For the past several months I have been privileged to be on the Advisory Committee for the Virginia Opportunity Online Broadband Summit. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has selected Virginia as one of seven states for a pilot program to establish Internet connectivity in all public libraries with speeds of 1.5 Mbps or faster. The goal of this program is to build state and local support to ensure public libraries can achieve and sustain broadband Internet connections over the long-term. The Virginia Opportunity Online Broadband Summit is the first step in the Gates Foundation program process for Virginia public  libraries.

In a time of increasing use of public library public access computers to communicate with family members in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, to prepare and send resumes as a part of the job application process, file for unemployment compensation and participate in distance learning, it is essential that libraries have bandwidth sufficient to handle this demand. Many public libraries in Virginia do not have the necessary bandwidth to meet user demand.

The following is taken, with permission of the Library of Virginia,from a report on the summit:

“Ninety-six library directors, local partners, state leaders and technology advocates participated in the Virginia Opportunity Online Broadband Summit held May 13-14, 2009 in Hot Springs, Virginia at The Homestead Resort…

The summit included a comprehensive look at the state of connectivity across the Commonwealth and in Virginia’s public libraries.  Presentations included:

  • Emily Parker, program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Libraries program (USL);
  • Jorman Granger, former Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor L. Douglas Wilder and current executive with Northrop Grumman Information Systems;
  • Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana and business entrepreneur; and
  • Glen C. Sink, executive director of Virginia Rural Center.

However, it was the comprehensive and exciting panel discussions that properly outlined the need for improved connectivity in Virginia’s public libraries.  The two panels were moderated by Karen Jackson, Deputy Secretary of Technology, and Delegate Christopher K. Peace of the Virginia House of Delegates’ 97th District.

The first panel highlighted the efforts taking place in the Commonwealth to improve connectivity and explored how public libraries fit into the broadband equation. Key points from the discussion included technology resources for rural citizens, the extremes of connectivity, the evolution of technology, the value of a broadband champion, and the importance of advocating the need for connectivity.

The second panel with Delegate Peace examined the need for improved connectivity to Virginia libraries and the opportunities that come with improved broadband connections. Fran Freimarck (director of the Pamunkey Regional Library), Harriet Henderson Coalter (director of the Richmond Public Library), Paula Alston (director of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library) and Nancy Bolt (consultant with the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy). The panel provided the following examples as a response to why higher broadband speeds are needed:

  • searching online catalogs,
  • participating in traffic school classes,
  • filing income tax forms,
  • applying for unemployment benefits,
  • downloading audio books, and
  • helping job seekers.

One interesting example is that the Richmond Public Library witnessed 50% utilization of bandwidth on Sunday.  Ironically, the library is closed on Sundays.

Following all the presentations and panels, participants had the opportunity to join others from their geographic region to share their ideas regarding connectivity in Virginia’s public libraries. This table talk proved to be the highlight of the event and allowed candid conversation among librarians, local partners and state leaders.  Topics discussed by the groups included:

  • Services
  • Connectivity
  • Funding
  • Political Considerations
  • Institutional
  • Support

All in all, the summit gathered people and organizations for one common cause: improved connectivity to Virginia’s public libraries.  Every participant left knowing that improved connectivity is imperative for our public libraries and that they can make it happen.”

Another exciting result of the summit was the ability of library participants to explain to non-librarians in attendance the roles that public libraries play in all aspects of community life.

While I was unable to attend the summit due to family illness, I am excited about what this meeting brought in the way of new understandings and partnerships as Virginia public libraries begin the process of improving broadband access in their facilities.

So long for now!