A Primer for California Public Libraries

by Dan Theobald
Principal Consultant
i2i Communications

Toward the end of the 1990s, a consortium of US universities and corporations began to develop a new, more reliable, and faster data transport network in response to congestion on the Internet. This next-generation, ultra-broadband network is known as Internet2.

The California segment of Internet2 is called CalREN-2, and is operated by CENIC (the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California), a not-for profit corporation. CalREN-2 is a Wide-Area Network (WAN) linking the University of California and other research and higher education institutions, and is interconnected with 4Cnet, a similar network serving the California State University and the California Community Colleges systems. In addition to offering access to advanced services exclusive to the network, CalREN-2 links its customers to the commercial Internet.

CENIC is now in the process of expanding CalREN-2 access beyond the higher education community. One of its initiatives, the Digital California Project, is extending California’s Internet2 infrastructure to link up K-12 schools in every county. Further down the road – and the focus of this backgrounder – is the goal of opening California’s Internet2 network to access by public libraries. The purpose of this backgrounder is to provide an overview of Internet2’s ultra-broadband capabilities, possible applications for public libraries, and some of the cost and connectivity issues.

What’s so special about Internet2?

Internet2 offers two primary advantages over the commercial Internet:
• Higher bandwidth, offering data transfer speeds up to 1000 times faster than the commercial Internet
• Bandwidth reservation, meaning applications that require large transfers of data can be assured a smooth path through the network with very low latency (i.e., delays imposed on data bits en route)

The area that will provide the widest benefit and largest aggregate usage of Internet2 network capacity is digital video, which requires too much dedicated bandwidth for high quality transmission over the regular Internet. Video-based applications cover everything from videoconferencing to on-demand content to remote control of microscopes and other optical instruments.

Multimedia Archives Come Online

The regular Internet is adequate for digital library systems providing access to online catalogs, abstracting and indexing databases, and primary content such as journals in electronic formats. However, Internet2 offers important opportunities to move the digital library into new areas. Very high bandwidth and bandwidth reservation will allow currently exotic materials such as continuous digital video and audio to move from research use to much broader availability. Graphic images, audio, and video can move into the mainstream occupied almost exclusively by textual materials.

Because many already have access to Internet2 networks, academic libraries are paving the way for public libraries in the arena of online multimedia archiving. A national initiative called Internet2 Digital Video is underway to pioneer the delivery of live and stored high-quality video. Internet2-DV will provide a means to license, store, and distribute the video from courses, informal lectures, documentaries, and videoconferences among member universities. Additionally, the initiative is developing archiving and search capabilities for video libraries.

Among California college and university libraries, high bandwidth is becoming essential for handling the increasingly graphic-intensive nature of today’s curriculum and academic research efforts. Information sources now contain graphics and video – huge files that can take hours to download over conventional networks. Online magazines and textbooks often include large music, video, or sound files.

At the K-12 level, school libraries are subscribing to companies that provide video content integrated with lesson plans, user guides and quizzes. Since the files are so large, this content is usually downloaded and stored on a school’s or district’s server; with Internet2, the content could be housed in a central location and served on-demand to users statewide.

A significant benefit of Internet2 is that it will allow public libraries to offer online access to primary source materials created in media other than print. A striking example is the thousands of videotapes created by the Shoah Foundation from interviews with Holocaust survivors and rescuers (although it’s unclear how widely Shoah intends to open its archives). Another project, UC Berkeley’s Conversations with History, provides web-based access to a collection of videotaped interviews with distinguished people from around the world who reminisce about their participation in great events, share their perspectives on the past, and reflect on the future.

Search-and-Retrieval Gets Smarter

As the sea of online resources becomes more vast and complex, navigational tools must become more sophisticated. The regular Internet does not have the bandwidth to allow for advanced services that help digital library users manage raw information resources and organize data into knowledge.

The goal of the Digital Library Interoperability project, led by UC Berkeley and other institutions of higher education, is to utilize Internet2 bandwidth to build a "third layer of infrastructure" above Internet for users of digital libraries. Advanced tools will give users the power to conduct intelligent searches, and manipulate and analyze knowledge bases. The California Digital Library eventually will put the new tools and services into everyday use for Internet2 users.

A more targeted project is Pacific Lighthouse, a collaboration between CENIC and the University of Washington to make available integrated, digitally archived multimedia materials to K-20 teachers and learners on demand. Content will include media from libraries, museums, cultural history organizations, private curriculum providers, radio stations, and other repositories of educational materials. Many of these source materials already have been digitized, but not made widely available because of bandwidth limitations on the commercial Internet.

Search-and-Retrieval Gets Easier

Even as search technologies are getting “smarter” as a result of increased bandwidth, they are simultaneously getting more user-friendly and intuitive. This is because ultra-broadband networks allow for the introduction of complex, high-resolution graphics and animation into the user interfaces of information retrieval systems.

To date, these system interfaces have been primarily textual, just as the digital libraries that they search have been dominated by textual material. While language and, hence, text will continue to be the major tool for retrieving information, advanced information visualization technologies will offer substantial help to users in organizing, navigating, and comprehending large complex information systems. These techniques will provide visual representations of large amounts of information in much the same way that supercomputer-based visualization has helped scientists over the past decade to gain new insights into large numeric datasets and simulation outputs.

Internet2 should provide sufficient performance to the desktop to permit the incorporation of information visualization technologies into broad-based information retrieval applications. This advance has added significance in a public library environment, where many patrons have trouble operating in a textual environment due to poor English language skills or low literacy levels.

Search- and-Retrieval Gets A Human Face

Internet2 also will make it possible for public libraries to provide real-time reference assistance or other help via high-quality videoconferencing as part of a user interface. Real-time virtual assistance is available today, but is usually limited to text-based interactions such as email or chat. A vision of what may be possible in the future is suggested by a project at the National City Public Library, where the reference desk is connected via video link to other parts of the library, as well as to local K-12 school libraries.

The “Distance” Disappears with Distance Learning and Collaboration

Public libraries increasingly are using videoconferencing for in-service training and staff recruiting. However, wider adoption of the technology has been held back by the expense associated with ISDN phone lines and long distance charges. Videoconferencing over the existing Internet eliminates the telephone charges, but is of unpredictable quality due to the lack of bandwidth reservation; packets of video data can be delayed in transit resulting in fractured picture quality or erratic sound. Videoconferencing over Internet2 will address both those issues. Video signals will travel at flat rates over the network, and bandwidth reservation will assure low latency, meaning picture quality will approach that of full-motion digital video.

Access to Internet2’s robust bandwidth also will produce significant improvement in the visual quality and reliability of webcasting (or also known as videostreaming), a distance learning technology introduced to public libraries through the California State Library’s Rural Initiative in 2001.

Because of its capacity to transport realistic video and sound, Internet2 will help facilitate the development of technologies for distance education and collaboration that closely approximate the experience of “being there.” Video-based interaction, the ability to work simultaneously on shared documents, and other real-time collaboration with remote peers will reduce isolation, help build interpersonal connections, and produce a more natural learning experience. Course designers will be able to use a full variety of approaches and materials to meet diverse learning styles.

Internet2 also will provide the bandwidth and the testbed for development and delivery of exciting new tools for distance education. For example, work is underway on distributed 3-D interactive simulation that will allow students to touch and manipulate virtual objects remotely, in real-time, from multiple sites. Even further along the “wow!” curve is tele-immersion, a new medium for human interaction that approximates the illusion that a user is in the same physical space as people who are in fact far away. It combines the display and interaction techniques of virtual reality with new vision technology that transcends the limitations of traditional cameras.

Helping Patrons Vault the Digital Divide

Just as the public library pioneered the provision of public points for Internet access, it is likely to be one of the few public access venues for cutting-edge Internet2 applications. In keeping with the public library’s role in bridging the digital divide, social policy may argue for connection to Internet2 for the purpose of affording citizen access. Libraries may be able to offset some of the costs of Internet2 connectivity by offering for-fee services to the business community, such as access to full-motion videoconferencing and videosteaming.

Networking for Prop 14

Proposition 14, the Library Bond Act of 2000, has made available $350 million in state funding over the next several years for public library remodeling and construction. First priority for funding new libraries will be given to applicants that have a cooperative agreement with their local school districts to engage in joint use projects. Such projects can be joint ventures such as “shared library electronic and telecommunications services [that] provide for the sharing of electronic equipment and resources that complement the curriculum of K-12 students.”

By connecting to Internet2, public libraries will be linked to the same Wide-area Network used by local K-12 schools, thus providing the technical infrastructure needed for a joint venture project based on a shared communications systems. Bond Act applicants would also need to establish a cooperative agreement, and describe how they intend to use the shared network for student. One example might be modeled on the aforementioned National City Public Library project, in which the public library provides remote, real-time reference service via videoconference to local schools.

The Nuts & Bolts of Connectivity

The network architecture for public library connectivity will mirror that of the K-12 schools, with individual sites aggregating their traffic to a hub location in the county, then completing the hop to CalREN-2 via a single high-speed connection. To take advantage of Internet2 applications, the minimum connection from the hub is a DS3 link, at a speed of 45 megabits per second. Extrapolating from the results of a spot survey of ten public libraries and library systems done for this report, that is faster access than what many libraries are using – or perhaps even need -- today.

Public libraries getting Internet access through county or city government would probably not have access to Internet2 access, since the network is only for educational purposes and cities and counties wouldn’t qualify. On the other hand, public libraries obtaining Internet access through local school or community college districts will have de facto connectivity, although they might need to upgrade their connections downstream from the hub to take advantage of some of the more bandwidth-intensive services.

For public libraries, it will be difficult to calculate the cost-effectiveness of connecting to Internet2 until CENIC has set its pricing for Internet access through CalREN-2 (remember, CalREN-2 provides standard Internet access as well as access to Internet 2). For some public libraries, it may make sense to upgrade network services if the cost is more than offset by savings from using CENIC as an ISP. Another unknown factor is the value that public libraries will place on having access to the advanced services available through the next-generation Internet.

CENIC expects to have all 58 county offices of education bridged to CalREN-2 through the Digital California Project by the end of this year. Once that process is complete, CENIC intends to develop the pricing structure for public library access.

The Next Steps

The purpose of this primer is to serve as a catalyst for discussion among the public library community, and between that community and CENIC, regarding the benefits promised – and challenges presented – by Internet2 access. CENIC cordially invites the public library community to the table to help develop advanced network applications, as well as to tackle the obstacles that still lie ahead, such as the cost of “last-mile” connectivity. CENIC hopes this document will need continual revision as progress is made to unite all of California’s public education institutions – libraries, schools, and universities – via the next-generation Internet.


Ira Bray, State Library; Joan Frye Williams, consultant; Richard Hall, Office of Library Construction; Peter Milbury, Chico High School; Jackie Siminitus, SBC; and all the library and system directors who provided valuable input on library networks.


Prepared for CENIC by:
Dan Theobald / i2i Communications / 415-431-0329 /