Rural and tribal libraries don't usually have the technical staff to make the most out of their existing broadband connections — or to advocate for faster broadband. But a pilot project could give them the skills they need to bring better broadband services to students and the general public.
A number of library associations are working together with nonprofit Internet2 and its member research and education networks on this project, including the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums; the American Library Association; the Association of Rural and Small Libraries; and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies.
Over the next nine months, the project team will develop a broadband network assessment toolkit and training program with a grant of just under $250,000 from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Then they'll pilot it in at least 30 rural and tribal libraries in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Washington, Alaska and Kansas.
Through this grant, these organizations want to help library staff understand what their broadband situation looks like, whether they're getting the broadband service they pay for and how well their internal connections are set up.
"We're really trying to help them be better advocates for what they need in terms of technology, but also be more knowledgeble consumers as well," said Susannah Spellman, Internet2's executive director of U.S. UCAN, a program that allows higher education institutions to help advance broadband in community anchor institutions such as libraries.
Because of the way contracts are often written, libraries pay for broadband up to a certain speed, but may actually get speeds much less than that. And oftentimes, they want to have faster broadband, but it's not for sale in their area. In rural areas, libraries may be the only source of public Wi-Fi available to the community.
That's a problem, especially when students get out of school and flood the library after 3 p.m. each day to use the computers. It's even more of a problem if the library only has one network for the public and staff to share. The broadband becomes so slow that library staff can't check out books using their online circulation systems. With little to no technical support in house, they wouldn't know to create two separate networks to handle this problem.
Within a few hours, the assessment tool will allow libraries to check their actual connection speed and find out how their network could be reconfigured to make the most out of the broadband coming into their building. The training materials will help educate library staff on what types of connections could work for them, how to choose the best option to meet the library's current and future demands, and what federal funding options are available.
While these considerations may seem simple, it's important to note that rural libraries only have a few employees, and they either don't have the resources to deal with these technological challenges or rely on volunteers to help them. By contrast, urban and suburban libraries typically have IT staff who can help them with broadband decisions.
Libraries have become public digital centers where people can find jobs, learn online and surf the Web. As such, it's imperative that they are armed with the information they need to partner with broadband service providers that can help them bring the best service to their community at a reasonable price.
"We have to move from this basic and inadequate connectivity to 21st-century broadband," said Kieran Hixon, board member at the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, as well as a technology and digital initiatives consultant for the Colorado State Library. "It's about e-books, it's about digital services, it's about understanding the world and being part of the world."