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  History of Four County Library System's Cybermobile

Rolling into the 21st Century
© by Paul Golaszewski

The electronic touch of today's fast-paced, Web-wired world reaches out to virtually every one of us, regardless where we may be -- at home, at work, and now, even while we're trundling around town in our SUVs.

For the remaining (and ever-decreasing) minority of people without any Internet access at all, a quick trip to a computer workstation at the local public library is the typical solution. Unfortunately, more than one million residents of New York State - the highest number for any state in the country - don't have this alternative because they lack access to even the most basic library service.

But ever since January 2001 in the central upstate New York territory of Four County Library System, unserved residents can make their own connection with the Internet simply by climbing aboard Four County's Cybermobile.

The 37-foot custom-built Cybermobile was the world's first to provide public Internet access exclusively via satellite. This 21st century version of the original book wagon (see sidebar) is bringing the next generation of information to those living in some of New York's smallest towns and villages.

"One of our most important roles is to provide library services to residents who are geographically isolated or who otherwise do not have convenient access to a library," said David Karre, executive director and CEO of Four County Library System in Vestal, whose 35 full- and part-time staff members serve 42 public libraries in a territory three times the size of Delaware. "The Cybermobile is one way for us to ensure that our rural neighbors do not become information-poor casualties in an information-rich society."

Stepping up to meet special challenges
The vision for the Cybermobile project came in 1998 when Karre recognized the fast-approaching need to replace the organization's aging bookmobile, its third since the service began 35 years ago. While attending the American Library Association's annual conference, it occurred to him that to properly meet the needs of his heavily rural population, a new-age bookmobile was called for, one that could deliver enhanced services that included Internet access. Thus was born Four County Library System's Cybermobile concept, but it would have an innovative twist."

Four County's territory is sliced by the foothills of the Catskills and Adirondacks, where there are few Internet or cellular phone service providers," Karre said. "Even landline-based telephone service is limited in some places. The only practical method for linking with the Internet at the 50-plus sites our vehicle visits was via satellite."

Consultations with a Rochester-based global communications company proved this to be the most cost-effective method for ongoing delivery of mobile Internet access. It's also the method used by international companies and the U.S. military for efficiently serving similar types of remote locations. "Our goal was not to simply replace but to dramatically improve upon the traditional 'books-only' delivery vehicle," said Janet Potter, then Four County's board president, and director, Milne Memorial Library, State University of New York College at Oneonta.

Four County's project included the Cybermobile with 1.2-meter controllable rooftop satellite dish antenna, a 2.4-meter fixed antenna at the System's offices, and full-time satellite access with 100% closed network capability. In the field, the Cybermobile links via satellite with the System's network; there the Internet connection is made and the vehicle's onboard computers brought online.

Today, the high-tech Cybermobile is on the road bringing cost-effective service to customers, enabling them to access the Internet, the regional library catalog, and virtually the entire spectrum of electronic resources. It also opens the door to teleconferencing and online or distance learning opportunities. In addition, Four County Library System is exploring collaborative partnerships with corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations that can help deliver other value-added services in fields such as workforce development, health care, and youth programs.


Reaching out with a powerful new tool
"The Cybermobile gives us an effective way to reach out to unserved residents who are unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise at a disadvantage," said Steve Bachman, Four County's outreach and electronic services manager.

One such application is to satisfy rural patrons' needs to find new employment opportunities and advance their careers. "This is a critically important function, just as it is at a traditional bricks-and-mortar public library," Bachman said. Job seekers and those striving to enhance their careers can use the Cybermobile to learn about job markets and employment trends; find wage and salary information; search job banks and connect with placement resources; explore Civil Service exam information; and create and post electronic resumes.

The $295,000 cost of the project was covered by grants and other support awarded to Four County. These include a $50,000 New York State Senate initiative, a $105,000 federal appropriation from US Senator Charles Schumer and US Representative Maurice Hinchey, as well as grants from five private foundations and Verizon Foundation. The Cybermobile also is supported, in part, by Federal Library Services and Technology Act funds, awarded to the New York State Library by the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Cybermobile was built by Matthews Specialty Vehicles as the replacement for a 13-year-old bookmobile that logged 175,000 miles. Global Communications Solutions designed and installed the satellite linkage system. IBM Corporation donated six ThinkPad notebook computers, each with 15-inch high-resolution display, 550-MHz processor, and CD-ROM drive. Pear Creative Group, an award-winning graphic design firm in Endicott, NY, donated its time and expertise in creating Four County's new logo and Cybermobile graphics.

As a mobile public library, the vehicle carries a 3,000-volume collection of books, books-on-tape, and large-print books. The Cybermobile's integrated hardware delivers fast setup and connection with the Internet, excellent service efficiency with six computers, and rapid output of hard-copy information from two high-quality printers. An electric lift and portable wheelchair allow access for persons with disabilities, and a collapsible awning provides options for occasional delivery of programs outdoors.

"The Internet is a powerful tool for students and adults to do research for school projects, to find product information, to learn more about health care, and to stay informed about the world," said New York State Senator Thomas Libous of Binghamton, a public library advocate and key supporter of the project who provided the senate initiative that kicked off the development campaign. Added Janet Welch, New York State Librarian and assistant commissioner for libraries, "The Cybermobile can provide access to the Internet for people who would never have had it before.

"Four County Library System's ability to roll a 21st century library into remote communities allows it to uniquely fulfill its mission ". . . . to expand and improve library services in the four-county area . . . . to be a leader as a regional public library system . . . . to utilize the most current technology . . . ."

The Cybermobile is a vivid example of the way in which some of today's most remarkable technology can be applied to a beloved American icon.