DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Maybe you've noticed how much libraries are changing. They've become so much more than quiet places to read a book. Now some are letting people essentially check out Internet service just like a book. They're lending it out using mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Tony Gonzales from member station WPLN reports that tiny Spring Hill, Tenn., has joined libraries in Chicago and New York City as early adopters.
TONY GONZALES, BYLINE: As a regular library-goer, Keith Morris was one of the first in Spring Hill to hear about the new Internet option. He checked out a hotspot and took it on a family road trip to the West Coast, posting cellphone videos as they went.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is the geyser basin at Yellowstone.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Is the water in here? Is there water in there?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, it's water underneath.
KEITH MORRIS: That area, you know, we got pretty good reception in Yellowstone and so that was kind of exciting.
GONZALES: The Internet on-the-go service isn't primarily for travelers. In other places in the country, the focus is to get people online who can't afford it. In Spring Hill, people will lurk outside the library on their laptops before it opens and after it closes. But they're not mooching the Wi-Fi only because of cost. Librarian Jennifer Urban says the town is growing so fast that Internet providers can't keep up with home construction.
JENNIFER URBAN: There are subdivisions here that no one in the subdivision has Internet access for one reason or another just because our city is growing so quickly. And then we just plain have a lot of people that don't have access to the Internet for financial reasons.
GONZALES: Now Urban oversees 20 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. People check them out like a book for a week at a time. They've been coveted since city spokesman Jamie Paige announced their arrival with a Facebook post.
JAIME PAIGE: This, I can say, was about the only thing that I can remember that never got a single negative reaction. I mean, it truly was accepted and, you know, embraced open arms.
GONZALES: In their first year, hotspots have been the most popular item in the library by far, with a regular waiting list of two dozen people. Librarians are adjusting to provide more tech support. And Urban says there's growing to discussion about whether to restrict content.
URBAN: I know within the library world there's a little bit of eyebrow raising as far as, you know, how will you regulate this? And, you know, what kind of limitations will you place on it?
GONZALES: While Spring Hill puts filters on computers within the library - mostly to block pornographic websites - they've not done the same with hotspots, which are used off-site. Really, the bigger trouble, like books, has been getting them returned on time. For extra motivation, Urban increased the late fee to $3 per day. Two hotspots haven't come back, so she shut off their service remotely while holding out hope to see them again.
URBAN: You never - you never know. Things show up. I mean, books, other things, they can be lost for - I've had things that are lost for five or six years that get returned.
GONZALES: For Morris, who took one cross-country, there were no glitches. He told Urban that when he brought it back he wasn't sure if he should toss it in the bin with the rest of the books.
MORRIS: I might have got a late fee. I returned it after hours, we'll just put it that way (laughter). But I secured it very well so...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They do have stickers on the boxes now that say bring to the desk (laughter). It's a learning process for us as well as for everyone else.
GONZALES: The librarian takes calls from other cities about what she's learned. She tells them that at $10,000 per year in data costs, the batch of hotspots isn't cheap. She argues they fit the evolving role of a library, which has always been to connect people to knowledge. For NPR News, I'm Tony Gonzales in Nashville.
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