I was first introduced to hotspots in 2015 when I was working in a small rural library outside of Las Vegas, NV. The library district was working on renovating all eleven of the rural branches. Before we could renovate, the director that oversaw the rural libraries had everyone go through every crevice and throw out anything that wasn’t necessary.
When we did this, I happened upon this small device that was about the size of a battery you could use to charge your mobile phone when you were away from an outlet. It was a hotspot. Hotspots are portable devices used to connect to the internet.
It was useful in the library I was working at because there was sparse cell phone service and no high speed internet. The internet that the library used was not quite dial-up, but it worked about as quickly as dial-up. It took about ten minutes to check out items to a patron (not exaggerating).
I was surprised that this device had been stuffed in the back of a drawer and was forgotten about. It was easy to figure out how to use, and after that, it was my saving grace.
Fast forward to 2017, I was working in a computer lab at an urban branch in the same district. Administration wanted to experiment with the concept of circulating hotspots, and my department was chosen for the trial period. The hotspots could only be checked in and out in our department and only at our branch.
I was the only person in the department who (1) knew how to use the circulation module in our ILS, and (2) had ever used a hotspot. I trained my colleagues and created guides on how to use the circulation module, but that did not prepare us for the hotspots themselves.
Administration provided us with a technical support phone number for the service provider, but the support technicians were unfamiliar with our arrangement and were often unhelpful. The patrons who checked out the hotspots were also given this number. Immediately, we noticed an issue. The SSID on the hotspots was disappearing and patrons were unable to use them.
The support technicians kept requesting that we send the defective hotspots back. But so many of them were having issues that it was unrealistic to pull all of them from circulation. So I sat down with a defective hotspot and tried to figure out what was happening.
The hotspot has a button on the top that you use to turn it on. It turned out that this button was actually two buttons, like the up and down volume button on a mobile phone. It looked like one button, so when patrons went to turn the device on, they were pressing in the middle of the button, and therefore both buttons. This is how you perform a hard reset on the device. A hard reset reverted the login information back to the original SSID and password. This information was on the inside of the hotspot next to the battery, but the battery cover was sealed with book tape to prevent tampering.
Once I figured this out, I fixed all the defective hotspots and presented the information to the rest of my department. They had a basic understanding of the issue, but I still became the go-to person for hotspot issues. We stopped encouraging patrons to call technical support and we demonstrated how to avoid the problem whenever a patron checked out a device.
As far as circulation goes, the hotspots were popular. We started off with what we thought was a generous amount, but within a month we had more than quadruple the number of holds. In the first month, we also had 1/5 of the devices not be returned.
I relocated shortly after this, but before I left, they started looking into purchasing hotspots from a different manufacturer. The district went ahead with the concept and all libraries in the district now circulate hotspots. However, they are still having an issue with the hotspots not being returned.
Wi-Fi hotspots are a good idea for in-library use, especially in large libraries that have connectivity issues. They can be good for patrons that are concerned about the security of connecting their devices to public networks, and they can also be good for groups using library spaces. There is definitely a demand for take-home hotspots in some areas, but the cost-to-benefit ratio is questionable. Hotspots do require a monthly fee through a service provider and can be expensive to replace.