Dianne Connery: Broadband Internet Access, Communities, Fundraising, and Libraries
— October 8, 2020
If the word “librarian” still (inaccurately) conjures up images of a person doing little more than helping you find books in library buildings, you might want to spend some time with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) to bring yourself up to date.
Connery, on any given work day in that rural Texas town with a population of approximately 2,000 people, might be found helping library users with their online medical appointments via library computers. Or preparing grant applications and fostering collaborations with community partners to create Wi-Fi hotspots around Pottsboro so that students have the Internet access they need to avoid being locked out of their education system during the current pandemic. Or providing access and training to teachers and students who need to use library databases. Or leading a learning circle that is a group learning experience for Google Drive Essentials. Or, as she was doing earlier in the day on which we conducted the online interview for this article (using a shared Google doc as the platform for the conversation), driving around Pottsboro with people creating accurate maps of broadband Internet coverage where coverage has been tremendously overestimated by those providing the service.
She is, like so many contemporary librarians, a community activist. A universal broadband-access advocate. Someone passionately working with members of the community in which she lives, works, and plays to help community members address, in positive ways, the challenges they face. And she is also one of the growing number of librarians involved in the ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative designed to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States.
Having served as a corporate trainer and entrepreneur before becoming director of the library in 2010, she developed an interest in broadband access over a long period of time, she recalls:
“Working in a rural library, I talk to people every day who struggle with not having access to broadband. Their stories inspired me to work to improve conditions. In particular, I saw how young people do not have the same experiences and opportunities as kids in the suburbs and urban environments. I raised my kids in cities, and they were exposed to up-to-date technology. Many of the families do not have broadband in their homes, and parents are not tech savvy. The school system is struggling to provide up-to-date technology and training as well. It is not uncommon for teachers to lack access to broadband in their homes. I want young people to be on a level playing field when they graduate from high school.”
Connery understands that fostering community collaborations and fundraising are essential element in her efforts to help create that level playing field. She successfully applied for a $25,000 Texas State Library and Archives Commission grant to provide internet in 40 homes so that teachers and low-income families. She also recently applied for $232,000 through the Institute of Museum and Library Services to provide home internet for an additional 85 homes but learned, after her interview for this article, that the grant request had not been approved.
Reflecting on those times when requests for funding are rejected, she offers guidance to others involved in fundraising:
“I give myself one day to be disappointed, and then [move] on to the next thing. Usually we have several grants in the pipeline at any one time, so we are already focused on the next horizon. Personally, I have also had the good fortune of being a grant reader for two organizations and have learned a lot from being on that side of the equation. Sometimes there is something particular the funder was looking for that, through no fault of your own, doesn’t match. It has helped me be a better grant writer. Also, I have learned to write case statements so that I am able to use content in future grant applications so the work was not wasted.”
The work she and her community partners are doing has a positive, documentable impact on those they serve, she notes:
“A grandmother who is raising her three grandchildren in nearby apartments used that Wi-Fi [provided though a library-community partner collaboration] for the kids to do their schoolwork. Not only did she not have Internet at home, but she doesn’t have a car. When the schools shut down, being able to walk to that hotspot was the only way the kids could finish out the school year. College students who came back home when their schools shut down used it for accounting homework and test taking. Fortunately, we have a board member who also lives in the nearby apartments who was able to capture some photos and get photo releases. That is part of being strategic with finding funding—being able to put a human face on the issues.”
That project, which received significant media coverage regionally and nationally and which she has described through her participation in webinars and online conferences, started with recognition that Pottsboro residents might benefit from having broadband access in places other than the library building itself. Initiating a conversation with the manager of a local resort/hotel conference center, she proposed placing a Wi-Fi hotspot in the parking lot of that facility. The hotspot trailer “was provided by ITDRC [Information Technology Disaster Resource Center]. There was no cost to the resort or to the library. It was the library acting as the connector between organizations who could meet the need and the community.” She is also “working closely with a local fixed wireless internet provider (TekWav) to find funding to build infrastructure that will eventually cover every student and teacher in the county.”
Much of her work continues to be centered on engaging in conversations that lead to collaboration. She participates in ongoing, regularly-scheduled calls including those conducted through the Gigabit Libraries Network; continues to turn to the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center for resources and support; and benefits from interactions with the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, which is “helping me understand the whole issue from a legislative/advocacy perspective.”
And then there is that mapping project to highlight the difference between what is seen as “broadband coverage” as opposed to the service that is actually available—nor not available—to Pottsboro residents:
“One of the difficult national issues is no one has a clear picture of what the real extent of the infrastructure problem is. In short, the FCC maps are created by self-reporting from Internet providers. A provider considers an area covered if one home in a census block could potentially receive service. Self-reporting from providers results in tremendous over-reporting. Some organizations are working towards more accurate maps, but it is very labor intensive. Connected Nation is creating new maps. Their process is sending field engineers to drive every road in the county with equipment that looks for signals. (I’ve spent the morning riding around with two field engineers who were sent here to map coverage in Grayson County through funding provided through Texas Rural Funders.) The engineers take pictures of a variety of towers, power lines, etc. to figure out where actual coverage is. This is an area [where] I would like to see rural libraries take the lead. One of the first steps is to figure out if access is available. After that, we need to know if it is affordable. After that, we need to make sure devices are available. After that, the users have to have the digital literacy to use it. It is a complex problem with no quick fixes.”
For those interested in supporting broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally, Connery suggests the very steps she herself is taking: connecting people with similar interests, including those working in schools, businesses, libraries, realty agencies, health care organizations, non-profits, companies providing Internetservice, and those working from home.
Storytelling, she adds, is critically important.
“This is such a dry subject that it is easy for people to glaze over. By telling the stories, I think we have more of a chance of motivating people to work towards solutions. We are developing a coverage map with interactive markers that will tell the story of the person who lives in that location. All of this talk about spectrum, bandwidth, and infrastructure is about real people living their lives and trying to do the best they can.”
–1) A lightly-edited version of the entire interview with Dianne Connery is available on Paul's "Building Creative Bridges" blog. 2) "Connecting Our Communities" illustration at top of this article by Karina Branson/ConverSketch (thanks, Karina).