:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Free as a Bird: Wireless Networking Libraries


   My first time was on a Gale bus. It was during the recent annual
   conference of the American Library Association, while traveling between
   the Georgia World Congress Center and my hotel. I was nervous and
   uncertain, but it turned out to be both easier than I thought and
   incredibly fulfilling. While the bus rolled through downtown Atlanta, I
   opened my laptop, connected to a wireless network, and sent and
   received e-mail.

   To this day, I do not know who owned the wireless access point I
   connected to. It is unlikely they knew that, for a minute or two, I
   borrowed a small portion of their network bandwidth. The result was
   that I was able to communicate when I needed to. I call this my
   'wireless epiphany.' One definition of epiphany is 'a sudden intuitive
   leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking

   Now I understand the power and freedom that wireless makes possible.
   Wireless, however, is far from new to me; for two years I have used it
   at home. I have a Macintosh PowerBook with a wireless card and an Apple
   Airport base station connected to my DSL service. I can roam just about
   anywhere on my quarter-acre lot while happily surfing the net. But what
   I never experienced until Atlanta was the freedom of connecting out in
   the wide world, without paying a dime.

   'Ah hah!' you say, 'he's trying to make a virtue out of stealing.' In
   that specific situation you may be right. But there are movements afoot
   to provide free and open wireless networks in a number of communities,
   including the San Francisco Bay area where I live. As I was enjoying
   the afterglow of my wireless epiphany in Atlanta, I wondered why
   libraries shouldn't be a part of this.
   The library potential

   What are libraries about if not open access to information? With the
   web and the Internet playing such large roles in how we access and use
   information today, providing open access to a major information
   resource would seem a logical step. Just think-whenever people with a
   wireless card are on the road, they could go to the local public
   library and jack in. The library wouldn't even have to be open; they
   could sit outside in the sun and connect.

   But while the idea of providing free bandwidth may still be a bit
   radical-especially for libraries struggling to pay for basic
   services-there are a number of libraries using this technology to serve
   their primary clientele better. It is no surprise, given the prevalence
   of portable computers among college students, that the early adopters
   are largely academic libraries. (For more information on libraries and
   wireless services, see '[131]The Pros and Cons of Wireless Networks '
   in the Summer 2002 netConnect.)
   Early adopters

   It would be hard to find a more wireless-ready library than the
   University of California at San Diego. All its libraries offer wireless
   access, and some even circulate wireless network cards and/or laptops.
   Users of the wireless network are required to sign in, but frequent
   wireless users can register their wireless device so they never need to
   enter a user name and password.

   At the University of Texas Health Science Center Library, San Antonio,
   users must also register their wireless cards to access the network.
   Once that is completed, they can go anywhere in the library and be
   connected. With additional software, they can also send print jobs to a
   central printing facility for 10 cents per page.

   The help pages at the University of South Florida, Tampa, explain in
   great detail, complete with screen shots, how to configure computers to
   access the campus wireless network. The maps of wireless coverage are
   particularly instructive for those new to this technology, as they show
   the approximate boundary of coverage from the wireless access point on
   each floor. These maps basically tell wireless users where to sit to
   get the best signal or even any signal at all.

   Academic libraries, in a number of cases, are simply following their
   university's plans to roll out wireless access across campus, and
   libraries are the obvious place to start. EDUCAUSE, the higher
   education computing association, highlights a number of campus wireless
   initiatives in its Current Issues page on the Wireless Campus.
   Certainly wireless service makes great sense for these libraries, given
   the generally large number of laptop users on campuses. The list of
   libraries that offer wireless connections at the Wireless Librarian web
   site contains few public libraries. Since a wireless access point can
   be had for around $100, it seems like a cheap service for public
   libraries to provide.
   Security concerns

   Libraries of any type that want to offer this service need to address
   security issues, including people getting on the network who don't
   belong there and people listening in on those who are on the network.
   In the former instance, if you choose to offer an open service, you
   won't need to block the unauthorized user. If you do not want an open
   service, you will need to require authorization, as most academic
   libraries do. Security breaches of the latter type, however, affect us
   all. New standards are in the pipeline that will address these security
   Wireless standards

   The standard that defines the wireless technology in wide use today is
   802.11b, part of a family of 802.11 protocols. It is generically called
   'Wi-Fi' in the popular press. The 802.11b standard offers indoor
   communication speeds of up to 11 Mbps (megabits per second) for several
   hundred feet from an access point; outdoor connectivity can extend to
   several miles. Factors such as barriers and certain kinds of materials
   can affect the signal distance and strength. The 802.11a standard will
   offer faster speeds (up to 54 Mbps) later this year but probably over
   shorter distances.

   Security is being addressed in the 802.11i standard, which is due to be
   ratified this summer, and we should see products that support 802.11i
   late in the fall. For more information on the standards, see the IEEE
   site (for the official documents) and 802.11b Networking News (for the
   talk on the street).
   Not global, only local

   At one time, there was a common vision of wireless Internet access
   being provided by satellites-thus ensuring a constantly available
   connection from just about anywhere on the planet. That vision has yet
   to come to fruition and may never happen. But the current situation of
   pools of connectivity provided by wireless access points is a good
   start. Libraries, as organizations focused on free and open access to
   information, have every reason to be at the forefront of this

Link List

   The Wireless Campus

   802.11b Networking News

   IEEE 802.11
   Wireless Standard

   UCSD Wireless Connectivity

   Univ. of South Florida
   Map of Wireless Access

   Univ. of South Florida Wireless

   Univ. of Texas Health Science
   Center Library Wireless

   Wireless Librarian