Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why bandwidth is important

The Internet is the lifeblood for libraries. With so many people out of work or unable to pay for information, entertainment, and necessities, libraries providing free and fast Internet is the only means to stay connected. There are so many things that can be done online now, from something that requires little bandwidth like submitting a job application, to watching full length movies online. With the influx of services that can be done online, a problem arises with providing enough bandwidth to provide the basic services patrons expect.

Does Library Bandwidth need to double every 18 months?
The need for increasing bandwidth seems to flow right along with the rate of computer memory. Keeping up with technology comes with a price, as computers can handle more memory and work faster, the bandwidth required to make them effective also needs to increase. With many needed services going online, libraries need to keep up with this need, but the problem is bandwidth creep. It seems that library bandwidth needs to double every 18 months to keep up, but then it should be less expensive according to Nielsen's Law. Our communities depend on us now more than ever to keep up since:

1. Libraries are the only free internet resource in town, often the only resource.
2. Bandwidth for an individual goes up faster than in an organization.
3. Libraries can't do as much if content requires more bandwidth, leading to feature freeze
4. Services deteriorate if we can't keep up, other services become affected. By trying to pay for more bandwidth, ongoing costs to maintain it can burden other services in an already stripped down service economy.

As mentioned in this Ars Technica article a few weeks ago reporting on ALA's report on Bandwidth. It's nice to see mainstream blogs provide attention to these issues.

Bill Gates fund: libraries need more cash for broadband 

As we've reported, libraries across the United States have become something like first economic responders for low-income people thrown out of work by The Great Recession. As job listings go online, and more and more require an on-line application form, computerless employment seekers are besieging local libraries—often the only place where they can get free access.

Libraries dying for bandwidth—where's the fiber (and cash)?

But another problem is simple availability. As the ALA's report (PDF) points out, "moving from a 56Kbps circuit to 1.5Mbps is one thing. Moving from 1.5Mbps to 20Mbps or to 100Mbps or even to a gigabit—depending on the size and need of the library—is another." Even when they can pay for it, many libraries are finding that higher speeds simply aren't available.

Take for example a new service at our library. It is a VR Sorenson machine that provides a relay service for the deaf. A patron comes up to this machine, dials the number and a VR Sorenson employee signs to the person. This relay person can then contact any phone number anywhere and the person using the service can get help from businesses or other contacts that do not have a TTY machine or other services for the deaf. The machine requires high bandwidth. Most individuals can't afford this high level of bandwidth even though these machines are provided for free to many. It is superior to a TTY machine. Word of mouth spread like wildfire and we get several people using it per day. Even when it was getting set up, patrons knew exactly what it was and without advertising, word of mouth sold the service. It's an example of what a library can do, but without the bandwidth it wouldn't have happened. Without sufficient bandwidth, not only are library services frozen, but we are then forced to protect our scarce bandwidth resources.

Bandwidth Police
There is a recent article about libraries becoming bandwidth police. Libraries that don't have the ability to increase bandwidth have to rely on throttling so that all patrons can have enough bandwidth to get what they need online. Software vendors provide these tools to libraries, in which, an automatic limit is set so that one single individual cannot exceed a certain amount of bandwidth. A patron attempting to watch a streaming movie on Netflix would have their efforts hampered so that another patron can still use enough bandwidth for basic internet use, mostly textual in nature. Without enough bandwidth, throttling like this can affect services critical to library patrons, but because not enough resources have been providing for libraries to keep up with the bandwidth creep, libraries are reduced to this practice, leading to these articles on the practice.

Why a Shortage of Bandwidth is Turning Public Librarians into Traffic Cops LIS News points to an article from the Citizen Media Law Project, The Library Police: Why a Shortage of Bandwidth is Turning Librarians into Traffic Cops The author's basic premise is that because of poor bandwidth to libraries, and considering libraries are often the only place to get bandwidth, throttling leads to censorship:


"A short time ago, the American Library Association (ALA) released the latest update to the Public Library Funding & Technology Study, a long running survey of public access to the Internet. The survey reveals that public libraries are the only point of free Internet access in the great majority of communities, and many libraries do not have enough bandwidth to meet the needs of their patrons. The entire situation is an embarrassing reminder that the US has a hideous Internet access rate...

While the latter approach is certainly disconcerting (especially in a country with such poor per capita connectivity), I am terrified by the former bandwidth austerity measure. Libraries have become a proving ground for two dangerous arguments: that content throttling is not filtering and that resource limitations justify content throttling."

I have personal experience in which I tried to expand computer access with old assumptions about bandwidth. It used to be 1.5 Mbps for 50 computers would be just fine, but now you would be lucky to get access with four times that bandwidth rate. E-rate helped me out there, but for many libraries that don't have the funds, can't reallocate them, can't figure out Erate, or are doing all they can and it's still not enough bandwidth. It can be very frustrating. Now with throttling becoming more common, people are beginning to notice, but at least with the author, he is in support of libraries getting more bandwidth so that they don't have to do this.

What Libraries are doing for their communities
A recent Library Journal article highlighted what the ALA submitted to the FCC on libraries critical role to the economic well-being of their communities:

Salt Lake City Public Library terminals
Originally uploaded by Mal Booth

ALA to FCC: Consider How Broadband Fosters Economic Opportunity

As Community Hubs:
Public libraries go beyond stopgap measures in creating and supporting economic opportunity
The added value libraries offer includes job training, information, and digital literacy programs

For Business Adoption and Usage:
The library as a small business
Libraries need high capacity broadband to provide essential services to the general public
Effective negotiation requires open dialog between service providers and small businesses

Broadband's role in regional economic development
Libraries are critical institutions in supporting regional economic development

Government-provided social benefit programs
Information literacy skills are critical to navigating online social benefit forms

Workforce development
The value of the public library’s suite of services cannot be overstated

A recent sneak peak at an FCC reports provides promising news to underserved areas:

"One proposal would use money from the Universal Service Fund to build broadband networks in underserved communities and pay for high-speed Internet connections for those who cannot afford them. The Universal Service Fund, which is supported by a surcharge on phone bills, was established to subsidize phone service."

What Libraries are doing for increased Broadband
 The California State Library recently sponsored a competition called Fast Internet Matters @ Your Library. Libraries throughout California were to create video on Youtube that highlights why Fast Internet is important. Salinas Library was announced as the winner with this funny video:

Opportunity Online has been going around libraries and speaking with library staff and patrons about how important broadband is to the community. This is to help the broadband summit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plan to have around the United States to help providing funding for broadband. You can watch some of those videos here.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also announced a round of funding for broadband projects.

Foundation Announces New Support for Public Libraries to Help Provide Broadband Access for More Americans

“Federal, state, and local government investments in connecting libraries to broadband are important steps toward realizing the vision of universal broadband access,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Libraries program. “When libraries have access to broadband, they can effectively deliver critical educational, employment, and government services for residents that lack Internet access elsewhere. As community anchor institutions, libraries can also help drive local broadband adoption.”

The hope here is that with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stepping in with states and combing the Federal Broadband Stimulus program that local libraries can provide better, faster access and ensure sufficient bandwidth in the future to keep up with demand. The American Library Association has been spearheading this movement and has consistently demanded more broadband and bandwidth for our libraries. They have submitted to the NTIA and now the have submitted to the FCC the critical role libraries play in the local economy.

The last round of broadband stimulus went towards the truly needy. If funding is only going towards getting locations to a 742 kbps or half of a T-1 line and that is a big step up for them; that's very critical. However, in the next two rounds libraries are pulling for expanding access for more modern needs. Without this round of stimulus, libraries will continually fall behind the fast moving internet, crippling existing services and stopping progress for future needs. More affluent communities will be able to maintain and increase access, but those that cannot afford it will be severely hurt. Increasingly, this will lead to lost connections with the rest of the world, leaving pockets of many Americans behind. The concept is scary.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Top Ten Things

Roy Tennant has a post about 10 things library administrators should know about technology. This was a precursor to an event that happened this Fall at the Digital Library Federation Forum. This post went around the circles with little comment other than re-posting. I didn't find this list very helpful as an administrator. The discussion in libraries shouldn't be "don't be afraid of technology", but "don't be afraid of change." The implementation of that change and the removal of that fear are the keys to success.

From my perspective, I don’t view these types of decisions that Roy brings up as technology decisions. I am sure there are some who say no to technology, but those administrators often say no to everything. Technology is just another tool to use and an administrator weighs whether he can use the tool or not. It's not an either or situation.

Using Tools to Make Connections
Library administration should keep up with current trends so that when staff members come up with ideas, they understand where those ideas are coming from. It will lead to a faster implementation, another way to accomplish the idea, or if the idea will work.

I enjoyed the re-post from the M Word, Marketing Libraries blog for five skills that drive innovation:
Associating: The ability to connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields.

Questioning: Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge the common wisdom. They ask "why?", "why not?" and "what if?"

Observing: Discovery-driven executives scrutinize common phenomena, particularly the behavior of potential customers.

Experimenting: Innovative entrepreneurs actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots.

Networking: innovators go out of their way to meet people with different ideas and perspectives.


I always remember when I went in for a demo on a product. It was for Vocera. He was demonstrating the product and talking about the things it can do. I remember constantly scribbling in my notebook while he was speaking, even when he was not speaking. My staff asked me if we were supposed to take notes and what was I writing. Even the demonstrator asked. I told them that while he was speaking I was making connections to all the potential for this device. All the things we needed for our library beyond what he was talking about. I think most librarians should be doing this during a product demonstration, but then ferret out what would actually be needed from the product, or if the product is needed at all.

I am not sure Roy's list is very helpful, but for a few points. Technology is getting cheaper and easier, true. It’s relative though. If you have a tight budget and staff uncomfortable with using the tool, or even if the tool will be useful, those weigh into the decision. There is also the danger of having no direction for new services, technology or otherwise. Is this right for the community? I also enjoyed the feature creep discussion here and here. Having new services and technology without rhyme or reason is dangerous for budgets and for staff.

Don't Drown Your Horse
I see the entire list as a re-hash of concepts that have been used before and can be applied to a general view. Don’t be afraid of failure, don’t try to be perfect, are commonly used. However, some of the examples such as "technology gets easier over time" is fine, but the example of installing Unix seems a bit off. That isn't a good example if this article is directed at administrators.

Another piece would be staff buy-in. We can say "don’t be afraid of failure", but when it fails, staff can get pretty frustrated, even angry. Furthermore, without buy-in it just looks like you are shoving things down their throats. Drowning the horse in trying to make him drink.

I don't think administrators are saying no to projects because they involve technology. They say no to projects that they don't understand or aren't sure they have the resources for, staff or otherwise. Those trying to implement or attempting to convince others to implement must have a clear vision of what is to be accomplished and tell a compelling story.

Additional Thoughts
"...focus on risk mitigation, not risk elimination," Teri Takai, California State Chief Information Officer.

"In dealing with new ventures, particularly in dealing with technology, you should find ways to mitigate risk, but not eliminate it. New ideas and decisions involve risks, there is no way around it. Knowing what to do when things go wrong is more important than making something foolproof."

Know the organization well enough to understand the impact of the decision.
From Giuliani's Leadership:

"Knowing the small details of a large system leaves a leader open to charges of micromanaging. But understanding how something works is not only a leader's responsibility; it also makes him or her better able to let people do their jobs. If they don't have to explain the basics of what they need and why they need it every time they request more funds or different resources, then they are freer to pursue strategies beyond simply spending what they're given."

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". -Arthur C. Clarke

Don't abuse tech staff just because they know about technology. There is too much mythology behind those that can get things done. They work hard and love what they do, but they aren't magicians.

We need to move these conversations into conversations about change and not conversations about technology. Everything libraries do is about technology and what kind of service to roll-out is all tied together. It may put them on the cutting edge or the bleeding edge, it may put them on par with everyone else, or they can say it isn't right for them. The choice is made locally for that community. It shouldn't be implemented simply because someone else is doing it; it must be proven locally. Understanding the service to add or to change, knowing its impact on the library and staff, and understanding the return on investment are key pieces. A library needs to decide whether it is worth it to them.
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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Success is determined locally

All politics is local -Tip O'Neil

HAPLR (Hennen's American Public Library Ratings) has ranked public libraries based on several factors for many years. Attempting to compare libraries, apples to apples, by counting books checked out, walk-in business, program attendance, computer usage, and budget allocation among many other factors. Library Journal has also gotten in the game and provided their own ranking system. My interpretation of the intent is to reward libraries for doing a good job and to encourage other libraries to emulate their success.

Every year, libraries across the country must report to their state library.  This data is then sent to the Federal Government and posted at the National Center for Education Statistics (

A problem with the numbers
A major problem with this statistical measure is the reporting. Every library in the United States must report on a number of indicators every year to their state government. Sometimes these numbers determine funding from the state, sometimes it doesn't. The survey system isn't very clear in what it is asking and information collected locally doesn't always mesh with what is being asked. Some of the questions are dated and do not reflect how current libraries operate. Number of internet terminals and number of computer users are only very recent additions. "Reference questions asked" has not changed either even though many librarians are answering much more than that, particularly with technology, yet the federal government does not want that tracked.

Antiquated and confusing questions can result in numbers being way too high, way too low, or not reported. As demonstrated in the Library Journal controversy, it wasn't logical that a library had 16 million computer users in a 12 month period. There is quite a bit of data that may seem illogical, but since this information isn't attached to anything financially and libraries don't benefit from this scoring system there is no incentive to take this report seriously. Why then is everyone ranking libraries based on this data?

Statistics or Success
With Hennen and now Library Journal began ranking libraries, it seems to push an agenda, focusing on excellence based on statistics rather than on factors that actually lead to success. Success based on statistics cannot be emulated. Furthermore, placing stars for these libraries doesn't help their budgets or success locally nor does it reflect why they are successful. The information used in the scoring system is also very dated. Information available to Hennen and Library Journal are typically two or even three years behind. So the scoring for the library doesn't reflect what the library is doing currently, but what it was doing years ago.

It was one thing for a marker such as HAPLR to record the scores, it's another thing to star the libraries. It makes libraries focus on the wrong things, statistical markers. It also does something else. I remember when this information was first distributed and one library colleague commented:

Is it really stating that libraries aren't doing their jobs well? That they aren't successful? I enjoyed the discussion on PUB-LIB with my favorite coming from James Casey:

"Susan's gut instinct to look behind the statistics is most assuredly useful for any of us pondering the HAPLR and LJ rating results.  That is clearly evident when HAPLR gives bouquets of praise to libraries serving upscale, suburban communities such as Cuyahoga County (Suburban Cleveland) earning a rating of 893 and Baltimore County at 794 while those excellent public libraries serving large and often underprivileged urban populations draw abysmal scores like 293 for Detroit Public Library, 285 for Chicago Public Library and 385 for Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Public Library.  One has to look behind the statistics to get at reality.

If one were to examine only statistical and output measures in rating the performance of Presidents of the United States (for example), Lincoln would have to be considered one of the most inept and unsuccessful of our Presidents instead of being one of the greatest.  The thousands of deaths, enormous destruction of property, military blunders, idiot generals hired, civil liberties curtailed, etc. have to be considered within the context of the overwhelming difficulties and challenges he had to overcome just to save the Union and bring Slavery to an end.  ---  The work of urban libraries in struggling against ignorance, crime, shrinking property tax bases, crumbling schools, ward politics, etc. is just as heroic and certainly not fairly represented by such dismal scores as 285 and 293. 

Some libraries will never be ranked at the top. In fact, in the last ten years, the top ten libraries have been trading spaces, but few have gone off the list and few new libraries have gotten onto the list. What are the real factors behind this? Statistics can never demonstrate that. There are many factors to this success, many however, may not have anything to do with the library's performance. It might be the affluency of the community, the percentage of college educated patrons, or simply the local culture of the area. The library's success can be tied to the community's success and that is very difficult to measure.

Libraries make a difference in their communities/
Librarians are rock stars

I would agree with this statement. I think when librarians or library administration are noticed prominently in the community and respected that it is a true sign of library success. When the local rotary or Kiwanis group calls several times wanting your library director to speak at their next function,  when they are chomping at the bit to provide funding for the library, that organizations and businesses want to be included and fund your projects because it makes them look good, and when the youth librarians get mobbed by little kids Beatles-style when they are out and about in the community- those are signs of success and of librarians being rock stars.

According to an OCLC report From Awareness to Funding, those numbers are not what is important (you can read my lengthy analysis here). I think these statistics are unhelpful and distracting and we certainly shouldn't be awarding stars based on this data. It doesn't really compare libraries and doesn't explain why a library is more successful. Library success is really dependent upon the perception and support of the community, not from a national ranking system. It may give a bit of heft in a performance review, but people in your community coming forth supporting the need is far more powerful.

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