Interview With OITP Director Alan Inouye

By Daniel A. Freeman |

With our January issue of Library Technology Reports focusing on funding your technology in a tough economy, I figured it would make sense to broaden my perspective on the issue by talking some additional experts. Over the past couple of months, I had the pleasure of conducting an online interview with Alan Inouye, Director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy, which serves the associations voice in IT Policy discussions.

Please tell me about your role at ALA and your background in library technology.

I am the Director of the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) at the American Library Association (ALA). OITP, based in Washington, D.C. We focus on research, education, advocacy, and strategic outlook to promote ALA values and goals in national public policy making. The range of topics is broad, from digital copyright and Internet search to fiber to the library and network neutrality. In the course of its work, OITP produces diverse products that include books, policy briefs, articles, pamphlets, and novel artifacts such as “copyright sliders” (a tool that helps to determine whether a work is in the public domain or not). OITP also organizes various workshops, briefings, and other going-on in the course of its work.

My interest in information technology goes back to my high school days, programming in assembly language on a DEC minicomputer. In my first career, I worked as a programmer and manager of information systems in Silicon Valley. Then I went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in library and information studies at U.C. Berkeley, where I also got the policy bug. I relocated to Washington and obtained a job as a study director at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) focusing on information technology policy. A number of my projects involved the library community and its interests, most notably the study that produced LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress and The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age.

Do you think that bandwidth is at the core of all Library Technology concerns in the Internet age? Why is it so important?

Well, one of OITP’s three major programmatic thrusts is our Program on Networks (the others are the Program on Public Access to Information and Program on America’s Libraries in the 21st Century (Future of Libraries). So, yes, OITP formally recognizes networking as tremendously important to the library community.

The importance of networking to the library community correlates with changes in how we access information. As recently as the early to mid 1990s, most of the information accessed in a library was physically located in that library. Today, of course, many library members access information that is stored beyond the walls of the library, in addition to increasing member remote access of library resources from residences, workplaces, or in transit. In the future, with the continuing growth in mobile devices – and library member expectations of using these devices to access library resources – broadband – whether in the physical library building, residences, workplaces, or anywhere else, will only become more critical in providing library services.

What are the most common bandwidth-related problems today?

One of the biggest challenges that we hear from libraries is that of keeping up with expanding bandwidth demands. New applications have increasing demands for downloading and more and more commonly for uploading, from increasing numbers of users. Wireless access in libraries is a rapidly growing service, which obviously requires additional bandwidth capacity coming to the library. This bandwidth story is dynamic – though broadband demands are only going in one direction, up, up, up – and are complicated by local conditions such as the after-school demand bump and, more recently, by the increased demand associated with the economic hard times, placing further stress on library services – which is good for the community that has access to valuable library services, but creating yet more challenges for library technology managers.

Are there common-sense solutions for some of these problems that don’t involve spending a lot of money?

Some of the solutions that we’ve encountered include:

  • Use of packet shapers to better manage the use of bandwidth
  • Creation of virtual private networks or use of high priority-low latency to better allocate bandwidth between an ILS and the Internet
  • Tracking and monitoring of bandwidth usage in order to have concrete data for planning
  • Segmentation of network traffic (e.g., wireless access from user laptops) to provide better quality of service

OITP has an ongoing initiative on “capacity planning” to help libraries determine the needed level of bandwidth. We hope to have some specific tools available later this year.

Here’s a nuts-and-bolts question that librarians want to know the answer to: When it comes to bandwidth, it seems like in some ways, you can control your expenses, but other ways are beyond your control. For instance, you can use packet prioritization to increase the bandwidth allocated to library functionality, but you can’t control how much your ISP charges. Do you see major changes in this dynamic coming soon?

Basically...not really, because regardless of the telecommunications service that comes to your library, the library’s technologists are responsible for optimizing that resource within the library. However, there appear to be some changes on the horizon concerning the external environment, in part relating to the expected new initiatives from the Obama Administration (see below).

How do you think the current financial crisis and a challenging economy are going to affect library technology?

Of course in the near-term, many states and localities and private sector organizations are experiencing difficult financial conditions, adversely affecting public, academic, school, and other libraries. But there is some hope as the Obama Administration’s stimulus package is expected to place some emphasis (and provide some cash!) on national broadband infrastructure build-out and aid to states and localities. And ALA’s Washington Office is working vigorously to include libraries in the relevant parts of the stimulus package. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues its hardware grants under its Opportunity Online program and just announced its intention to make broadband grants under this program. Finally, OITP continues its efforts to increase library participation in the E-rate program, both helping applicants through the application process and advocating for program simplification.

Moreover, broadband build-out is identified as a longer-term priority for the Obama Administration, extending beyond the stimulus package. So while there is well-deserved concern for library technology investments, there are also reasons to be cautiously optimistic, especially in the longer run.