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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 3 — March 2003
Does Wireless Really Mean No More Wires?
by Janet L. Balas Library Information Systems Specialist Monroeville (PA) Public Library

One of these days it's going to happen. It's just a matter of time. I have had numerous close calls and near-misses and I know my luck can't hold out forever. As Charlie Brown would say, "I'm doomed." Yes, sooner or later, the time will come when my director is conducting a tour of the library for some very important people and they will find me unglamourously crawling under a table, checking on the network cabling.

Dealing with network cabling is probably the least-favorite job of a systems librarian. It also falls under the heading of "things I need to know but didn't learn about in library school." The promise of wireless technology is now being dangled before us by the technology press, but promises are often far from reality. Does wireless really mean no wires? Is it as fast as a wired network? Is it as secure? Inquiring librarians need to know whether wireless technology can truly deliver quality library services. We need to know if it is safe to come out from under the tables.

Learning to 'Talk the Talk'

As is true with every other new information technology, wireless comes with new concepts and a new vocabulary that may seem incomprehensible. To test your knowledge of wireless jargon, consult the Webopedia's wireless computing category and look down the list of terms to see how many you can identify and define correctly. (Of course, you might not even recognize one of the words in the URL—notice the word "Wirelsess." It is not a typo on my part.) While many librarians who attempt to keep up with technology trends might have heard of "Bluetooth" or "Wi-Fi," I'd be willing to wager that there are few among us who could define every term on that list.

It's not enough to know the words, however; we have to understand the concepts of wireless technology and its implementation in order to decide whether it's a good solution for our libraries. You can find a very basic introduction to wireless networking on the HowStuffWorks site. It focuses more onthe use of wireless networks in the home rather than in business, education, or public settings. However, I sometimes try out a new technology on a small scale at home and I'd guess that many "techies" do the same, so I found that the information was still useful to me and could also be used by those of you in very small libraries.

Since I am considering gaining experience with wireless networking by trying it out personally, and since I live in an all-Mac home with one token PC, I decided to look for information on Apple's AirPort products on the Apple Web site. The site has technical specifications, information on secure wireless networking, and instructions for setting up the network and the base station.

Vendor Web sites such as Apple's can provide a great deal of information on a technology as part of their sales pitches. Companies that offer computer training courses will sometimes offer brief tutorials for free on their sites to demonstrate their training materials to potential customers. One such company is WKMN Training, which specializes in training and sales materials for manufacturers of local- and wide-area network products and services. At the time I visited this site, a mini-tutorial on wireless networking was available for free. The tutorial was a sample from the Web-based course titled A Newbie's Guide to Wireless Networks. It began with a crossword puzzle for visitors to test their knowledge of wireless and then continued with a general discussion of wireless, a case study, demonstrations of configuring wireless components, an extensive set of links to additional sources of information, a bibliography of books on wireless networks, and a separate page of information on community networks and hot spots.

Portals: The Place to Start

One source I use when I need to be directed to information on a specific topic is the site with its guides on just about every topic under the sun. A quick search on wireless led me to the wireless guide site, which offers a portal to information on wireless networking both on and other sites. There is a subject guide to topics related to wireless technology and "guide picks" on selected sites about wireless networking. When I visited the site, the guide picks included links to sites on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), WLAN (Wireless LAN), Bluetooth, WML (Wireless Markup Language), the 802.11 standard, a wireless networking Q&A from Vicomsoft, and a discussion of design for wide-area wireless networks from Network Computing.

Another portal site for information on wireless technology is, which claims to be "the definitive Internet guide to wireless technologies." This site is maintained by palowireless Pty, Ltd., a consultancy based in Sydney, Australia. The site's resources include tutorials, tools, market research, news, events, forums, and products. Some of the pages on the site require that visitors register for the free membership. Other pages are reserved for those who purchase the premium membership.

There are also some organizations that support the wireless technology initiative. One is the Wi-Fi Alliance, formerly known as WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), which is a "nonprofit international association formed in 1999 to certify interoperability of wireless Local Area Network products based on IEEE 802.11 specification." (Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity.) The site answers the question "Why Wi-Fi" and offers an overview of the technology. There is also a detailed guide to creating a wireless network, a discussion of security, and information on advanced Wi-Fi configurations including combined networks with both wired and wireless components. The technical resources section offers access to documentation, downloads, ordering information, and links to technical support for all Wi-Fi member companies. The site also has a section of FAQ documents, a glossary of terms, and listings of members and certified products. The news and events sections offers links to articles on wireless in the news, industry events, press releases, and a calendar.

Another organization of interest to librarians considering wireless technology is WLANA, the Wireless LAN Association. WLANA is a nonprofit educational trade association that provides a clearinghouse of information on wireless local area applications, products, issues, and trends. The organization also offers a free monthly e-mail newsletter. The Learning Center section of the site has background information on wireless LANs, white papers, market research, and a bibliography of suggested books and industry magazines. There is also a discussion forum open to all for an exchange of information on wireless LANs.

Libraries That Have Already Gone Wireless

Libraries have begun to implement WLANs and have begun to share information through the Web. For instance, the Mid-Hudson Library System has put a Wireless LAN FAQ on its site. It is very brief, but it does offer links to sources for WLAN equipment and links to some online resources and articles.

Another Web site on the topic is the Wireless in Libraries Pathfinder, prepared by Karin Wikoff, which offers resources for library decision makers contemplating the implementation of a wireless LAN. Issues such as mobility, speed, standards, and security are discussed, and there are links within the text. The list of resources following the discussion sections is annotated. The only drawback to this site is that it has not been updated since August 2001, so while some of the information and links are still valid, it is important to keep in mind that others may have been superseded.

It is always helpful to read about the experiences of other libraries with new information technologies. Cornell University's Office of Information Technologies, as part of its IT Architecture Initiative, has prepared a series of papers on the directions of information architecture at Cornell. The author of "Cornell Data Networking: Wired vs. Wireless" is R. David Vernon. The document can be read online or downloaded in Adobe Acrobat's PDF. The paper presents an overview of wireless networking, discusses wireless technologies, describes implementation issues, reviews security issues, makes recommendations for deploying wireless networking at Cornell, and discusses the practical implications of the technology.

We're used to being categorized as children's librarians, reference librarians, and, since the introduction of information technology in libraries, system librarians. But soon there may be a new category called "wireless librarians," and I found a Web page just for them. The Wireless Librarian Home Page is the creation of Bill Drew of the SUNY­Morrisville College Library. The site features an extensive list of links to libraries with wireless networks, including some in other countries. The list of libraries in the U.S. is organized by state making it easy for librarians in this country to find colleagues near them with wireless capabilities. Bill Drew is also the moderator of the LibWireless electronic discussion group. Information on the group is available on the Wireless Librarian site, as are links to the archives of the discussion group.

Wireless technology holds interesting possibilities for libraries and it is a technology that we should not ignore. I'm not sure that, at the present time, it actually means there will be no more wires, but maybe some day it will truly get me out from under the table for good.


Resources Discussed

Wireless Computing—Webopedia

HowStuffWorks— "How Wireless Networking Works"


WKMN—Wireless Tutorial

Wireless Networks on

palowireless Resource Center

Wi-Fi Wireless Alliance Index

WLANA—Wireless LAN Association

Wireless LAN FAQ

Wireless in Libraries Pathfinder

Cornell OIT IT Architecture Initiative

Wireless Librarian


Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pa.) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or
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