Online Data Usage in Victorian Public Libraries: An Empirical Analysis
Feighan, David, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
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
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.
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. They have also had an impact on costs. If, as Taylor predicts 'far from building information motorways, we are just about to begin building some A roads and a few B roads ... the computer industry is at about the same stage as the Model T Ford' (4) the imperative for libraries to plan and budget for even greater data increases is of utmost importance. With the introduction of ever more online library services, incorporating data rich multimedia, video on demand, and voice over IP, the library of the future could well look back to today's interact infrastructure in the same way we view vintage cars. What is at stake is public libraries continued participation in the building of the information economy's infrastructure.
If, as Hall notes, (5) this increase in IT infrastructure is part of Schumpeter's process of creative destruction which also necessarily involves bursts of infrastructure, libraries must continue to reposition themselves and the services they offer, to keep up with the current 20 or so year economic and technological cycle. Central to this process of strategic positioning is Porter's view (6) that organisations must ensure their online strategies are an integral, rather than a separate, part of their overall budget and strategic goal setting. Some libraries have already adopted this approach. 'At least one public library in Victoria (Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service) now treats its interact services as another branch and as such internet services are staffed
and budgeted accordingly.' (7)
The e-rate proposal
The Australian Senate's Libraries in the online Environment (8) report of 2003 and the 2000 Report on a policy for public access to the internet for Victoria (9) by Trinitas for Multimedia Victoria, investigate the equity and sustainability of public interact access. The seventh recommendation of the Senate report is that
(a) the Australian government negotiate with telecommunications carriers to establish an e-rate or discount for broadband access to public libraries and that, if negotiations are not successful, consider imposing a requirement on carriers under the Universal Service Obligation; and
(b) that further funds be allocated under an expanded National Broadband Strategy for expanding broadband access in libraries
The e-rate proposal is based on the US precedent. However the Preliminary analysis of public library e-rate data: 1999-2002 shows that public libraries in the US have only ever received between 3-4 per cent of the e-rate subsidy. Oder also reports
because there is a federal cap to e-rate funds of USD$2.25 billion, not all requests are fully awarded. In 2002, for example, 89 per cent of library applicants received e-rate funds, but only 52 per cent of the discount dollars requested were granted. Well over half the e-rate funds goes to telecomm services, while the remainder goes to internet access and internal connections. (10)
Similar funding caps and restrictions applied to an Australian e-rate scheme, would impose a considerable burden on public libraries. This would be particularly true if the Victorian experience of data increases is repeated nationally. During the 12 month study period the Victorian public libraries experienced increases of between 14% and 237% in total data usage, with the average increase being 110%. It is difficult to see Australian governments being willing to subsidise data rates if the data overheads required to support library services double every 12 months. Government may be better served by subsidising circuit costs, as these tend to be more stable.
Whilst not discounting an e-rate program for Australia, libraries should also consider strategic peering options, where the data can be transmitted free of charge. Libraries then need only pay for the circuit costs and the data sourced from outside the peering network. Vicnet has already started this process with its eCommunity network. This network may prove a useful model for libraries other states and territories.
The benefit of peering for governments is that as bandwidth use increases, there is no additional burden to increase subsidies when the data is being drawn from a peering partner. The Western Australian Interact Association and Victorian Interact Exchange or Vix (of which Vicnet is a member) have been proactive in establishing peering relationships in their states.
In Victoria, peering may also play a role in the Victorian government's Telecommunications Purchasing and Management Strategy (Tpams) project. Nationally, the National Office for the Information Economy (Noie) was considering a demand aggregation broker program. Given the increased reliance on internet data, libraries should consider what role these peering bodies or projects will play in the future. Libraries also need to consider how they will align themselves with these emerging projects.
It is also important for libraries to better understand the service elements of various broadband delivery methods and the associated costs. The Dandolopartners report by Adams and Meagher for the Australian Communication Authority identified customer unawareness and lack of standardised information from vendors as one of the main reasons there is so much confusion and disputes relating to broadband service deliverables and costs. It noted 'some consumers, attracted by the promise of speed, seek the best price, without fully understanding the restrictions on speed and downloading'. (11)
As libraries increasingly depend on their internet connections for mission critical applications such as catalogue traffic and staff email, understanding and dealing with the cost of bandwidth capacity will only become more important.
This paper focuses on the delivery and use of interact data by a sample of the connected public libraries in metropolitan Melbourne and rural Victoria. The study looks at what is driving their internet data usage. It also looks at what network and policy changes libraries have adopted in order to take greater control over their data usage. It is hoped that by making this information available to the wider public library community, all library services will be better informed, and better placed, to protect themselves from data and budget blowouts.
Libraries may also be placed to protect themselves against inappropriate, or illegal, use of their internet connections. Furthermore, it is hoped that the libraries will be better placed to implement policies and procedures that provide a high level of online services to users, whilst still keeping control of costs.
Background information …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Online Data Usage in Victorian Public Libraries: An Empirical Analysis. Contributors: Feighan, David - Author. Journal title: Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services. Volume: 17. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2004. Page number: 134+. © 2008 Auslib Press Party Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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