The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

WI-FI THE PUBLIC LIBRARIES!
I got up fairly early this morning, and got myself down to the nearby branch of the St. Petersburg Public Library.

The library? On a Saturday morning? What am I, a geek?

Perhaps. But I brought some work with me from the office, and despite good intentions, I didn't see a strong possibility of getting it done at home. I find there are too many easy distractions around the house, and it's a real struggle for me to get much real work done, unless I'm super-motivated. And work from the office, on a Saturday, is not the type of thing to get me super-motivated. I figured the library was a good alternative to going back to the office, mainly because it's closer to home.

As I packed up the files and my notebook computer, I wondered if the library was wi-fi equipped. I needed my computer to do the work; I didn't necessarily need to be hooked up to the Web, but it would have been convenient. Only one way to find out...

Sadly, I found out that there was no wireless cloud into which to tap. I did find a nice quiet corner, and managed to get a couple of hours of solid work done. Even wrapped up right at lunchtime, so it worked out well.

I continued to wonder about wireless access at the library. It seems like a natural, and I was more surprised that it wasn't available than if it were. Computer and Internet access have led to a revitalization of the nation's libraries, and St. Petersburg is no different: When I walked in, every computer terminal was occupied, with several people (kids, half of them) waiting for their sessions. Computer use is largely what draws people into branches these days; they expect to have access to them, even if they have to wait for it.

Where would wi-fi fit in? Aside from being a convenience for computer-carrying patrons ("computer" encompassing PDA, mobile phones and other devices that can tap into the Web), it would enable libraries to increase the number of Web-connected terminals, and be able to do so without restriction as to placement (fewer wires to run, aside from the power cable). This would be an ambitious plan for the average public library, but I'd love to see it. It'd be great to be able to tap into the Web, bring up the library's online card catalogue, and look up titles from your own monitor. Convenient all around.
Libraries in the UK have taken off bigtime on this, even planning to distribute their own notebook computers for visitor usage.

U.S. libraries are already rolling out wi-fi access, in New York City and other areas. Even St. Petersburg says it's planning to implement it in the future (although "on the horizon" sounds a lot like "we're looking, but have no real plans"). Libraries, with free access, would be a welcome alternative to Starbucks or other retail-oriented hotspots.

St. Petersburg's civic leaders have already dabbled with wi-fi; the Downtown Partnership tried to get a wireless zone established late last year, only to abandon it when sponsorship money proved elusive. I say, why not refocus those efforts toward wi-fi in the libraries? It may not be as sexy as an outdoor wi-fi business corridor, but it's probably more useful. Plus, there won't be any concerns about conflicting with businesses offering pay-for access points.