g i r f t y

Innovations in Public Libraries: The California Library Broadband Initiative

· CA Community Colleges, University of California, Libraries
Tags: librariesdigital divide

With the California State Library, CENIC, and Califa’s Library Initiative underway, the timeliness and relevance of an examination of broadband in the state’s public libraries couldn’t be better.  In this Monday session, a great perspective on where things stand now, where they are headed, and how California will get there was provided by Tom Fortin (San Mateo County Library), Derek Wolfgram (Redwood City Public Library), and Cliff Frost (CENIC).

The Present: Where California’s Public Libraries Are Now

Citing the Keynote Address given by SFJAZZ Director of Operations Mount Allen earlier in the day, wherein a piano instructor located in the Bay Area was able to give a high-quality mini-masterclass to a student located at the conference at UC Irvine, San Mateo’s Tom Fortin remarked on the potential that such demonstrations hinted at for California’s public libraries.  “It looked to me as if this is not an improvement in current technology,” Fortin said.  “It felt like a brand new technology, and that’s really exciting, because it means that there are things we can do that we can’t even imagine yet.”  He then emphasized how pleased he was with the connection to CalREN, and with his library’s good fortune to be located in California, which can boast such a useful infrastructure for research and education.

Fortin then pointed out the increasing modern relevance of the public library to its community in the digital age, stating that the services offered by libraries have grown and evolved rather than “withering” with the advent of the Internet, and pointing out that public libraries are often the only free, non-intimidating, and accessible place for many people to get online, helping to bridge stubborn digital divides in ways that few other organizations can do.  In fact, he stated, libraries are busier now than ever, with san Mateo County Library serving over “2 million people who walked through our doors last year,” circulated over 3.2 million items (print and digital), 7,000 programs attended by 210,000 people.  Busier than ever, often maxing out on bandwidth!

The key to this, he stated, was for libraries to provide a quality online experience – which is only possible with adequate bandwidth, and is further enhanced with the capacity to collaborate with other libraries and research and education institutions.

The current state of connectivity for California’s public libraries however, does not allow them to do this.  Facts and figures can be found online at the CENIC website, but Fortin took time to note that three-quarters of the state’s libraries are at or below 20 Megabits per second (Mbps), far slower than most private homes, and that two-thirds of libraries are using their Internet connections at or even over capacity, effectively rendering the connection useless.  Amazingly, in some libraries’ technology classes, instructors will demonstrate an activity in the class, and then caution the students to not actually try the activity themselves because the network cannot support the entire class performing the action at the same time.  (In fact, twenty participants learning to use e-books in a recent class in San Mateo County brought the network to a complete halt.)

And it isn’t just applications like reading e-books and surfing the web that are impacted.  San Mateo County Library is very active in helping people get signed up for Covered California, research issues relating to citizenship, start small businesses, perform career development, aid children in building early literacy skills.  Internet-empowered libraries play a vital role in addressing these issues in a way that they were not doing in the past, making high-performance connectivity for libraries an even more crucial part of ensuring that California maintains its competitive edge in a 21st century technology-driven world.

Fortin then turned the podium over to Redwood City Public Library’s Derek Wolfgram, who examined the kinds of innovations that a well-connected library can implement for its patrons and surrounding communities.  Wolfgram agreed with Fortin about the importance of public libraries, saying that, “what public libraries do is really an essential part of the education infrastructure, how we take care of kids and adults in California.”

The Future: Where California’s Public Libraries Are Headed

While Wolfgram looks forward to discussing many advances for California’s Public libraries at next year’s conference, he was for the moment constrained to examples from libraries in other states and the ways in which they connect patrons both to resources and to one another.  These examples included:

  • Kansas City Public Library, which is currently deploying a software lending library that provides web-based remote-desktop access for applications that many people cannot afford on a home computer or do not use frequently enough to purchase.  Applications can include Microsoft Office, the Adobe suite of programs, and more, and would not be limited by the state of the patron’s home computer.
  • Other libraries with Gigabit connectivity have implemented maker spaces featuring 3-d printers and scanners, making the library a home for entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and artists to create and collaborate.
  • Yet more libraries have been able to take full advantage of their local history resources, as many libraries have substantial collections of photos, maps, architectural plans, and other priceless local history resources.  Making these available in an interactive way online can enable not only local patrons but others beyond the library to make use of them.
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and library lectures can also be archived and kept available as a persistent asset, as opposed to how many such classes are handled currently, where the class takes place, and disappears when completed.
  • Wolfgram also introduced attendees to the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia Center, oriented toward connecting teens by providing music and video recording and editing facilities and giving teens the chance to create new content, together.
  • Other libraries have also implemented start-up incubators, where people from the tech/business communities can come together in a shared space where they can find resources that might be available to them individually.

As examples of connecting people to one another, Wolfgram described:

  • Libraries which have hosted community events like hackathons, places for people to address community needs, voting skills classes, as well as various applications of the open data movement, rearranging and re-visualizing freely available government data and enabling people to tackle big problems in a collaborative way.
  • The Redwood City Public Library’s Global Game Jam, where 8 area teens participated in an event that included 27,000 others participating in dozens of countries around the world creating video games start-to-finish in one day.  Eight mentors from local tech companies also participated, and Wolfgram is eager to expand participation, as opening the event to more than 8 teens would have consumed the library’s bandwidth to capacity.
  • The New York Public Library currently houses an historic menu collection of 45,000 restaurant menus, and is crowdsourcing a transcription of them all, a necessity since most are handwritten and in non-OCR-friendly scripts.  The information will be geotagged with locations, prices, dates, and other metadata.  Wolfgram invited his audience to wonder what other such information can be made available like this.

The Path: How California’s Public Libraries Will Get There

The session audience was then given an introduction to the current state of the Library Initiative by CENIC’s Cliff Frost, who called the initiative the most exciting project he’s been a part of in twenty years and stated that its ultimate aim was a “complete R&E Intranet in California” with many possibilities for collaborations.   The minimum goal is to bring all libraries onto CENIC’s California Research & Education Network at a Gigabit per second (Gbps), and as CENIC buys circuits in high volume, this will drive costs down.

Frost took the time to point out that the California State Library, Califa, and CENIC are all leading the project, and also pointed out a surprising piece of information from the library connectivity report that can be found on the CENIC website: In addition to the dismal state of connectivity under which California’s public libraries are currently laboring, 25% of these libraries are connected with asymmetric service featuring even worse upload bandwidth.  This effectively condemns libraries to the passive consumption of information as opposed to the new role that they are even now beginning to assume, which is that of sources of content.

Furthermore, less than half of libraries were taking advantage of E-rate and CTF discounts, both because of the administrative overhead required to do so, and because of filtering requirements for E-rate; libraries have historically been opposed to information filtering due to their traditional mission of free access to all information.  (Happily, as CENIC will assume the administrative burden of E-rate and CTF discount applications and does not require filtering, this will allow libraries to overcome both obstacles.)

The initiative began with several pilot programs in 2013 which were joined by the San Francisco Public Library in 2014, and aims to connect a large number of libraries in the first year, a larger number in the year after that, and then a smaller number of others which may entail particular challenges; for example, some libraries currently have long-term contracts for their current connectivity that they cannot end without prohibitively high early termination fees.

Frost then outlined the process by which a library would connect to CalREN, illuminating the scope and complexity of the initiative and illustrating that it consisted of far more than simply “hooking up” a library site.  The eight phases of the process outlined by Frost are as follows:

  • Phase 1: Information Gathered: Libraries were briefed on the opportunity and technical information and network designs were discussed with libraries.
  • Phase 2: Letters of Agency Submitted: Libraries give permission for CENIC to seek bids for Internet service on their behalf.
  • Phase 3: Federal E-rate Form 470, and Circuit RFP Filed:  CENIC filed federally required forms on behalf of libraries, as part of the process of receiving E-rate funding.  CENIC also published a Request for Proposals (RFP) for circuits that libraries could use.
  • Phase 4: E-rate Circuit RFP Responses Evaluated, Quotes Prepared: CENIC evaluated vendor responses to the circuit RFP and chose the lowest cost options, which were then formatted in a consistent manner to make the choices as clear as possible.
  • Phase 5: Quotes Presented and Reviewed:  The quotes prepared in Phase 4 were presented to libraries for their review. Extensive consultation on technical issues followed while the libraries and their IT support analyzed them.
  • Phase 6: Contracting: Once participating libraries accepted quotes, the process of preparing a contract for service began. Contracts for Internet service are between the library and Califa.
  • Phase 7:  Bulk Purchase of Hardware: Hardware requirements are collected from libraries, and needed equipment is aggregated into one bulk purchase to ensure the maximum volume discount available thanks to an equipment discount negotiated by CENIC on behalf of its members.
  • Phase 8: Installation/Deployment:  Services are ordered and library sites are prepared to receive the new equipment and circuits. The equipment is installed at the library site and services and equipment are turned on, tested, and put into production.

For the roughly 1,100 sites of which the state’s public library system is comprised, this is an extremely complex task.

The first year was somewhat complicated by the fact that CENIC was unable to begin until Fall 2014 and consequently had to file the E-rate Form 470 prior to discussions with libraries (Phases 1 and 3).  The initiative is currently in Phase 6 for the first group of libraries and is also made more complex than the process for the other segments that CENIC currently serves, as each library jurisdiction must obtain a separate contract, which must be reviewed by that jurisdiction’s lawyer.

After Frost concluded his overview of the current state of the library initiative, the question was raised of how the connectivity for California’s public libraries would compare to others in the United State after the initiative’s completion.  Wolfgram replied that perhaps only a dozen or so libraries currently enjoy Gigabit connectivity in the United States (none of which are part of a large statewide network like CalREN), and that the initiative “will move CA from the tail end to the leading edge.”