May 20, 2004

Library's tech system is also daring and elegant

  • Fiber-optic cable links Seattle libraries to each other and the world

    Photo by Jon Silver
    High-speed fiber-optic cable runs to every computer in the central library. Improving data services was a primary goal of the new facility, which features 400 public computers. The old library had about 75.

    Libraries are beacons of learning and culture. They reflect the thoughts and ideas of our society, lending our communities exposure to a wide variety of services.

    Seattle voters invested in the future of our library system by approving the $196.4 million “Libraries for All” capital project in 1998. This project includes the renovation, expansion and replacement of 27 neighborhood libraries as well as construction of a new central library — the crown jewel of the Seattle Public Library system.

    As a central repository for information and learning, libraries have traditionally promoted the use of technology in society. Continuing in this tradition, Seattle Public Library turned to technology consultants to provide long-term visioning and technology master planning that will connect library patrons at every level.

    Planning technology systems of this magnitude was a challenging prospect. Adding 27 neighborhood library locations made the project twice as complex. The Seattle Central Library is more than a building capable of housing over a million books; it's a central communications hub for the entire Seattle area.

    Fiber fed by light

    The technology components in the new central library reflect Seattle's spirit and culture. These systems are daring, but as elegant as the building that houses them.

    Just as the building reflects and embraces light, so do the technology components. High-speed fiber-optic cabling runs to each computer location in the facility. These cables harness light to provide data services to library staff and patrons. Improving data services to patrons was a central goal of the new facility, evidenced by the increase from 75 public computers to 400.

    The need to deploy a flexible cabling system that would support the library for many years was identified early in the project. Options and vendors were researched to select a solution that fit the environment and culture of the facility.

    The use of fiber-optic cabling extends not only to the desktop but into the streets to the neighborhood libraries. The library will use this cabling to provide high-speed communications between the central and neighborhood libraries.

    Downtown hotspot

    hands-free communication badges
    Photo courtesy of Vocera
    Librarians will wear hands-free communication badges like those on “Star Trek.” The device helps track down librarians wandering the stacks.

    The central library's wide open interior spaces are truly liberating, allowing patrons to move uninhibited throughout the space. This mobility is supported and enhanced through the deployment of an extensive and sophisticated wireless network. This network provides an Internet hotspot in the center of the city, supporting staff functions and patron access.

    Traditional wireless systems would face tremendous challenges when deployed in this environment, from both a cost and performance perspective.

    From the stacks

    The new library prioritizes public access to information, culture, art and resources, providing a true sense of community. The heart of the library — the unique books spiral in the central portion of the building — creatively illustrates this concept.

    Sections of each floor are divided into two ramps spiraling from the sixth through the 10th floor. This new organizational structure makes communication between staff more critical than ever before.

    Overcoming new communications challenges meant selecting a new, leading-edge communications device for library staff. The communications badge, designed by Vocera, provides a wide selection of functions including the ability to support phone calls and locate staff within the library.

    Advanced voice-recognition technology permits hands-free use of the device while librarians work within the book stacks. The badges have been compared to “Star Trek” communicators on several occasions and do, indeed, function in a similar capacity.

    Planning was paramount

    A three-year technology-planning process was critical to integrating technology in both the new and neighborhood libraries.

    Each technology was evaluated based on its adaptability to the new facility and to branch libraries down the road. Long-term planning ensured system compatibility with both architectural changes and advancements in the technology itself.

    The library staff was extremely conscious of budgetary constraints on this project. Therefore, each technology solution was evaluated not only on its technical merits, but its implementation and ongoing support costs.

    The driving force behind implementing these technologies is Seattle Library's truly innovative and progressive IT director, Marilyn Sheck, with the support of City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, a pioneer and visionary directing this campaign.

    “Technology continues to change the way libraries run,” Sheck said, “and this will be one of the most technologically advanced libraries in the world.”

    The Seattle Central Library is just one component of “Libraries for All,” but a critical step toward improved library services that sets a precedent for what's to come.

    Scott Roberts and Nathan Larmore are technology consultants at Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.

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