The Antlers Public Library in Antlers, Oklahoma, has only two employees. Neither is an IT professional, so one of the staffers had to lean technology management on-the-job. Photo courtesy of Antlers Public Library

When people in small towns and rural areas think about libraries and broadband, they generally think of electronic books and free Wi-Fi access. But they may not think of libraries as the key to getting broadband applications and indeed, better broadband connectivity, to their community.

Changes have been happening within libraries nationwide that make them ideal partners in planning and funding broadband for individuals, businesses, and institution such as schools and hospitals. The people who drive the efforts to bring better broadband to their communities need to understand the potential role that libraries can offer.

The Library’s Communication Role

Libraries are the quintessential communication hubs of many communities. Patrons go there to gain access to knowledge, whether it’s in print material or online. But they also go there to interact with others, have meetings, or just get out of cold weather. The interaction crosses age, religion, education, and economic status. Libraries in a growing number of communities are exposed to some of the latest broadband technologies, such as 3-D printing and video streaming.

“I think broadband is one of the most important enablers for what libraries will be able to do with and for their communities going forward,” said Larra Clark, deputy director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association (ALA). “Libraries have had an historic role in information access and use that continues to be very relevant in the modern age. [However] there’s a disconnect between what people understand about libraries, what we are capable of today with broadband and what we could be capable of tomorrow with community partners.”

Craig Settles
Craig Settles

That history includes libraries being some of the early adaptors of broadband. People could go there, get their hands on it and experience things such as streaming their hometown radio station. Today, libraries continue to be community test beds for new technologies.

For example, several libraries enable their patrons to use 3-D printers to create prosthetics to replace human limbs. “One of the patrons happens to be the father of a little boy who doesn’t have any arms or legs,” said Library Director Corrine Hill. “He uses the library’s 3D printer to build prosthetics for the boy as he grows.” In Jackson, Tennessee, another city in the state that runs public broadband network, their library’s patrons uses a subscription­based online coding program, new computers loaded with video editing software and a computer lab with 40 computers.

The Essex Free Library in Vermont makes available from the state over 500 self-paced classes covering a myriad of topics, and the library subscribes to an online system called Mango, which offers 23 full, self-directed language courses. Their broadband is free thanks to a franchise agreement between Comcast in the City of Essex. In the nearby town of Burlington, the library is on the public broadband network, which offers them a gig for services that include a videoconferencing facility, a computer center, audiobooks and public access computers. The library is planning a project in conjunction with the University of Vermont to do musical collaborations with Chattanooga musicians.

Various libraries want to link their servers with bigger libraries in different towns or states so they can share resources such as software, makerspaces and 3D printers. “From a technical perspective this is fairly easy to do,” states Daniele Loffreda, industry advisor for Ciena, which supplies networking equipment and services globally. “The potential for difficulty currently, however, is with compatibility (or lack thereof) of various vendors, service providers, and politicians.”

Increasing Use

In rural communities, it’s not so much about leading-edge use but fundamental use of broadband technology.

“Estimates vary that up to 80 million people in the U.S. access the Internet in the library, which is a huge number,” said Don Means, director of the library advocacy group Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN). “And of those, maybe a fourth rely on the library solely for work or other vital tasks.”

Libraries provide access to a range of government services and programs via broadband, said Susan S. Cassagne, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission (MLC).

“All levels of government are creating systems for doing all types of transactions and they are only available online even though the people in our rural areas don’t have internet at home,” Cassagne said. “The city libraries are probably the only public places in town that have Internet, whether it’s to get tax forms, telehealth, for taking exams online, or dealing with job applications.”

Broadband also enables libraries to function. Smaller towns and rural counties may call on outside contractors for this. Gayle Simundza, executive director of Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing (CLAMS) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, says they have 28 libraries sharing wired access to databases and applications.

“Our systems manage cataloging, acquisitions and serials, and annually enable 255,000 patrons to checkout 3.5 million books, CVDs and other materials from any of the member libraries.” All of this happens on fiber broadband via the OpenCape community network operated by CapeNet.

Libraries as a Funding Partner

Broadband teams may want to take a page from local officials and community activists who have partnered with libraries in pursuit of bond measures, says the ALA’s Clark. “Often a city or county hoping to pass a bond measure will want to create a joint-­bonding initiative with the library out front because libraries have so much goodwill in the community and can bring that goodwill with them.”

Communities need to look at what their libraries are accomplishing and how much they could accomplish with better broadband. They should identify individuals and organizations with lots of money that recognize the importance of these accomplishments and will fund them. Also look to state and federal agencies that fund libraries’ use of broadband.

“Eligible libraries can receive support for the lease of fiber through the FCC’s E-rate program, whether lit or dark, from any entity, including but not limited to telecommunications carriers and non-telecommunications carriers, such as research and education networks; regional, state, and local government entities or networks; nonprofits and for­ profit providers; and utility companies,” said James Bachtell, attorney-advisor at FCC.

The IT staffs of cities, libraries, school districts and healthcare facilities should scope out a multi­year technology plan that describes a complete, concrete vision of the technology future of these anchor institutions. If these institutions can band together, it can help their collective broadband funding cause.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who recently wrote the report, “Libraries: Broadband Leaders of the 21st Century.”  

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