September 08, 2005
OneCleveland: A Model for the Future of Public Libraries
Library Journal has just published the following
By Sari Feldman & Lev Gonick — September 1, 2005
This ultrabroadband network could transform the library's educational role.
OneCleveland, an ultrabroadband technology network platform, is helping the residents in the greater Cleveland region believe that they can chart their own destiny. Connecting thousands of public sector and not-for-profit community assets in northeast Ohio—and with leadership from public libraries, schools, universities, museums, government agencies, and healthcare institutions—the goal of OneCleveland is nothing less than the reinvention of the region by contributing to an economically viable, educated, healthy, and forward-thinking community.
Challenges to text
We are in transition from the analog to the digital world. The emergence of the digital era has created excitement, but it has also created a need for new models of service and a new understanding of potential users. In the digital era, enabled by ultrabroadband networks like OneCleveland, image, moving image, sound, interactivity, mass distribution, and other advancements are readily available. If these new dynamic media are, in fact, emerging to challenge the primacy of plain text in our daily communications, we are witnessing the first true communications revolution in more than 5000 years.
The public library, like many other institutions, grew to address the analog era and is now being challenged. Are our institutions prepared to address the basic literacy needs of the 21st century, or will the traditional institutions surrender this role to completely commercial interests? It is not only the relevancy of our key public institutions that are at stake today. The very nature of what embodies the public good is at issue. Commercial forces strive to appropriate and help shape what constitutes the public good via new and converged communication media.
Citizens & netizens
The telephone took close to 75 years to reach 50 million users worldwide, and television took 13 years. It took the Internet only four years to reach the same plateau, and it is now in its 13th year of popular existence. The net's geometric growth surpasses one billion netizens—the critical mass of human identities shaped by interactions in online communities.
Network access has doubled since 1998, and more than half of America's inner cities and nearly 60 percent of all Americans are wired. More than half of our nation's libraries have broadband access, and over 98 percent have some form of Internet access. Adults are more likely to visit libraries for net access than to attend book and film discussions or other cultural or recreational events, making net access the leading program activity at public libraries.
Recent debate over the public library role in the information society has been limited, to a considerable degree, to the role of libraries in overcoming the digital divide. The underlying assumption is that the public library's raison d'être is to support access and to enable the public to connect. This line of economic reductionism argues that geographic regions and communities deprived of many economic and social basics are less likely to produce netizens. Public policy and some funding have followed to enable public libraries to remove geographic boundaries when designing online communities.
However, the most important predicator of netizenship is not economic development. Viewed from aggregated census data, economic development is actually a fairly weak determinant of access and connectivity. Nearly 35 percent more powerful a predictor of netizenship is education. Indeed, education is the strongest determinant of connectivity in America. More so than any demographic or social variable, cities and regions that invest more in education, and ultimately produce more college-educated residents, are the most likely to have connected citizens.
To be sure, public libraries still have an important role in providing network connectivity. But they must also design services for those with access and skills. Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), Parma, OH, in collaboration with OneCleveland, is positioning the library community to address social inclusion not only through access but also through a deliberate internal reinvention. By intentionally connecting to academic and cultural institutions, it is possible to introduce a more formalized learning environment into the public library. This both increases the value for the community's most connected citizens and raises the competency levels and experiences of those with limited access.
CCPL is a suburban system that rings Cleveland, with an inner ring of older communities struggling to maintain a vibrant business area and an outer ring of suburban sprawl, new housing stock, and a more diversified business base. The library's 29 buildings serve approximately 630,000. Ours is one of the ten busiest public library systems in the country. In 2003, as we finalized our strategic plan for delivering services for the next three to five years, it seemed evident that our 47 suburban communities lacked a deep connection with the great cultural institutions of the city center, despite a long history of collaboration and partnership. Our libraries draw on speakers from such institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art and Great Lakes Science Center and other teammates as well. But none of this programming truly represents a sustainable educational experience.
Enter the OneCleveland opportunity. Currently, if the library wants to share distance education with Cleveland State University, each transmittal must travel from Cleveland to Columbus and back, with the state of Ohio providing the switching mechanism between the academic and library networks. With the OneCleveland ring completed, information flows back and forth among OneCleveland subscribers at gigabit speed. The jerky, awkward look of distance education can be replaced by broadcast-quality, multiway communication.
Art into the classroom
One early application has been between the Cleveland Museum of Art and CCPL. Dwindling funds for suburban school district field trips make virtual field trips a positive alternative. With Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funding, the library is training docents to link storytelling to international exhibits. Together the library and museum are able to provide educator training to improve classroom content with museum collections and library resources. One of the most long-lasting benefits of this relationship is access to the digital library of the museum's art.
"Both museums and libraries are facing the challenge of bridging their resources and expanding their reach, while retaining their traditional high-touch values in an increasingly high-tech world," says Leonard Steinbach, the museum's CIO. "And all along, they must remember the community is at their core. The quality of high-definition video and sound teleconferencing over OneCleveland's ultrabroadband network will make the technology almost transparent as visitors, teachers, travelers, storytellers, and young poets make multisite programs, which embrace the high touch of 'being there,' their own."
A Healthier Cleveland
Cleveland Public Library (CPL) has had four years of collaboration with the MetroHealth System, the public hospital in the Greater Cleveland community. Soon after CPL launched its KnowItNow24x7, live web reference service, nurses on call began to answer health questions beyond the scope of the librarian's response in real-time, live chat. Today, KnowItNow24x7 is the statewide service. CCPL and the NOLA Regional Library joined CPL as managing partners. Tomorrow, using the OneCleveland network, there will be a system of public education programming that extends the reach of MetroHealth into community and neighborhood libraries, through interactive distance education and streaming video formats. "We can utilize community resources such as libraries, community centers, and churches to push important wellness information using more than just pure text," says Joan McFaul, director, IS infrastructure, MetroHealth. "We can augment text with audio/ video thereby capturing audiences that may not otherwise benefit from the information."
Challenges of the ring
The ideas for new community programs at our libraries are endless, but there are some hurdles to overcome. While downtown Cleveland is dense with fiber, and most buildings are easily connected to the ring, moving to the suburbs increases the "first mile" costs.
Right now, the capital cost has limited the library's ability to bring each of our buildings to the OneCleveland ring. So far, two libraries have been connected through the IMLS grant. Area cable companies and new wireless technologies may help to bridge the "first mile" challenge. Ultimately, the demand for ultrabroadband speeds, increased demand for devices, the expansion of wireless access, and network redundancy will make projects like OneCleveland a necessity regardless of the capital outlay.
In the digital world, instead of overbuilding fiber and other digital infrastructure (like electronics and technical support), our regional library system can serve as a community hub to schools, community centers, legal clinics, healthcare facilities, churches, and other assets that can work together to connect via their libraries to the OneCleveland footprint. Connecting to OneCleveland, using the technological architecture, will allow all of these community resources to collaborate with one another and build their own never-before-seen solutions to community needs. These same dynamics will lead others to use our libraries as centers for education, communication, neighborhood archives, and countless other services.
Sari Feldman is Executive Director, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Parma, OH, and Lev Gonick is VP, Information Services & CIO, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
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