Wireless Networks in Medium-Sized Academic Libraries: A National Survey

By Barnett-Ellis, Paula; Charnigo, Laurie | Information Technology and Libraries, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Wireless Networks in Medium-Sized Academic Libraries: A National Survey


Barnett-Ellis, Paula, Charnigo, Laurie, Information Technology and Libraries


This study focuses on the adoption and use of wireless technology by medium-sized academic libraries, based on responses from eighty-eight institutions. Results indicate that wireless networks are already available in many medium-sized academic libraries and that respondents from these institutions feel this technology is beneficial.

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Wireless networking offers a way to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile, tech-savvy student population. While many research libraries offer wireless access to their patrons, academic libraries serving smaller populations must heavily weigh both the potential benefits and disadvantages of this new technology. Will wireless networks become essential components of the modern academic library, or is this new technology just a passing fad? Prompted by plans to implement a wireless network at the Houston Cole Library (HCL) (Jacksonville State University's [JSU's] library), which serves a student enrollment close to ten thousand, this study was conducted to gather information about whether libraries similar in size and mission to HCL have adopted wireless technology. The study also sought to find out what, if any, problems other libraries have encountered with wireless networks and how successful they have perceived those networks to be. Other questions addressed include level of technical support offered, planning, type of equipment used to access the network, and patron-use levels.

Review of Literature

A review of the literature on wireless networks revealed a number of articles on wireless networks and checkout programs for laptop computers at large research institutions. Seventy percent of major research libraries surveyed by Kwon and Soules in 2003 offered some degree of wireless access to their networks. (1) No articles, however, specifically addressed the use of wireless networks in medium-sized academic libraries. Many articles can also be found on wireless-network use in medical libraries and other institutions. Library instruction using wireless classrooms and laptops has been another subject of inquiry as well.

Breeding wrote that there are a number of successful uses for wireless technology in libraries, and a wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) can be a natural extension of existing networks. He added that since it is sometimes difficult to install wiring in library buildings, wireless is more cost effective. (2) A yearly survey conducted by the Campus Computing Project found that the number of schools planning for and deploying wireless networks rose dramatically from 2002 to 2003. "For example, the portion of campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks rose to 45.5 percent in fall 2003, up from 34.7 percent in 2002 and 24.3 percent in 2001." (3)

The use of wireless access in academia is expected to keep growing. According to a summary of a study conducted by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR), the higher-education community will keep investing in the technology infrastructure, and institutions will continue to refine and update networks. The move toward wireless access "represents a user-centered shift, providing students and faculty with greater access than ever before." (4)

In an article on ubiquitous computing, Drew provides a straightforward look at how WLANs work, security issues, planning, and the uses and ramifications of wireless technology in libraries. He suggests, "Perhaps one of the most important reasons for implementing wireless networking across an entire campus or in a library is the highly mobile lifestyle of students and faculty." The use of wireless will only increase with the advent of new portable devices, he added. Wireless networking is the best and least expensive way for students, faculty, and staff to take their office with them wherever they go. (5)

The circulation of laptop computers is a frequent topic in the available literature. The 2003 study by Kwon and Soules primarily focused on laptop-lending services in academic-research libraries. …

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