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Libraries Helping Communities Imagine the Possible

March 7, 2014

By Mary Alice Ball
Senior Library Program Officer, IMLS

Libraries are indispensable community anchor institutions. That's a message we've heard before, but it was driven home for me by two very different programs I attended yesterday and today. These programs demonstrated the opportunity and the responsibility for librarians of all types to step up and become more fully engaged in their communities. At a time when technology brings changes at a baffling rate, library staff is often the most informed folks in town.  Libraries can help their communities imagine what is possible.

Yesterday I heard a panel convened at the World Bank that is part of its series, "How Can Technology Accelerate Citizen Engagement."  Speakers discussed what they are doing around the world to maximize the impact of geo-mapping and crowdsourcing. Afterwards two of the speakers, one who works in Chennai, India, and the other who manages a project mapping the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, told me how critical libraries are in bringing together residents and stakeholders from a variety of community groups.

Then, this morning I attended Breakfast Bytes in the 5 GHz Fast Lane: "Unlicensed Spectrum: Untold Value," the inaugural event of WifiForward, a coalition of companies and organizations, including the American Library Association. Usually, people's eyes glaze over when they hear the word spectrum, but FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel brought it down to reality. After all, this unlicensed spectrum is something we use every day—for baby monitors, TV remote controls, garage door openers, even library Wi-Fi networks. I had not realized that almost half of wireless Internet traffic is currently offloaded onto unlicensed spectrum. As that traffic increases by more devices and applications, networks slow down and get backed up, a concept that all public librarians are familiar with during afterschool hours. The future of unlicensed spectrum is important to libraries as well as to the individuals and businesses.

The other topic that librarians need to be informed about is E-rate, the universal service program that funds library and school Internet connectivity. Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission released a public notice on how best to modernize E-rate. It's worth reading and responding to; libraries may want to pay special attention to “Section III. Demonstration Projects.” You'll be hearing more from IMLS about this critical program in the next few weeks. Stay tuned as they say in the broadcast spectrum world!