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CHAPTER 4 - Closing the Bandwidth-Imagination Gap

The bandwidth-imagination gap is not unlike the phenomenon that often occurs when organizations encounter significant innovation. Electricity took a long time to have an impact on industrial practice and productivity because businesses had to reimagine and redesign factories to reap the rewards of a new way to power factories. Prior to CENIC, many libraries—especially rural ones—operated in a slow broadband environment (often 10 Mbps). Such slow speeds made it difficult to check out a book and offer public Wi-Fi at the same time. In those situations, CENIC brings important improvements in operational efficiency. Yet implementing operational improvements may come at the expense of a more strategic approach focused on building for tomorrow and “dreaming big” about novel uses of bandwidth to serve library patrons and communities.

To highlight ways to close the bandwidth-imagination gap, participants focused on what some California libraries have already done with CENIC bandwidth.

Virtual Reality: Bringing virtual reality (VR) technology into libraries is a prominent theme in several California libraries connected to CENIC. At the Marin County Free Library, interest in VR began in 2016 as a way to expand educational opportunities in the county. Although the bandwidth that the CENIC network brings was a necessary condition to get the ball rolling in Marin, it was not sufficient. For starters, the library needed funding for computing equipment and other peripherals that make VR systems work. The California State Library provided a grant to help the library purchase computers with sufficient capacity to handle VR software. The initiative also needed additional equipment and educational content for VR. For that, partnerships were paramount. The library entered into a relationship with Oculus, a maker of VR hardware and software, and HTC Vive, a VR equipment maker.

Virtual reality is also a programming theme in the Los Angeles Public Library. At the LAPL, linking VR to education is part of the library’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) programming. Similar to Marin County libraries, LAPL uses Oculus and HTC Vive products for programming, with a particular interest in using the technology for immersive learning.

Using VR for these purposes requires imagination but also other assets, such as partnerships with companies who make VR gear to procure this equipment for libraries.

Another VR initiative at the Chula Vista Public Library has an intergenerational focus. The library’s “One Mile” program refers to the familiar phrase of “walking a mile in another person’s shoes” to convey the importance of understanding someone else’s point of view. The project uses virtual reality, video, and story-telling to connect immigrants in the United States to their countries of origin. One application has grandparents and grandchildren using virtual reality goggles to jointly take a walk through, say, Mexico City (where the grandparent grew up).

Gaming and Rural Libraries: Like many library systems in California, the Sacramento Public Library has a diverse set of interests it has to serve; rural areas come into play prominently. Some two-thirds of its 28 libraries have CENIC connections and several rural ones are still unconnected. However, one CENIC-connected library in the town of Galt shows how bandwidth can impact the community’s library services. The CENIC bandwidth has enabled gaming programs for young students in Galt, many of whom come from low-income households. Some 12-14 kids at a time gather in the town’s library to play Minecraft, using connectivity and hardware that they lack at home. Not only do they learn about technology while having fun, the program helps foster a sense of community in Galt, as many of the kids (and their parents who often accompany them) have met each other for the first time through this program.

Learning: This foundational part of the library’s mission can take on new meaning when a library has abundant bandwidth. In Sacramento, the library has used the service Twitch to host author visits for book releases. The CENIC bandwidth makes this possible, as the service offers dedicated channels for an author to deliver remarks. It also allows the audience assembled at a library to have an interactive experience with the writer. Similarly, the Los Angeles Public Library used its high-speed network to host a gathering of the community to watch the landing of NASA’s Insight craft on Mars.

Real-time cultural events are another use of CENIC bandwidth for libraries to consider, leveraging the symmetrical nature of the network. As one example, the San Mateo County Library let users view a live stream of the Music of Michael Jackson event put on by the SFJAZZ Collective. In a state with a large variety of cultural institutions, such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and more, there is ample opportunity to share those amenities with communities across the state using the CENIC network.

Rural libraries may face barriers in developing interactive learning programs, in part because of scarce staff resources in smaller libraries. In Sutter County, there is a clear desire at the library to roll out interactive learning programs, using content from places such as The Exploratorium in San Francisco or the Library of Congress. However, the capacity for more digital programs does not automatically translate into such programs if staff does not have the time to run them. If it is not possible to hire new staff, then library leadership has to consider shifting staff responsibilities from old functions to new ones. That is not always possible, or possible to do quickly, even when new digitally-oriented programming ideas present themselves.

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