California Libraries Look to a Future Enabled by High-Speed Broadband
Work is underway to bring high-speed broadband to all of California’s public libraries by connecting them to CalREN, the high-capacity, 8,000-mile fiber optic network operated by CENIC. The Califa Group, a nonprofit library consortium, has been engaged by the California State Library to manage the rollout process with CENIC. After two years of implementation, 129 out of 176 of the eligible library jurisdictions in the state are either connected or in the process of connecting to CalREN, most at gigabit speeds. Because libraries are central to their communities, connecting them to CalREN will effectively provide all of California’s residents with high-performance access to the myriad resources that constitute 21st-century digital citizenship, and will provide California with all of the economic benefits of a digitally empowered population.
Every day, librarians are creating new programs and services made possible by their increased bandwidth connections to CalREN and are planning future innovations. Some examples of these innovations and increased capacity to serve library users are below.
In November, the Los Angeles Public Library connected its main library to CalREN at 100 Gbps — an unprecedented level of connectivity for a public library — and plans are underway to connect all branches at 1 Gbps over the next two years. Shortly after this connectivity upgrade, Internet capacity at the main library was put to a test. “On January 21, 2017, the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles attracted between 300,000 and 700,000 marchers,” says Susan Broman, director of emerging technologies. “Marchers visited the library throughout the day, using the library’s public PCs and their own devices. The Internet worked perfectly throughout the day despite large numbers of users.”
“Internet access is a core service we provide at our libraries, but we want to go beyond just providing access to enable people to make the best use of that access,” says Broman. “We envision making more frequent use of teleconferencing and virtual meetings, allowing patrons to interact with experts. This dramatically improved Internet access makes possible services we could only imagine previously, such as the development of online tours of the library, virtual experiences of texts like the Shakespeare folio, live streaming of programs from our main library to our branches, and virtual reality stations set up in branches.
The San Diego Public Library connected to CalREN in September, improving connectivity at the main library from 500 Mbps to 1G. The 300 library-owned devices at the main library are heavily used by over 3,500 people per day, and many of these users bring in their own devices as well. The impact of the improved connectivity was felt immediately. Patron complaints about Internet service stopped, and, as a result, job stress for librarians decreased. Video conferencing at the library is being used more frequently, and more patrons are streaming content.
Library Director Misty Jones describes how word of the improved connectivity has spread through the community. “We recently hosted a ‘Day of Coding,’ where 150 students worked for 24 hours, and the Internet service worked without a glitch. We have been contacted by Comic-Con to add the main library to the Comic-Con campus because connectivity can support all the activities of the conference. Wikipedia has also contacted us to hold a conference at the main library. Improved connectivity has changed the game for our library system. We expect to see more and more community partnerships develop, and can think beyond anything we could think of before. We are now in the process of upgrading the connectivity of all 35 branches. As an added benefit, because of CENIC and Califa’s buying power and consortial approach to accessing federal and state discount programs, our cost for Internet service declined from $70,000 to $1,800 annually. The dollars saved can be directed to the development of more community programs.”
The Sacramento Public Library will be connecting to CalREN in June 2017. Jarrid Keller, assistant director of infrastructure for the Sacramento Public Library, has helped lead the initiative to bring high-speed broadband to California public libraries from the very beginning, and knows the benefits it can bring. “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.” he says. “This initiative will level the playing field. By smashing speed and smashing distance we can provide educational programs to home-schooled youth, online legal assistance to the most vulnerable members of our community, and health programs to homebound seniors. We can collaborate with libraries throughout the state, sharing resources and programs to benefit all Californians.”
Stephanie Beverage, director of the Huntington Beach Public Library, agrees. “Our libraries connected to CalREN in July 2016. We have expanded Wi-Fi access for people who are bringing in their own devices and have noticed that patron complaints about Internet access have completely stopped. We have begun offering more technology training, and are developing programs to stream over the web such as storytime, author events, and education sessions — something that was simply impossible in the past. We are partnering with our local community college to support its students, and are engaging the community in conversations about what people want now that we have removed the limitations imposed by poor Internet connectivity. It is still early days for California libraries. The future holds innovations we can not imagine.”
In addition to new programs and services, librarians are realizing the administrative efficiencies enabled by high-speed broadband, such as virtualizing the desktop to store operating systems and software in the cloud and maintain them centrally, saving staff time, and making software more reliable. Essential administrative functions in libraries such as security, self-checkout, maintenance of online catalogs, management of digitized content, and online reference are all being more effectively supported by improved Internet connectivity.
Connection to high-speed broadband via CalREN is enabling librarians to realize administrative efficiencies, provide expanded digital content, and broaden educational opportunities for their patrons, using the strategies outlined above and creating new strategies based on the needs of their communities. From videoconferencing to telehealth applications to streaming media, new programs and services are being imagined and implemented every day.