How about Wi-Li for libraries and schools?

by Andy Oram

Today I was discussing the exciting potential of wireless for libraries and schools with colleague David Rothman, who promotes the visionary Teleread project. He contacted me, as did a couple librarians and media researchers, following my unkind review of computerized library catologs.


What David and I were discussing was more than an online catalog, but a whole online library. Imagine that instead of (or in addition to) large, clunky PCs in classrooms, students could be given handhelds or other small computers. And that anywhere they sat in school--library, classroom, locker room, cafeteria--they could quickly call up any of several thousand books in an online library.


No more waiting for a reserved book to be read by the other 25 classmates before you can get your hands on it. No more pockets of dead time where you're waiting around with nothing useful to do. (On the other hand, I'd be reluctant to promote this wireless system if it detracted from kids' informal face-to-face banter.) No more class projects where you have to leave the scene of hands-on work--like a garden or a lab--and return to the classroom to look up the background literature.


The technology for this library-everywhere-you-go system is all available. Books would have to be converted to XML, but several publishers (including O'Reilly) are doing that now. The server would be the responsibility of the school library. A Wi-Fi 802.11 network would extend the reach of the server throughout the school.


David also suggested that cities with Wi-Fi community networks could offer the school library to people in their homes. This would be true at least where there are neighborhood schools (and might give new reasons to maintain neighborhood schools). Parents could educate themselves as well as help their kids with homework.


The Wi-Li is a variation of Rothman's Teleread idea, which calls for the development of rugged, low-cost computers for kids and the creation of libraries where books could be downloaded. While there are advantages of keeping a book on one's personal computer (the original Teleread idea) it should be supplemented by vast virtual libraries.


The problem faced by Teleread and Wi-Li is the same chicken-and-egg problem faced by AOL Time Warner and all the other telecom players. Until the content is present, there's little incentive to build the networks, and until the networks are built, there's little reason to convert and upload the content. But vision and public pressure should be able to break the ice. The chance to make these a reality is coming closer and closer.


Can virtual libraries for children be created?


3 Comments

schuyler
2002-05-06 10:20:51
Hit the nail on the head...

Yeah, it's definitely a chicken-and-egg problem. As a member of the NoCat Network here in Sebastopol, I can verify that it's sometimes a challenge to sell people on building free transport wireless community networks, because the next question is always "Well, what does that get me?" ("Freedom" is sadly not always a sufficiently compelling answer for a majority of people.)


It is our conviction that "if we build it, they will come." Remember, the Internet was originally conceived as a means of keeping the US Federal Government connected digitally in the event of nuclear war. Who could have, in 1970, imagined that it would flower into the World Wide Web, or worldwide Instant Messaging, or Napster? "Wi-Li" is a perfect example of the type of high-tech community service that we envision community free networks providing in the not-so-distant future. When the libraries are ready to start providing the content, we'll be there with the bandwidth.

peterg22
2002-05-07 08:40:06
Controlling the library
This would be a marvellous facility - it would not only benefit students, but would also enable cash-strapped schools to ensure that enough "copies" of text books are available for students. But would there be licensing issues here ?


Both my daughters have suffered in this way, and we have often ended up buying them their own text books as the school budget couldn't stretch to enough copies.


One interesting challenge IMHO would be controlling the boundaries of the school library - I can't imagine drive by hacks "capturing" expensive text books, but hey, some people will do anything for a freeby :-)

cisler
2002-05-16 12:28:45
They exist
Andy,
There's been a mailing list for wireless networks in libraries for a couple of years. Here's the link: http://people.morrisville.edu/~drewwe/wireless/wirelesslibraries.htm


Bill Drew is the main contact, but it's happening all over academic libraries and some public ones. Some places even loan out machines or Wi-Fi cards. I'd like to see these efforts connected with the more ad hoc community systems in places like Portland and Seattle.