile hotspot to the neighborhood.
“It’s been really great,” Nichols said. “This is the first time we’ve set up shop in a park for open access; before we’ve always had appointments with community organizations, but everyone on board likes it a lot.”
Nichols said the Techmobile could benefit Walnut Hill in multiple ways. “I think it will certainly provide additional points of access to the Internet and really crucially one-on-one assistance. That’s one way we differ from the computers in the library, where you have just one librarian managing a bank of computers. Here you have two staff and six computers, so you can get a much more one-on-one experience.”
He said he found that so far that “a lot of people want to write their resume or shine up their resume, and apply for a job online. Something like 80 percent of all jobs now have to be applied for online, so that’s one of our stocks and trades–job applications.”
In addition to offering digital access and training, residents can also partake in other activities found at a typical branch library. “We’re able to do library card registrations, and people can actually check out books right in the park,” Nichols said. “People love it, people love having the library come to them.”
Though the Techmobile offers convenient off-site access to library resources, the Techmobile staff also focuses on “making sure people know where their nearest branch is, or organization,” Nichols said. “It strengthens and reinforces library services. You can think of it as a gateway drug; someone who might not make it into the library might make it on here through a program or through an event or organization they’re taking part in that’s not library related. They might potentially get bitten by the bug and seek out a location.”
“I think it’s great,” 23-year-old Walnut Hill resident Iliana Berkowitz said after taking a turn on one of the Techmobile’s computers. “It’s very connected, and a lot of people in the neighborhood may not have this kind of access available in their home, and the library has a limited number of connected spots as well, so this is a good way to keep people in the Internet know.”