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Do We Need Libraries in an Ultra-Broadband World?

Last week, I attended a fascinating meeting in New York about the future of connectivity. Several panels of experts discussed what could be accomplished in a household with ultra-broadband, or, more specifically, with a connection speed of 1 Gbps (or roughly 1 billion bits per second). For a quick comparison, consider that broadband currently peeks at a few million bits per second, and for those readers still on dial-up run at a maximum of 56,000 bits per second.

So what can you do with the ultra-broadband connection? Well you can:

  • Stream 50 uncompressed High Definition videos at the same time;
  • Carry on several hundred voice over internet protocol (VOIP) calls simultaneously;
  • Download a DVD-quality movie in under a minute;
  • Participate in several HD quality video conferences;
  • Live in a “smart” house where you can login remotely to monitor your house, and control it remotely (Who wouldn’t want to be able to close that open window right before the unexpected rainstorm… from work?)

During lunch, one of the conversations at lunch dealt with the topic of the necessity of libraries in an ultrabroadband world. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was that libraries have already had this argument and that they have survived, not just as repositories of knowledge, but as access points to the connected world for email, instant messaging, online social networks, and e-government. I didn’t get a chance to respond much (and there was no talk of libraries in any of the panels), as the topic quickly changed, so here is an answer in a blog posting.

One of the panelists is a researcher that observes use of technology in households. He made two points in his discussion. One point is that television is not dead, nor will it ever go away. Instead, the computer will become the television and the television will become a computer and/or a computer monitor. One has to go no further than the gaming consoles for this. The other is that people enjoy simplicity in their home entertainment.

So, where do libraries fit into the equation? If the first panelist is correct, and people want simplicity in home entertainment, couldn’t a library become a place to experience higher end, more technical entertainment? My supposition is this:

Say you want to listen to Beethoven’s symphony at home. All you need to do is hit play on your computer (or audio player) and listen to the symphony in stereo (or even stream a live performance into your computer/TV). But, let’s say for a moment that you wish to experience the concert in High Definition Video/Audio, but do not have the necessary technical skills and/or connection to set this up. Where would you go? A place with the necessary bandwidth and equipment? Perhaps a cultural institution better known as your library? Added bonus: the ability to network in the real world with people that share your interest.

Another panelist made the point that with fast internet and small computers or identification devices, people will be able to walk up to a smart display with a small computer on their belt and wirelessly connect to a monitor, which in turn will connect them to the Internet and another computer at blazing fast speeds. (Think the revival of the dumb terminal). Doesn’t it make sense that a library would have several of these displays available for use for patrons? Just think, a child without a computer or monitor at home could connect to a server at school at their public library’s monitor and do their school work.

These uses described at the conference are a few years away. The role of the library hasn’t changed much: it is still an access point for knowledge, the Internet, and new technology. Public libraries are obsolete, according to some of the conversation. Hardly.

What do the readers of the District Dispatch think? Please leave your thoughts of how libraries will continue to be valuable in an ultrabroadband world by clicking on ‘leave a comment’ below.

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Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

One Comment

  1. There are a number of uses of libraries in an ultra broadband environment, and one of the most important is the library as a social, cultural, and reference hub. As a full-time freelance writer who blogs a great deal about libraries, I cannot imagine a more isolated, anomic existence than one which consisted of staying at home and downloading music or books! I use questionpoint’s IM services through the Seattle Public Library often, but I also make it a point to go to the library, to use the reference sections in person, and to attend the free lectures/readings by authors. There is something irreducibly human about that kind of contact- and ultra broadband at home is miles distant.

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