Web Conferencing for Libraries: "Can
You Hear Me Now?"
By Ernest Perez
Reading about the wonders of today's broadband communications
and the remote computer interaction features visible
on the horizon makes information professionals wonder
about library service applications. Can futuristic
capabilities such as Web videoconferencing, remote
video broadcasting, virtual tech support, or small
and large group meetings via the Internet have a place
in our organizations? Maybe we could add virtual reference
session patron interaction, remote assistance and training
with online database and searching problems, "co-browsing" with
patrons to demonstrate and observe use of Web information
services, and formal training sessions for multiple
users. That would be great.
This is no longer a science fiction scenario. The
ideas are neither outlandish, difficult, nor prohibitively
expensive. Current technology levels allow practically
any library with Web capabilities to offer such services.
Hardware demands and operating costs are not that much
of a problem anymore.
TECHNOLOGY NO BIG DEAL ANYMORE
Your information operation is probably already perfectly
capable of offering WCT (Web Conferencing Technology)
services. Of course, you do need to be at a reasonably
decent technology level. This means PCs of recent vintage,
purchased in the last 3 years, which is what most of
us are using for standard Web access applications anyway.
Getting decent telecommunications bandwidth is the
most important requirement. Bandwidth is the bottleneck,
not demands for supergigaHertz computer processing
speeds. Simple dial-up modem speeds don't cut it for
offering WCT service. You'll need ISDN, DSL, or cable
Bandwidth isn't a defining limit for any but the
smallest information operations anymore. In my own
office, in an austerity-conscious state agency, fast
network access is standard infrastructure, just like
telephone or electricity. You most likely have the
bandwidth capability if your operation is already seriously
using the Internet as an information resource. If not,
it's upgrade time.
WCT is quite effective for delivering services to
the current mainstream American population. PCs and
telecommunications haven't yet matched the penetration
of telephones, but your best customers, your power
users, are much more likely to be receptive to new
technology. WCT enables you to offer instant quality
professional information services to these preferred
With WCT, library users can get quick research consultations,
enjoy tech support hand-holding, make and complete
information requests and transactions, and receive
bulky information content packages. Best of all, they
can do it without taking the trouble to physically
transport themselves over to the library or information
center. No walking across campus, no looking for a
parking space, no taking a break from what they're
working on. It's a library school truism, going back
to Ranganathan, that use of an information resource
declines in inverse proportion to the effort and travel
distance for using that resource. (Well, we haven't
quite gotten to the information service level of talking
to HAL or to the Enterprise computer, but we're getting
there fast, in terms of information access convenience.)
No doubt about it...Web conferencing is cost-effective,
both for library staff time and productivity, as well
as for the added value of offering quick, pleasant,
easy transactions to prime information consumers.
WCT TECHNOLOGY EVOLUTION
Current WCT developed from the early geek/hacker
experiments with personal telecommunications. These
included chat software, Webcams, slow-scan television,
and the early videoconferencing attempts like CUSeeMe.
Technology advances in speed and bandwidth, and the
use of CCD digital video devices gave another boost
to the quality. It's gone from amateurish, fuzzy, scratchy,
jumpy video and garbled audio over to some fairly high-quality
audio/video transmissions. If, like me, you've dropped
in now and again through the speeded-up Web years to
look at video communications, you've seen rapid jumps
in quality and capability of WCT offerings.
True, the video is not yet at broadcast TV quality.
But it's getting there. And the text and graphic displays
are top quality. For example, many of the WCT packages
handle PowerPoint presentations with pretty much the
same quality you will see on your desktop. Many packages
include text chat, whiteboard (ad hoc drawing), and
recording functions. Web co-browsing or simultaneous
viewing of Web pages at the host and remote site is
becoming common. These abilities, along with the good
audio, handle much of what we need to provide effective
Note: Most computer audio conferencing systems require
use of a computer headset with earphone and boom microphone.
These run as little as $10 or so at your local computer
or electronics store.
LEVELS OF WCT ABILITY
The cost/ability ratio for WCT has improved immensely
over the last few years, and I don't see signs of it
slowing down. There almost seems to be a Moore's Law
for WCT applications, with power and cost constantly
changing in opposite directions. Who wouldn't appreciate
more power at less cost?
WCT offerings have generally split into three major
Peer-to-peer software packages, talking
Host licensing, in which the buyer
installs software to host videoconferencing for remote
PCs using client software or Web browsers
Hosted services, in which individuals
or organizations pay a vendor on a subscription
or pay-per-use basis for providing the service from
commercial host site
I guesstimate the WCT marketplace to have somewhere
in the area of 100 software or service packages at
present. As elsewhere in computer software technology,
it's definitely turning into a buyer's market. What
follows are only a few examples of the wide variety
of products you can buy at various price levels, cost
top to bottom in this case.
1. WebEx [www.webex.com]: A top-of-the-line
hosted service, with real horsepower, at a high-roller
Claiming more than 60 percent of Web conferencing
market share, WebEx is widely used by corporate
enterprises. It provides capabilities for tech support
one-to-one or multiple-user online meetings, large
group meetings (into the thousands), Web conferencing,
video conferencing services, and interactive classrooms.
Functions include audio/video conferencing,
recording of sessions, recorded presentations,
encrypted communications, application sharing (joint
editing of programs such as word processors, spreadsheets,
or databases), whiteboard, Flash, and streaming
Cost: Enterprise pricing levels are quoted
in the $200/user/month range for groups of 10-25 users.
WebEx also just began pay-per-use pricing at 45¢/user/min
plus 10¢/usermin telecom. This means a 50-minute
meeting with 20 people would cost $550. Better
than travel costs, but not cheap.
2. Talking Communities [http://talk3.talkingcommunities.com/]:
Economically priced hosted service.
Uses iVocalize software; it also sells
or leases the server software for local server installation.
Functions include voice conferencing, text
chat, Web co-browsing, and easy creation of Web
presentations (recording, editing, and broadcasting).
for 25 users, multiple rooms, no recording ability; "Basic"$95
for 25 users, multiple rooms, recording ability;
for 25 users, multiple rooms, recording ability,
guaranteed bandwidth, redundant servers for
100 percent uptime.
Discounts phase in for higher user numbers,
e.g., $320/month for 100 users at Basic level.
Server purchases, one-time payment, $50
for five users, one "conference room;" $30/seat
one-time payment in 10-user increments for
multiple users, unlimited
Server leasing, $1.50/user/month,
minimum 300 users ($450/month for 300 users).
Pay-per-use note: Talking Communities hosts
small or large meetings or conferences at the bargain
price of $1/hr.
3. Glance Networks [www.glance.net/]: Subscription
service, bargain priced, barebones capability, but
quite useful (e.g., reference staff here at Oregon
State Library use this product frequently for quick
instruction or help sessions with remote patrons).
Completely browser-based, no software plug-ins
as many other products require. No audio, for use
with phone conversations. User goes to Web site,
a session number provided by operator at your site,
and instantly sees a duplicate image of your monitor
screen. Unbelievably simple, no learning curve
for operator or user.
Functions include demo software, review documents or spreadsheets, make
presentations; the remote user essentially "looks over your shoulder" and
sees exactly what's on your screen. This can include PowerPoint, word-processor
spreadsheets, video images, browser screens, etc. Note: Multiple viewers
are all synchronized; all users will get screen updates at the speed of
Cost: Bargain rates, one operator/one viewer$19.95/month,
$199/year; one operator/multiple viewers$39.95/month,
$399/year. Discounts for multiple subscriptions
These are but three examples out of many vendors.
The range of capabilities and pricing is clear; it's
a competitive marketplace.
LIBRARY WCT APPLICATIONS
The functions described are clearly applicable to
library and information center usage. They support
the ideas mentioned above, including remote patron
support and interaction; technical support; consultative
research aid; training and tutorial applications; recorded
and broadcast presentations; and small and large meetings.
We're already seeing WCT type of applications in
the currently developing "virtual reference" library
services. Systems for these efforts have been pretty
much on the high end of the WCT spectrum. But I suggest
that 1) there are many other uses for this software
technology, and, 2) you don't need to stick to the
high-priced variety to get useful functions. That's
analogous to only using expensive, high-tech, multi-button
telephone handsets at limited locations, instead of
using normal handsets to distribute a widely available
and productive desktop tool to library staff.
WCT services are economical and cost effective for
information operation applications. The hardware platform
requirements and costs are well within the reach of
many operations. The capabilities WCT provides to your
operation and customer services are right up there
on the leading edge of social and technological evolution.
Providing these services also sends clear marketing
messages to your clients; that speedy, responsive customer
service is a high priority at your shop, and that your
operation knows whereof it speaks in the information
technology realm. Introducing WCT into your information
environment marks you as a technological leader.
Perez [email@example.com] is program manager, Oregon
Comments? E-mail letters
to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.