California Public Libraries Lead the Nation in Higher Levels of Internet Connectivity
In 2013, the California State Legislature and Governor Brown tasked the California State Library with assessing the high-speed broadband needs of California’s public libraries. The needs assessment identified that approximately 52% of California’s public libraries had slower broadband connections than many Californians have in their homes. As a result of the assessment, Governor Brown and the legislature provided funds for a historic initiative to help all of California’s public libraries receive high-speed broadband service through CENIC's California Research and Education Network (CalREN).
Califa, a 501(c)(3) non-profit public corporation that provides cost-effective delivery of services, programs, and products through a membership network of California libraries, has been contracted by the California State Library to administer this program on their behalf and serve as a point of coordination between CENIC and libraries.
As the project enters its third year of operation, over 80% of public library jurisdictions in California are either connected or are in the process of connecting to CalREN. A major goal of this initiative is to set a new standard for Internet connectivity in public libraries at 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) or higher. Once achieved,California libraries will truly be gigabit libraries, with over 80% of main libraries connecting at 1 Gbps or higher.
In addition to dramatic increases in speed, library jurisdictions are experiencing a qualitative difference in network performance. A high level of bandwidth is available to organizations on the network because CENIC engineers continuously monitor shared network capacity to ensure available bandwidth is always higher than the demand. CENIC also actively pursues peering relationships with other network providers, including both commercial networks and research and education networks around the world. Use of CalREN’s peering services provides high-speed access to many data-intensive sites, such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, which many library patrons frequent.
Increased levels of connectivity can also enable library jurisdictions to improve operational effectiveness. Libraries are complex, and rely on adequate Internet connectivity to support their administrative infrastructure. Dan McMahon, systems administrator for the Marinet Library Consortium, noted, “Looking forward, there are three main ways we would utilize increased bandwidth. First, the increase in bandwidth for our public PCs and wireless network would have an immediate benefit for our patrons. Second, the upgrade would ensure adequate bandwidth for circulation and self-check machines at the busiest times. Finally, we would be able to utilize streaming media and/or videoconference capability for public programming as well as staff support use.”
Jarrid Keller, assistant director of infrastructure at Sacramento Public Library, knows how high-speed broadband can fundamentally improve library operations. Keller, who has worked on the initiative since its inception, said, “Expanded connectivity can enable a complete overhaul of core services. Right now, our branches specialize in certain kinds of services, and these services can be shared with other branches. Programs can be streamed live. Virtual meetings can be held. Expanded connectivity will allow us to rethink how we engage our community. Staff can start thinking bigger and thinking in new ways.”
The Sacramento Public Library shares 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps) among its main library and branches. When connected to CalREN, the libraries will have 10,000 Mbps (10 Gbps) of symmetrical bandwidth -- an unprecedented level of connectivity for a public library system prior to this project. As an added benefit, the monthly recurring costs for last-mile connectivity to the main library and all participating branches will decrease.
A connection to CalREN enables libraries to become active members of the larger research and education community. They can collaborate with K-12 schools, universities, and other institutions connected to CalREN, exchange content, and conduct joint work. For example, visitors to the Peninsula Library System’s San Mateo County Library (SMCL) had the opportunity to experience Music of Michael Jackson, a live-streamed jazz concert of the award-winning SFJAZZ Collective, thanks to the library’s lightning-fast expanded Gigabit network. The concert streamed exclusively from SFJAZZ Center to audiences at the Belmont Library, East Palo Alto Library, and Redwood City Main Library over the CalREN network. As Mount V. Allen, director of operations for SFJAZZ, noted, "The CENIC Gigabit network has, for the first time, enabled SFJAZZ to begin to realize its vision of sharing the spontaneity and art of jazz with new audiences that might not otherwise be exposed to this art form. Libraries are a natural home for this work.”
Dramatically improved Internet connectivity has also helped libraries expand services to critical sectors of the community. For example, librarians at the Coalinga-Huron Public Library have created a space in the library focused on meeting the needs of teen patrons. The area school district recently gave each student a laptop, but made no provision for students to access a printing service. With their expanded broadband, the library plans to upgrade their wireless service and give every patron up to six pages of free printing per day. In addition, librarians plan to equip the center as a maker space and host a range of activities from robotics to multimedia production.
Working with leaders in Sutter County and Yuba City, librarians at the Sutter County Public Library are developing a vision for an Innovation Center. They hope to build a glassed-in area in the library where community members can meet to work on projects, conduct meetings, and make presentations. Equipped with technology that allows learning and sharing, the center would foster entrepreneurship, community projects, and business development. There is currently no place like this in the community. The library often gets requests for meeting space, and patrons can sometimes be seen pulling tables together to create make-shift collaborative spaces.
The Mix at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), a 4,770-square-foot teen digital media center and learning lab located within the San Francisco Main Library, provides 21st-century technology and teaching. The Mix offers teens a state-of-the-art recording studio, a Hollywood-worthy video production space, a bank of high-end digital equipment, and a maker space with many of today’s leading fabrication technologies. In addition to a physical location at the San Francisco Main Library, other youth-focused digital media programs take place throughout SFPL’s 27 branch libraries in a program called The Mix on the Move. As City Librarian Luis Herrera pointed out, “The Mix at SFPL is a revolutionary approach to teen services. SFPL embraces the challenge of the 21st-century library by providing equal access and learning opportunities to all patrons, including our city’s teens, in ways that are engaging and entertaining while expanding their horizons.”
All libraries can be centers for learning in their communities, but their capacity to do so is hindered when Internet access is limited. John Alita, community services director at the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library, spoke about the challenges facing his community. "A large portion of our users are on the wrong side of the digital divide, living in communities where poverty and lack of education are huge challenges. We have very limited bandwidth in our branches. During busy periods, everything slows down, and patrons can’t even print from their computers. Our staff has difficulty performing simple searches for patron-requested information. We cannot offer some basic programs that many other libraries are able to offer, like computer classes." After the main libraries and 16 branch libraries are connected to CalREN, Internet access will dramatically improve, and the library can increase its educational offerings to the community.
By engaging community members in new ways, providing vastly improved access to the Internet, and forging new collaborations with other research and education organizations, California libraries are becoming even more central to their communities and are leading the nation in creating innovations made possible by high-speed broadband. New, vital functions, like video-conferencing, content creation, and collaborative engagement with other libraries, have now become possible due to higher circuit speeds and a decrease in circuit congestion. When libraries are digitally enabled, they can achieve great things.