of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 27, No. 5              June / July 2001

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Wireless Technology in the Library: The RIT Experience: Overview of the Project

by Pat Pitkin

I think what you'll learn from what we've done is how to deploy something in a way that can be scalable. That's something that we're really interested in. You'll get to see what we've done on the library side.

RIT and the Wallace Library

A little bit about the Rochester Institute of Technology, since you folks are probably not very familiar with us. RIT is a university in upstate New York. We have seven colleges with about 12,500 students. We offer diverse programs running from AAS degrees in our National Technology Institute up to Ph.D. programs in imaging science. We're career-oriented and technology-based. Most RIT programs have a technological emphasis to them. Even our liberal arts programs share a technological bent.

It follows, of course, that our library has a strong technology component. We have pretty small collections for an institution of our size, but with a large and aggressive digital collection. Our facility is fairly new, which means we have a lot of wire in the building. It's less than 10 years old. We have about 1200 Ethernet connections. Our campus network environment is pretty robust, and it's all rigged with 10/100 Ethernet, switched not shared. The library building has a lot of Ethernet connection built into it too, and it is used fairly heavily. Historically, the library has helped lead the way to drive technology on the campus. We had the first website on campus, and really pushed Web initiatives. We also created the first database on campus about 25 years ago. We have a long history where technological advancement is concerned, and we like to maintain that.

A little more detail about the library: It's relatively small given its 12,000-13,000 enrollment, with fewer than 500,000 physical volumes. We have a small staff heavily supported by students and a relatively small budget ($4.3 million). Our electronic media budget is pretty healthy ($450,000) given our overall materials budget. That might be because we have a very large digital collection. The RIT library has also been instrumental in the state in terms of consortial buying, which we do a lot of. We try to make our dollars go as far as we can. Access to the networks becomes very important to us because the direction of our collection is digitally based.

The Wireless Project

We decided a year and half ago that we wanted to experiment with wireless. We believed that wireless was the way the future was going to go. Keeping with our tradition of wanting to be well informed in order to forge our own future, we thought we really wanted to do something with wireless, something small scale that came out of our budget. We didn't rely on extra money. We just said, "Let's do this. Let's make something happen on campus," because there was (and still is) no wireless on campus, except within the library. We wanted to use laptops. We wanted to deploy the laptops within the building. Our campus does not have a computer requirement for students, so not all students are required to come in with devices. Most of them do, but we really didn't have the kind of situation where everyone came in with computing. We thought we could circulate these devices off of our Reserve Desk for use within the building. What we found is that the signal bled over into other buildings and some people were using it, which was fine with us. That's terrific as far as we're concerned.

We had hoped it would be a test for campus-wide use, and indeed there is now an initiative on the board to extend this technology to the broader campus. What we were interested in was discovering how people were actually going to use it. We had a lot of computers in the building, several hundred wired devices for people to use. We wanted to know whether wireless would make a difference in how people used computers, or if it was just a nice thing to have.

How were we going to manage this network? In a wired environment, network management issues are a lot easier to handle. We felt we needed to push the envelope here and get people thinking about it.

Requirements. Concerning the project requirements, we felt the system really needed to be easy-to-use. We do have a large systems staff within the library, but we wanted this to be a network where students across any curriculum and discipline could just take a device, turn it on and not worry about what the previous user had done to the device. It had to be very simple, and it had to be able to cover the building. Our building is about 150,000 square feet over 5 floors a large area to cover.

The system had to be relatively low-maintenance . I didn't want the staff to have to be constantly helping students get through it. Therefore these devices had to be fairly self-contained and easy-to-use. They also needed to be flexible, by which we meant we really wanted to cover all the needs of the users, which was a challenge.

We needed the system to be low-cost. It certainly is low-cost compared to wired networks. Relative to the cost of bringing the physical requirement to a location, it's very reasonably priced. The other piece to consider when you look at cost is that wherever you put a physical device, you'll want it some place else. You can never plan well enough. You put a jack at every seat, and then people want to have the class sit in a circle. In that sense the actual cost [of wired networks] goes beyond the initial installation cost. Of course, we hoped our wireless network would be scalable.

Motivation. Why did we do it? We really wanted the extra mobility. After all, here's a laptop device, which is small and meant to be portable, and having to connect it to walls and columns effectively eliminates some of the capabilities and conveniences that laptops have for us. Portability is an important factor to consider since we know these devices will get smaller and smaller. I mentioned the cost of fixed connections being relatively high, not only in the initial installation, but also in their long-term use. We wanted to expand the kind of use we gave to our users.

Another factor in our decision is that the library likes to be a little ahead of the curve, and this was an opportunity for us to do that. We see being ahead of the curve as a strategic imperative for the library. I think a lot of us are struggling with the question: What is the future of libraries? One of our strategies is to say, "OK, what is happening out there? Let's embrace it and let's see how we can apply it to the kinds of things we do." We can add value in the future, but not if we don't know and can't experience what is really coming. Being ahead of the curve has been one of our strategies.

Implementation. How did we do it? The library has a tradition of being independent on our campus. We knew wireless was something that, because of our goals and objectives, warranted a broader application. We believed it was very important on campus to [experiment with wireless]. We asked some folks from computing to come and join us on this, but they were somewhat reluctant. "Wireless it's too slow, it's not secure, we've got a great wired network, etc." But we found that over time people really started to see the benefits, and now they really are on board. We did work with computing, and they helped us with the vendor selection. They also helped with some of the access point deployment by doing the actual installations in our building.

We also worked it out with the bookstore so that students that came to the school with laptops could get a reasonable deal on wireless cards if they wanted to buy their own. It raised the cool factor for the library, and people on campus came to realize that the library is a cool place. That kind of feedback came from everyone, from the provost to the students. We librarians really need that kind of exposure and that, in itself, has made this experience really positive.

How do we deal with this? On the system support side we were concerned about coverage; covering all the floors, covering group study rooms. We also use DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), and we've been really successful in how we've deployed this technology to these devices. There is a decent level of security in the hub. We were concerned that kids would get into the ceilings and pull the cards or the hubs. We wanted to be sure that we secured them in some way. We were also concerned about the software security. These are shared devices. People come to the library and check them out and return them for the next person. Who knows what they are going to do with them? We ended up using some ghost software and cut some CDs for them. Every time a device is checked out, it has a fresh operating system and fresh applications. It comes back and gets wiped out and refreshed again. It has worked out well and is a quick process. That helps insure the software stability.

On the hardware side, we learned that people wanted these devices faster than we could recharge batteries. We hadn't considered that, so we had to buy several more batteries. Now when someone returns the devices, a fresh battery is waiting for it. We loan our laptops out based on the life of the battery, which is approximately two hours. We don't give the users power cords. It has actually worked out well. We loan out both Macs and PCs, and of course the Macs have a much longer battery life. The software available on the laptops includes Netscape, Internet Explorer and the Microsoft Office suite of products. We have the most common applications people use. People can load other stuff on our portables. That's OK with us. We've even had situations where folks have checked the laptop out and put the network card in their own machine.

We use standard library security devices on the laptops. They are also equipped with 3M Nogo strips, so if they go through the security system, the alarm will go off. We did have to change our checkout process because we lost some devices. People were using stolen ID cards to check them out. Now, we require two forms of photo ID. We have an indicator that lets users know that if they lose the device they are responsible. They sign statements saying that they are responsible for the machines if they lose them or break them. We haven't had to enforce that, but it's something that helps people to understand that they need to be responsible for the equipment. Any of the students can check out the laptops, just like any other library items.

Benefits

What have we gotten out of this? We've gotten a lot of use. Laptops circulate much more than books do. This has generated a lot of good PR for the library. We feel it has been really good for us to explore this wireless piece so we can start talking about mobility issues and so we can start looking at some of the PDAs and the electronic books. It has given us a little hint of things we need to do. We do have great many electronic books in the library. We have both many of the handheld electronic book devices and the Internet-based electronic books. Having these wireless devices gives us much more insight and gets us one step closer so folks don't have as large a step to take to use electronic books and the device readers.

We also have tried to leverage these laptops in order to solve another campus problem we had. On our campus there was a lot of interest from students for a 24-hour lab space. The lab community didn't really want to stay open 24 hours, and the library staff didn't want to stay open 24 hours either, but we agreed to do that. We have a separate space that is a part of the library, about 2500 square feet, and we agreed to circulate the laptops in that space 24 hours a day. So we've answered the need for computing 24 hours a day. We try to stretch the value of our dollar at RIT and solve more than one issue if we can. Wireless has done that for us. There is a campus wide wireless initiative happening now and some interesting possibilities stemming from that, including more for the library, as well.

I calculated statistics from January 2000 to September 2000. There were 1500 PC circulations and 400 Mac. We have about 220 circulations per month, which is decent turnover on the devices. The Macs are circulating much less than the PCs. We have added additional devices, so there is less contention for them. Use in April and May was high (Table 1. Wireless Laptop Circulation by Month RIT: Jan-Jul 2000). As you would expect, it took a while for word to get around. We ended up buying Toshiba laptops, not the highest end devices. We didn't think we needed the highest end devices, and we may look at even less expensive devices in the future.

Lessons Learned

What did we learn about this? Well, much of it I already mentioned. We wanted to take advantage of the sense of freedom and mobility of wireless. It has been relatively low-cost. We see students and faculty coming into the library saying, "I want to have an online class. Can we take some of these devices to a study room and have a class?" That's great. We want to see the ways people will use this technology. There are ways we hadn't anticipated. We can anticipate some uses but certainly not all of them.

Pros and Cons. On the con side, we were concerned about the speed of the connection. The connection itself is running at 11mbps, which is the newer, faster standard. We purchased our equipment just about a year ago, at the end of 1999. The speed has not been an issue for people so far. They are not downloading huge files and running streaming video. If they are, we have yet to receive any complaints about connection speed.

The question of compatibility across platform with other wireless devices is something that is still being worked on. How we're going to face that is a question we still don't have an answer to. As more devices start coming into the marketplace, we'll start addressing that. We are interested in how Bluetooth is going to work and if they will be able to coexist in the same environment.

The question of maintenance and user support is something we'll get into when we start circulating wireless cards. We'll probably start circulating them to folks as another cheap way for us to deploy wireless more broadly. Then there will be configuration issues with the cards. That might be something of a tradeoff. We'll need to test it out to see if providing cards is worth the effort. It may not be, because the new devices seem to be coming out with wireless built into the motherboard so that you don't have to worry about it. This is one instance where waiting a little bit is an advantage.

Timing for us really was an issue, considering when we bought the wireless network and the speed of the cards. On the one hand, my understanding is that the 22mb cards are in the market but the standard hasn't been officially approved yet. As this testbed goes out on our campus, they are going to look at upgrading our equipment first, probably putting the 22mb capability in. On the other, if we had started with a 2mb network [the speed available when we first started thinking about this project], we probably wouldn't be as happy as we are now.

We believed that the connection to the community was really important. The students are quite resourceful and are finding different things to do with these devices than those we could have anticipated. I think an important lesson to learn from this is the value of trying to stay a little bit ahead of the user curve. We don't want to be in a position where we are playing catch-up. Strategically, that is not the place for us or for other libraries to be. We need to be advocating and pushing so we can see where the future is. That's been a motivating factor with my staff and within our environment. This is a philosophy we try to keep going within the library, and I think it's one that we should take to heart as librarians. We get a bad rap, and I don't think we deserve it. It may just have to do with our attitude about how we approach the future.

Pat Pitkin is Director of Libraries, Rochester Institute of Technology, 90 Lomb Memorial Drive, Rochester, NY 14623; phone: 716/475-2562; e-mail: papwm1@rit.edu; Web: wally.rit.edu

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