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Hot Spots: A Technology-Based Approach to Community Engagement

Free Library of Philadelphia
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Innovation Summary

Free Library Hot Spots transform lives and build community by providing a sustained connection to Library resources through collaboration with neighborhood organizations and citywide partners. The initiative begins with technology access and extends to community users’ digital confidence and skills, community knowledge, gains in social capital, and pride of place.

Problem Statement

How do you fully engage in civic discourse when you are technologically isolated from the digital life of your city? When an estimated 80% of job applications require online completion, what jobs are available to you if you are among the 50% of working-age Philadelphians confronted with traditional and/or digital literacy challenges? In a city with a dismal 63% high school graduation rate, how can you advance in learning without access to the full complement of educational resources? If you are a teen, how will you be prepared for participation in a global economy, or move from being a digital consumer to producer, without experience in the digital resources and tools taken for granted by more affluent peers? And perhaps most importantly, how do you leverage your skills and experience to provide for your family, contribute to your community, and learn from the world at large? With home broadband connections out of reach to many of the 1.5 million Philadelphia residents, social and economic fragility in neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized becomes even more entrenched. The Free Library of Philadelphia boasts 54 locations, all with public access computers, yet we have not begun to approach city-wide saturation, and community demand for basic computer skills instruction, job searching, and resume writing remains very high. These users often require more time on computers and significant staff assistance, resources in increasingly high demand and increasingly short supply at libraries. And so, in 2010, the challenge for the Library was how to find opportunity in the face of challenge, and respond to growing need in the wake of an $11 million cut in public funding. Recognizing the grave civic danger of a digitally segregated city, the Free Library chose to collaborate with strong community and governmental partners to alleviate our shared municipal distress.


Launched in 2011, the Free Library’s comprehensive community technology outreach program includes six “Hot Spots” located in neighborhood organizations, as well as a new Techmobile, which will provide drop-in technology programs and computer trainings beginning April 2012. This initiative meets the challenge of reorienting historical perspectives from a deficit view to one that identifies key community assets and works from extant positions of strength. Hot Spots place computers, printers, staff, and resources in community settings, expanding the library’s reach without the encumbrance of high capital costs. They support greater community engagement and dialogue by embedding library resources within trusted neighborhood organizations. Executive Directors have spoken of their pride in partnering with a respected institution like the Library. Civic pride has seen an upsurge too, as noted in focus groups with Hot Spot patrons, one of whom said, “the Hot Spot is the heartbeat of the neighborhood.” Library administration is determined to sustain this vibrant program, thus growing mutual organizational capacity, critical community assets and positive changes in the technological identities of those touched by this innovative configuration. Hot Spot staff work closely with other City agencies as partners on a multi-million dollar federal grant; we witness the tangible civic benefits of collaboration as more Philadelphians gain broadband awareness, access, competency and job readiness. The Hot Spots shine a local spotlight on the library as a hub of resources, information and trainings that advances literacy, guides learning and inspires curiosity. These partnerships, governmental and community, strategically position us both at the citywide decision-making table and close to the ground. Our joint footprint impacts communities much more than does toiling in silos. As a consequence of our combined strength, programmatic dialogue and professional affinity, we are better able to seed innovation and promote a cross-sector agenda that enhances regional public life.


Funded by the Knight Foundation and the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Hot Spot initiative has dramatically increased the number of underserved Philadelphians using technology, the Internet, and library resources to accomplish their life goals. Concurrently, the Library remains agile and steadfastly relevant to communities when we engage individuals where they are, with services right in their neighborhoods. Internet enabled computers, that mimic our branch configuration, have already logged 23,989 uses since March 2011 and surpassed original expectations. Patrons are logged-on according to their primary stated activity: job seeker, small business, training, family, or general computer. In recognition of the predominance of low literacy/computer literacy job seekers, staff created a wiki (hotspots.freelibrary.wikispaces.net). The wiki provides a consistent interface and triage tool when multiple patrons require assistance, offering easy access to local job openings, training opportunities, and quick links to library electronic resources in an approachable format. A small collection of reference books assists patrons and connects these sites with the larger library experience; library card applications are available and encouraged. Computer Assistants help patrons, with the support of college work study students, interns, and volunteers. Staff are hired as much for their superior interpersonal skills as their technological prowess, for they are tutors, guides, and cheerleaders, contributing directly to the success of the Hot Spots. Through daily submissions, Computer Assistants translate the activities on the ground into narrative reports. Thus we can document the stories of 62 people who have reported finding jobs as a result of the Hot Spots. CustomGuide, a personalized online learning management system, charts progress as users proceed through various Microsoft applications. And through structured training 2,357 participants have increased their digital literacy skills, thus contributing to employability, decreased technological anxiety and a substantiated claim for the value of community technology access and assistance.