The New York Public Library is poised to allow its patrons to "check out" free, high-speed internet access, helping to bridge the digital divide between the rich and poor in the city.

With the help of a $500,000 grant awarded Monday from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the library will loan thousands of patrons portable "hot spot" devices that will connect their home computers and phones to high-speed internet. The program is scheduled to begin sometime this fall.

An NYPL survey indicated that 55% of patrons who used library computers had no home broadband access. That percentage zoomed to 65% for patrons who had household incomes of less than $25,000 a year. "In a world where access to the internet is necessary for almost any important task - applying for jobs, doing school work, paying bills - it is unacceptable that so many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers would be left behind," said NYPL President Tony Marx.

The NYPL just completed a pilot program that lent Chromebook laptops and hot spot devices for two months at a time to 100 families with kids in after-school programs.

Before participating in the recent pilot program, Ajanay Smith, 10, was limited to doing computer-based home work at the library for 45 minutes a day, explained her mother, Nashawn Smith, of the South Bronx. "After your 45-minutes was up, you couldn't get back on. Now she can do her work at home: She reads on it all the time," said Smith, who has also found the hook-up helpful in her job search.

Ajanay's internet literacy has improved and she has been able to research and write school assignments on panda bears and historical figures. "She's good now! She knows how to hook up that computer by herself and doesn't need my help," Smith said.

Smith plans to renew the Chrome Book and broadband when they're due for return on July 8. The program is important, she said, because her family has a limited budget: "Not everyone can afford a computer and internet," Smith said. (Chrome Books will not be included in the new Knight Foundation-funded program.)

The only problem is fear of damaging the library materials. "That's why only (Ajanay), her father and me can use it," and it's kept off-limits from Smith's 1 and 3-year-old sons, Smith explained.

The NYPL was one of 19 winners nationally in the "Knight News Challenge" contest and also plans to offer educational programs to increase internet and media literacy with the help of the grant.