BCLA Perspectives

The internet outside the city: An interview on rural library connectivity

The good folks at BCLA Perspectives asked me, Scott Leslie, Systems Manager at the BC Libraries Cooperative, if I would be interested in writing something about rural library connectivity, given the Co-op’s continued efforts in this space. But it seemed far more relevant to get the perspective of an actual rural library on their connectivity challenges, the extent to which their community depends on the library for internet access, and services they could provide if their connectivity was improved. So I decided to interview the director of one of the Co-op’s member libraries, Toby Mueller from the Lillooet Area Library Association, to find out more about connectivity in a rural library. 

Scott: Hi Toby, thanks for agreeing to discuss connectivity and the Lillooet Area Library Association. First off, can you tell us a little more about the community you serve? 

Toby Mueller: The Lillooet Area Library Association provides library services to residents of the District of Lillooet, Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) Areas A and B, and the six Northern St’át’imc communities T’ít’q’et, Ts’al’áh, Se’k’elwas, Xwisten, Xaxli’p and Ts’kw’áylaxw. We operate three branches in Lillooet, Gold Bridge, and Shalalth (Ts’al’áh) at the Bridge River Town Site. We also provide outreach services to communities without a branch. The town of Lillooet is the service centre for a very rugged, remote, mountainous rural area. The population of the town itself was 2,275 in 2016. There are 1,757 people living in scattered communities and isolated homesteads throughout the 7,474 square kilometer region that surrounds Lillooet.This is St’át’imc Territory. The St’át’imc people comprise approximately 50 per cent of the population. 

What is internet connectivity like in general in Lillooet? Who are the providers there? What kind of connections can people expect to get at home? Do you have any sense of how widespread internet access is for people at home? 

Internet connectivity varies between communities, but is relatively good. In Lillooet service is provided by Telus, Shaw Cable, LyttonNet, and Xplornet. In Gold Bridge, service is provided by Minto Communications, a community based organization that brings the internet to the town. In Ts’al’áh, service is provided by the Seton Lake Indian Band, who host services for the communities of Ts’al’áh and Seton Portage. Both remote communities are also served by Xplornet. I don’t know how many people in town have internet at home. Certainly people with money are connected and the people who frequent the library either live out of range (andcan’t afford the very expensive Xplornet set-up) or simply are too poor to pay for service in town. Smartphones are ubiquitous. People of all walks of life, incomes, and ages use them. They are the most common kind of device people are using to connect to the internet in the library. 

And cell phone coverage? Can people easily get 3G or better data connections on their phones there? 

 There is cell phone service in the town of Lillooet provided by Telus, Bell, Koodo, Solo, and Virgin. 3G data connections are available. There is no cell service outside of Lillooet.  

How has the level of internet access affected people in your community? 

That really depends on who you ask. Some people are quite unnerved by the developing generation gap and the domination of screen time, but overall most people I talked with about this question used words like “transformative”; “essential link to the world”; “it makes connecting with the community so much easier”; “it opens up the world to home-bound people”; “it’s so much safer now that we can easily check road conditions”; “it’s basic, we don’t even have a video store here anymore.” 

 Many times in my work I have witnessed older people who are curious about the internet gain the ability to navigate very easily and then become completely enthralled with the medium’s ability to connect them with communities of their particular interest. Most people consider digital literacy a basic life skill and access to the internet as essential to being able to fully participate in modern society.  

How about at the library: What kind of internet connection do you have at the branch? How many internet access terminals are there? Do you provide wireless access for people who bring their own devices?  

Our service varies widely between our three branches. In Lillooet we have a cable connection with Shaw. There are six staff computers, seven patron computers, and 24/7 open WiFi access. At the Bridge River Branch our service is provided by the Seton Lake Indian Band. They have a fiber connection with Telus, which they distribute through the community with WiFi. This branch has one staff computer and two patron computers. People can connect withWiFi during open hours. At the Gold Bridge Branch service is provided by Minto Communications, a community based non-profit. They have a microwave link with Telus which is distributed through the community on fixed wireless. This branch has one staff computer and one patron computer. Patrons can connect their devices during open hours. 

Do you have a sense of how many people a people a day come into the branch to use the internet? 

Yes, we keep records of the use of our patron computers in all branches. At the Lillooet Branch we have software that records all WiFi connections. At our small branches it averages about five  people a day. Here in Lillooet there are on average 20 people using our machines and 15 WiFi connections. Although the WiFi connections are low in number, they are often quite long sessions. Some patrons will spend hours in the library conducting their personal business.  

What in your experience are the main ways people are using the net when they are in the branch? 

 It is not our intention to pay attention to this, and we don’t keep any metrics about where people go when they are here. Certainly there is a lot of time spent on social media. I also know that our access provides an essential connection for local people who don’t have internet at home but need to perform bureaucratic tasks of one kind or another. I have seen everything from applying for a mining license, to job applications, to sending off documents for immigration purposes. These are the people who will thank us with tears in their eyes. Although this doesn’t happen every day, it does happen at least once a month—and it seems like one of the most important ways people are using the net in our library. 

Are there things your patrons aren’t able to do because of the quality of the internet connection currently at the branch? 

 Not usually. There have been unusual situations where service is affected, such as during wildfires when we have lost service completely—or when the Gold Bridge Branch lost connection when the microwave tower got iced up. When service is slow in the Lillooet Library, it generally means the whole town is slumped. This only happens very occasionally, and you’d have to ask Telus for an explanation. Overall people seem satisfied when they are using the net in the library.  

If you had improved network connectivity, are there additional services you could offer to patrons? Are there additional library-to-library or coop-to-library services that could be accessed or improved? 

I don’t know.  

How do you think improved internet connectivity could benefit Lillooet as a whole?  

It was really interesting asking people this question. For most people in the area it has only been a slightly over a decade since they have had internet in their homes. The service has improved so much since the beginning. Now that everyone can stream video they are happy. The main complaint is about affordability rather than capacity. Most people scorned the need for more capacity: “So what? So 17 people can all stream a different movie in the same house?” Most people, including myself, don’t know what we are missing. 

It’s often envisioned that better internet connectivity could lead libraries to provide additional services to patrons or be able to operate differently with each other. For instance, libraries could host interactive gatherings for live-streamed events, provide “virtual office spaces,” provide secure internet by lending VPNs or virtual hi-def video conferencing rooms for patrons. Libraries might also be able to work differently by simplifying their desktop management through remote hosting, doing offsite backups or using more cloud-based services in how staff work together.

Do you think it would be helpful for the library to participate in a visioning session focused on future library services in a high-speed internet environment at a future conference or symposium? If so, can you tell me what approach to such a conversation would work best for you? 

Yes, I would welcome the opportunity to learn more about the future possibilities as our connectivity increases. It would be fun if we could try using some of the technology, so that I wouldn’t necessarily have to drive to Vancouver to participate.