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Libraries go beyond wires

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Wireless technology is helping researchers to get more out of their libraries and is even influencing the choice of furniture in the British Library’s café, writes Siân Harris

We all know how much difference computers have made to the way that research is carried out. Now, instead of just trawling through volumes of books or journals, researchers can search databases and view reference material online. Libraries now have banks of computer terminals, and also enable access from other PCs within their institutions.

Wireless technology is extending the traditional boundaries of the British Library

This all sounds like fairly comprehensive coverage but there is a gap: what if researchers want to use both print and electronic media side-by-side? Typically, there is not much room to spread out documents alongside the computer terminals in libraries. What’s more, the communal PCs will not contain a researcher’s own work documents or research results. They might also, for security or other reasons, block access to the internet or email, which reduces the ease with which research information can be part of the day-to-day pattern of work. And all this is assuming that the user can get on a library computer in the first place – something that could be a challenge when the deadlines for undergraduate projects are looming, for example.

The rise of laptops

Al fresco connections: WLAN in the British Library's cafes is proving popular

With these factors in mind, users are increasingly bringing their own laptops with them when they come to the library. These enable the researchers to input their findings directly into the papers that they are writing and to compare other studies with their own research. They also mean that researchers can sit where they like, with the best access to the physical materials that they need. And, from the library’s perspective, it reduces the hardware costs because they don’t have to provide or support so much equipment.

All that is needed to make the researchers’ laptops the ideal tools is access to the internet and to users’ email. For this reason many libraries are starting to turn to wireless local-area network (WLAN) technology and this was the topic of a new one-day conference at the Library+information show that was held recently in Birmingham, UK.

WLAN technology (often given the name WiFi) gives high data-rate connections to the internet without the need for cabling. All that is required on the part of the user is a WiFi card in their laptop and some sort of permission to use the system.

A server and some access points such as those from Bluesocket are all the hardware that a library needs

The network itself is almost as straightforward: the library just needs a central server to manage the resources and some access points that send and receive data between the server and the connected computers. According to Neil Johnson, managing director of Insight Media Internet Ltd, the number of access points depends on the size of the installation; a small public library might have just one or two access points while a WLAN to cover a major university library with several floors might have six to 10 and an installation to cover a large university campus could have as many as 50 access points.

The final hardware component is a connection to the wider internet. 'The challenge is whether the library wants to utilise its current telecoms infrastructure, which means that it must consider security issues, or establish a new telecoms infrastructure and keep the WLAN independent. Our solution works either way,’ said Johnson. He does not, however, see security as a big concern because this protection is built into standard WiFi products. Similarly, the system can be plugged into standard filtering products so that the library can prevent users accessing, for example, pornography while they are on the library’s premises. 'You need an individual audit trail. You need a system to restrict or bar users if they are doing things that are inappropriate,’ explained Johnson.

Another software issue is authentication; the library needs to know who is accessing the systems and what resources they are entitled to use. Fortunately, this is already handled by the library-management system. This can allow laptop-users connected over the WLAN the same access to e-journals and databases that they would have if they were connected via one of the library terminals.

This is all fairly simple to set up, according to Johnson. 'Our normal lead time for installing a WLAN is six to eight weeks but we have done it in less than a week,’ he said.

Weighing up the costs

He sees libraries as an interesting market for WLANs but concedes that it is quite slow. He attributes this slowness to the lengthy decision-making and budgeting processes rather than a lack of interest from libraries. 'We have installed 15 to 20 WLAN installations in UK libraries, but there are around 50 to 60 others that are currently looking at and evaluating the technology from our company and others,’ he said.

As with many library purchases, the cost plays a major role in whether and when a library will install a WLAN. According to Johnson, the cost depends on the size of the environment. He estimates the total costs for a typical academic library to be around £6,000, depending on how many access points it has.

The costs are similar from WLAN manufacturer Bluesocket. 'A medium-sized library with, say, six access points could get controller and access points for £4,200 but they would have to pay somebody to put it in,’ said Jim Calderbank, who is responsible for Bluesocket’s channel development and strategy. Bluesocket takes a slightly different role in the industry from that of Insight Media Internet. Instead of installing the library’s WLAN itself, Bluesocket partners with resellers such as library-management-system giant, Sirsi Dynix.

Through this partnership the company has already gained plenty of experience in North America. 'Within Europe, WLAN in libraries is still in the early stages. There is much more going on in the USA,’ Calderbank explained.

A library’s story

One of the first European research libraries to get WLAN coverage was the British Library, which went live with a two-month free trial of its system in April 2004. 'We realised that many people were coming in with their own laptops,’ said John de Lucy, head of estate and facilities. 'We also found that people were increasingly checking their emails using their mobile phones or leaving the site, even sometimes returning to their homes, in order to check emails.’ The fixed terminals in the British Library’s reading room cannot be used to access email, although they are the only way that users can access the British Library’s electronic holdings.

There were also external factors behind the British Library's decision to explore WLAN. 'We are physically based in an area where people come to do research and conference. We are next to a planned Eurostar station, which is likely to become a WiFi hotspot, and a large area of office development,’ said de Lucy.

Although the systems from Insight Media Internet and Bluesocket include the ability to charge for the service, most of their customers have installed WLANs as a free service to their users. However, the British Library has adopted a different model. As de Lucy explained, 'there was a surprising amount of interest [in the free trial] so we moved to a chargeable model. Things to do with the British Library are free, but users pay to access the internet and email.’ The reason for this approach was financial: 'We had no budget or pre-arranged strategy for WLAN so we found a partner, Building Zone, which funded and set up the WLAN and then we share the revenue. There are a range of different tariffs but the monthly rate, which many people use, works out at just over £1 per day.’

So, two years on from launch, what have been the biggest challenges for the library? 'Initially, it was a new thing for people and the help telephone number was used quite a bit,’ said de Lucy. 'Now that people are more familiar with the technology this has settled down.’ Another lesson that the library learnt was to provide more detail about how to use WLAN in its brochure. This issue is important because, although Building Zones monitors usage, the library itself does not have any staff allocated to supporting the WLAN.

Over time, the area covered by the WLAN has also expanded. 'Initially we were nervous to take it into the reading rooms in case people started to use them like a home office so we just took it to the public areas such as the cafés,’ said de Lucy. However, at the request of users, the reading rooms are also now covered by WLAN.

Technology affects furniture design

A new way of working requires different furniture

This move has not removed the need for WLAN in other areas. As de Lucy explained, 'The reading rooms are quiet so people cannot collaborate or use their mobile phones there. We are therefore finding that people like to use this technology for working in the café.’ And this has led to an interesting side-effect of the technology – the realisation that the café furniture was not very good for using laptops and other WiFi-enabled devices. 'There was not room to spread out other material around the laptop, and there was no power – so people were using the power sockets designed to be used by the cleaners,’ said de Lucy. The library has therefore rethought its furniture and introduced a range of chairs and tables in the café area that include power and more work space.

These are not likely to be the last changes that libraries such as the British Library see. PDAs and, more recently, mobile phones have started to include WiFi capabilities. Voice-over-IP technology is growing in popularity as a way to make cheap phone calls over the internet. Meanwhile the information to be accessed and its delivery methods are also evolving. With a careful eye on such developments, the library could become more central to the research process than ever before.