Online Data Usage in Victorian Public Libraries: An Empirical Analysis

Article excerpt

This paper investigates what drives online data use in 60 public library and council sites across Victoria. Simple measures such as hours of opening, the number of terminals and connection capacity are not sufficient to account for the variations in use across the sites. They do not provide adequate data for operational and policy planning. By analysing the internet data used over 12 months, and through case studies analysis, what drives internet data usage and how libraries can take greater control of their data requirements and costs are explored. Edited version of a paper given at the Vala conference Melbourne 2004

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The internet is playing an increasingly important role in the provision of library services. More information has been digitised and more databases are becoming available online. Users are also demanding more immediate access to information, by remote access, or access within a library branch. Victorian research suggests there is 'no evidence to support the proposition that the demand for public access [in public libraries] is plateauing or declining'. (1)

Providing internet access points, and delivering ever greater amounts of data to support this demand, is having an impact on library resources and budgets. It is therefore important for libraries to understand what types of usage drives internet data overheads. It is also important to then determine what funds, as well as policies, are required to support the ongoing increase in online services.

The internet and Victorian public libraries

Since June 2002 a growing number of Victorian public libraries has migrated to one or more of the Vicnet DSL, fibre, or wireless services that constitute Vicnet's eCommunity network. With an increase in bandwidth these libraries have found their use of the internet has risen, in some cases alarmingly so. This not only places a considerable strain on their budgets, it also leads to congested connections. The congestion can occur despite the libraries significantly upgrading bandwidth. Anecdotal information from other Australian states and territories suggests Victorian public libraries are using considerably more data than those interstate. This could be because the Victorian public librarians have migrated their branches to broadband connections earlier than their interstate colleagues. If this is the case, libraries in other parts of Australia may be faced with a similar situation. For this reason it is important to understand what has happened in Victoria. Lessons learnt from the Victorian experience can be applied to the wider library community.

Some Victorian libraries also claim that as the bandwidth increased, usage changed. There is the suggestion that this change in user behaviour increased data usage, and as a result the costs to libraries. Many of the eCommunity sites in this study migrated from the Vicnet shared one way satellite service (initially funded by the federal government's Networking the Nation program and Multimedia Victoria) with ISDN back channels. When connected to this satellite service these libraries 'experienced reasonably stable, or a slight growth, in bandwidth requirements'. (2) However the satellite connections only connected the main library branch. The other branches still used 128K, or more frequently 64K, ISDN connections. There were even some sites that used 64K permanent dialup connections. The issue of whether increases in bandwidth out to branches changes usage, and therefore bandwidth overheads, is intriguing. Understanding these changes should enable libraries to be better informed when making decisions on communication upgrades.

Planning imperatives

Bill Gates predicted that 'in just the next five years the communications bandwidth available in urban business areas will grow by a factor of 100 as network providers compete to connect concentrations of high user customers'. (3) Although Gates' prediction has not yet occurred for Australian public libraries, the increases have been significant. …