Shhh! It's a secret.

“Yeah, we have wireless at our library…but we don’t tell anyone about it!” When I began looking at wireless for my library, I heard this more than once from other libraries. I found this very odd. If you had a new storytime format or some new DVDs, would you keep them a secret? What is it about wireless, or wi-fi, that has some libraries so scared? Is it that the technology is so new and/or difficult? Well, we’ve been providing some sort of Internet access at most libraries for some years now and technically wireless is simply another way to provide that access. And the libraries involved were clearly convinced enough of the need for wi-fi access to go through the process of implementing wireless, so why not shout it from the rooftops?

I realized there were two root issues:

  1. Lack of understanding of the technology
  2. Lack of staff involvement and buy-in

The first issue is very reasonable. Here’s my in-a-nutshell explanation of wireless for staff members who just “want to know enough not to sound like an idiot”:

Wireless, aka wi-fi, is data (in this case Internet access) transmitted via radio waves. What you once received solely through a cable now comes through the air. Best metaphor: land phone lines vs. cellular phones. Most people get that. It’s the same phone call, just sent a different way.

The second issue is a matter for you, as the project administrator, to nip in the bud. When you go to implement wireless, get your staff excited about it, preferably before you go live. Well, if not excited, at least show them the obvious benefits: “just think, if they bring in their laptops, we won’t have to hand out so many day passes for the computers!” and “the lines for the public computers will be shorter!” and so forth. Show them any handouts you’ve created for the public, so they know they’ll be able to offer patrons something when they ask about wi-fi. You have created handouts, haven’t you? Wireless is simply a new service you are providing, like public computers, a color copier, or a new storytime. Like any new service, it needs to be marketed to your patrons, encouraging them to use it. And your staff needs to be on board to be your best front-line advertisers. Shout it from the rooftops:

“We have wireless!”

--Louise Alcorn Reference Technology Librarian, West Des Moines (IA) Public Library Author, Wireless Networking: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. Neal-Schuman, 2006.


Another aspect that may contribute to the inclination by some to downplay the availability of wireless is the lack of clear policies and training for front line staff. Most libraries who have successfully implemented wireless have clear policies about how much support is provided to customers using their own laptops. It also increases the comfort level if public services staff receive hands-on training for connecting to wireless and basic troubleshooting.

This is such a great topic! Thank you for sharing these ideas!

In Kansas, we've got some rural areas where good reliable broadband connectivity is not yet available for home users. If the library DOES have broadband in those areas, it's a huge asset to the community and the library computers are heavily used (although that seems to be the case in libraries everywhere). Many of those libraries were seeing limited use of laptops, except by people traveling through the community. People who live in the community BUYING their own laptops is still a new-ish thing in some cases, so I see almost another side to this same coin.... Libraries not only promoting that they have wireless, but also being a "gateway" to becoming familiar with the overall technology. We have several libraries who have decided to buy laptops for in-library use by the public. This provides patron workspace flexibility (so a mom can take the laptop and work from a table or chair where she can see her child in the children's area, etc). People see the laptop being used, become aware that it's possible to do, etc....

In general, we do have a lot of libraries offering wireless (it's so inexpensive!) -- promoting it on their websites, in print publications, posting "hot spot" signs, etc. The only places where I have really seen any staff resistance (or annoyance) is in those places where users are required to enter a "key" in order to access the Internet. It adds a layer of complexity for the staff and the public that I personally think is not worth the security-enhancing reasons for doing it.

Sorry this comment has gone on so long - I guess I got excited about the topic! :)
Thank you!

I love to hear that libraries are getting laptops to check out. As you so rightly point out, libraries are so often the place where patrons first 'encounter' technology in an accessible (we hope!) way.

You mention "hot spot" signs. This is something I talk about in my presentations. Every building has better and worse places to get wireless. I love seeing libraries who have signs showing where the best 'spots' are. This is proactive customer service! I also love seeing libraries who have a map on their website of where their wireless can be accessed (if it's not the whole building) AND (and here's something we all forget about, including me) where the electrical outlets are! The latter is a huge convenience that we don't always think about when planning, renovating or promoting our libraries.

I completely agree with you about the WEP key issue. It's a pointless layer of annoyance for both staff and patrons. Work with your service provider to secure the service in such a way that it is freely available to patrons when they walk in. I am annoyed that at my library we have to give them proxy settings to put in. For now, I have excellent handouts with screen shots detailing how to do this, but I want to get rid of it alltogether. Working on it...

Thanks for the great comments - keep 'em coming!


I too have heard a similar story from libraries. In some cases, it appears that there's fear around the administration of it, or about crafting policies, or more importantly--the technical support implications of offering it. It's true: "if we build it, they will come" and being able to support it when things go awry is important. To circumvent these fears, it's crucial libraries learn of support avenues to solve issues when they arise.

I'll be adding links to support resources soon. AND, on that topic, the next Cookbook is largely focused on wireless, and will be posted on our site in November!

I heard a story recently about a library director in Washington who was trying to convince his city IT department that it was time to implement wireless in the library. The IT department kept hemming and hawing until finally a patron (unaware of the behind the scenes politics) walked into the library and offered the director $500 to set up wireless. He was sick and tired of waiting! Patrons are really beginning to expect this service. The latest Bertot study from ALA and the University of Florida indicates that 54.2% of all libraries now offer wireless! It's not just a special perk for rich libraries. It's rapidly turning into a core library service.

I also agree with all of the comments above. Clear policies for staff, and clear instructions for patrons are critical. If you have time to offer training for your front-line staff, that's even better. Also, some libraries indicate in their signage, their policies and their marketing materials that they don't have the time or the expertise to troubleshoot patron laptops. Finally, wireless hotspots have been around long enough that most patrons know how to troubleshoot their own connections.

You folks are hitting on all the areas I discuss in my wireless presentations - fabulous!

Policy is a good issue, though I think some libraries over-policy the wireless. If you have a good library computer/internet use policy and a good library conduct policy, you are largely covered. You need some wording changes for wireless (e.g. '...when using library services' not 'library equipment' since they're using their own equipment, and so forth) and some clear language on what you do/do not offer (printing, downloads, streaming audio/video, etc.).

Also, as you point out, you need to state whether you do/do not touch patrons' laptops. No shame in not doing so - you can put it down to liability. However!! If that's the case, work hard to make clear handouts with some 'common troubleshooting issues' to get them over obvious humps (like turning their wireless card on! you'd be amazed how often this comes up).

Great comments, folks! Thanks!