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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Patrons Continue to Depend on Libraries to Stay Connected

According to the 2010 State of the Internet report, approximately 1.8 billion people use the internet every day.1 And with the economy still staggering, more people are cancelling their internet subscriptions and turning to libraries to stay connected. One man in South Florida reports saving over $700 a year by cancelling his home internet subscription, utilizing his local library to access the web.2

Even patrons who have internet access at home continue to use wireless networks provided by local libraries. “Over the past year, 45% of the 169 million visitors to public libraries connected to the internet using a library computer or wireless network during their visit, even though more than three quarters of these people had internet access at home, work, or elsewhere.”3 Because more and more individuals are turning to libraries for more than just physical materials, it is important to be able to provide a dependable network.

Optimizing Bandwidth
Internet slowdowns occur when the total amount of bandwidth demanded exceeds the amount actually available. For example, patrons using mobile devices and laptops can bog down the speed of the internet as well as those viewing streaming media. Even as libraries increase their bandwidth—51.8% of libraries report offering speeds greater than 1.5mbps, up from 44.5% from last year—it still may not be enough for optimal browsing.4

Currently, nearly 60% of public libraries report inadequate internet connection speeds to meet patron demand.5 And as complex internet applications and services continue to grow, in addition to the rampant rise of Smartphones there is a good chance that percentage will increase as well.

Instead of fighting congested bandwidth with more bandwidth, libraries can implement a network traffic shaper. Network traffic shaping or packet shaping is a way to ensure that every user receives the same priority. If one computer is using the network heavily, its packets are delayed so that others are given equal access.6 Additionally, web caching software can help improve page load times. These programs save copies of recently accessed web pages on the hard drive. The next time someone accesses the same page it will load more quickly because it is not being pulled down from a remote server.7

Web Services
Over the next two years, the internet will see the biggest programming overhaul the web has ever seen: HTML5. It will have higher security features and faster load times. However, some browsers will not be able to handle the new web format. Therefore, libraries will have to upgrade their browsers. Test how compatible your browsers will be in the future here.

Mobile technologies have made it easier to access the web anywhere and at anytime. Global mobile data traffic is projected to double every year through 2013.8 Currently, the technology exists for users with a simple 3G connection to access eBooks and multimedia content via local libraries. Therefore, libraries will be able to reach more patrons in the future by incorporating mobile technologies into their library services. Visit our previous blog post, Mobile Technologies to Push Library Limits, to read more about ways to incorporate mobile technologies into your library.

Cloud Computing
According to OCLC’s Matt Goldner, cloud computing is vital to the success of libraries. By not working in the cloud, Goldner believes, “Librarians will risk losing patrons.” He continues to say that, “The cloud is to IT what Google is to libraries—motivation to maintain relevance.”9

Cloud computing is a web-based process where information is stored on outside servers, instead of in-house. Subscribing to multiple clouds provides a cost effective way for libraries to run/complement their IT systems. In the cloud, outside companies rent out their servers, software, and infrastructures. This eliminates the need for costly maintenance updates.

Additionally, there is a low risk for downtime or data loss. Hosts like Amazon EC2 have tested security measures and are able to implement new software releases in a timely manner. Google is useful to track statistics, maintain calendars, and collect responses from web forms. And OCLC’s Web Management Service keeps a universal, up-to-date central vendor database so that staff members can spend more time helping patrons and less time updating vendor lists. Even discussions during a “Designing Library Services for the Cloud” session at last year’s LITA Forum alluded that eventually, through cloud computing, library cards may be standardized so that they can be used at any library, like debit cards.9

Before outsourcing though, libraries should consider the reliability of working in a cloud. For example, if an outsourced system goes down, so do all of the websites, data, and potentially business-critical applications they are hosting. In addition, clouds are more vulnerable to hacking, which could expose sensitive patron information. But because computing clouds are flexible, libraries can chose to host their own systems while using the cloud for less sensitive processes like library websites, backing up media collections, and storing and accessing bibliographic data.

It is important to stay up-to-date on the latest network enhancers, whether applying a network traffic shaper, embracing mobile technology, moving responsibilities into the cloud, or simply updating browsers. Falling behind will cause faithful patrons to turn elsewhere to access employment opportunities, health-care information, government resources, and the latest news and to connect with distant family and friends. Every library is different, so implementing a combination of these techniques based on your needs may be your best resort.

How has your library approached network reliability? Does your library use network shapers or cloud computing? Share your experiences here as comments.

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