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Net Neutrality: Access to Information and Reliance on an Open Internet

On August 29, 2017, the Association of Research Libraries filed reply comments in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proceeding “In the Matter of Restoring Internet Freedom.” The reply comments urge the FCC to maintain the current net neutrality policy and protect the work of ARL members, much of which depends on open, fast, broadband Internet access services. The comments highlight the unique role that research libraries play in the Internet ecosystem, review the record in the proceeding and suggest some practical solutions, and note the importance of strong network neutrality rules in protecting the First Amendment. ARL also filed reply comments jointly with higher education associations.

In addition to the examples highlighted in ARL’s reply comments, below are other collections, data sets, learning resources, and collaborations that are made possible and available because of strong net neutrality protections.

Providing Access to Vast Troves of Data

  • Arizona State University’s (ASU) Library Map and Geospatial Hub hosts thousands of geospatial datasets, primarily for the Phoenix, greater Arizona and American Southwest regions. It advances the use of geographically-referenced information by expanding access to and support for cartographic resources and geospatial technologies. The hub provides critical resources beyond the maps and geospatial data, including hardware tools and software. Researchers can use the data with various software, including web software such as Google Maps, Carto or Mapbox, for map interpretation, spatial analysis, data management and geovisualization to create new, value-added information. ASU affiliates can access the data both in the library as well as off campus and the hub supports trans-disciplinary collaboration across ASU and beyond.
  • The Big Ten Academic Alliance Geoportal, a project collectively managed by librarians and geospatial specialists at ten research institutions from across the Big Ten Academic Alliance—University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, and University of Wisconsin-Madison—aggregates and provides links to public GIS datasets, web services and digitized historical maps from 30 different collections from data clearinghouses and library catalogs, representing a geographical area encompassing the Upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The geoportal includes datasets such as county boundaries, road networks, bodies of waters, geology, public land surveys, historical maps and aerial imagery. The interface allows text and place based search options and the item pages display descriptive metadata records with external links to download or view the resources. These datasets can be used as base layers for cartography and for analysis. Some of the maps included in the geoportal are plain image files, while others are georeferenced with embedded spatial information. The geoportal is built with Geobacklight, a multi-institutional open-source collaboration for finding and sharing geospatial data and provides discoverability, facilitates access and connects scholars across the Big Ten Academic Alliance to the resources in the geoportal.
  • The Library of Congress released 25 million records in its online catalog available for free bulk download, representing the largest release of digital records in the Library’s history. The data covers a wide range of items in the Library’s collection including books, serials, computer files, manuscripts, maps, music and visual materials, covering a range from 1968 to 2014. The records include standardized information about the item, including the title, author, date of publication, subject headings, genre, related names, summary and other notes and the previously unexplored dataset can be used for a wide range of research.

Facilitating Discovery

  • Libraries support the use of films in courses, often relying on streaming media. Georgetown University, for example, has access to numerous streaming video collections including Films on Demand (10,000 documentaries, educational films, and instructional videos); Filmakers Library Online (1,100 documentaries); BBC Shakespeare Plays (BBC productions of Shakespeare’s plays); Asian Film Online (1,000 feature films, documentaries and shorts); and Business Education in Video (3,4000 short clips featuring executive interviews, corporate training video, and case studies), among others. The Georgetown library places a link to the requested film on the service, Blackboard, to allow students to view the film from any location with Internet access.
  • The Vanderbilt Television News Archive, a unit of the Vanderbilt University Libraries, is the world’s most extensive and complete archive of television news. The archive has been recording, preserving and providing access to television news broadcasts of the national networks since August 5, 1968. The extensive collection includes evening news from ABC, CBS and NBC since 1968, an hour per day of CNN since 1995 and Fox News since 2004. It also includes special news reports. The database currently includes 1,096,307 records, including abstracts at the story level of regular evening newscasts and catalog records for each special news report. Sponsoring colleges or universities may stream content from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive to its faculty, student and staff.

Preserving and Sharing Culture and Information

  • The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s digital collection, which includes historical collections of printed texts, music scores, sound recordings, videos, images, maps and more, has over 2 million images under curation. These digitized items are loosely organized into collections that cover art, ecology, literature, music, social science, the state of Wisconsin and more. These resources are free and publicly available for use online, well beyond the scholarly community. There are numerous unique collections offering materials that depend on high speed internet connectivity, such as the Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings with over 9,000 78rpm discs from locations across the world, offering audio of the culture and practices of early-mid 20th century Yiddish life. For example, one woman in South Africa noted that the first time she ever heard her grandmother’s voice occurred when listening to the oral histories in UW-Madison’s Africa Focus collection. The usage statistics for the digital collection reveals that many of the unique collections have hundreds of thousands of sessions/uses.
  • The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Community Oral History Project is an initiative taking place at NYPL branches that aims to document, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of the city’s unique communities by collecting the stories of people who have experienced it firsthand. Publishing the Community Oral History audio is the first step in a long, ongoing process of making these stories as accessible to the public is possible. Audio is hard to search, and thus, it is difficult to discover the growing  number of stories in this rich and diverse collection. With a combination of technology and community effort, NYPL is developing ways to make the stories more accessible, searchable, and discoverable. NYPL has relied on members of the community to stream and help transcribe over 1,000 oral histories.
  • NYPL offers over 210,000 high resolution images from its digitized collections. These images are made available to its users without restriction. Since the launch of the public domain release in January 2016, over 830,000 high resolution images have been downloaded.
  • NYPL’s collection also includes approximately 45,000 menus from the 1840s to the present. It is one of the largest collections of menus in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and food enthusiasts. Menus are difficult to search, however, for specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals and the type of information menus provide about the history of food and culture. NYPL relies on users to help transcribe the menus, dish by dish, through a tool that requires its users to have access to high resolution images. NYPL’s users have transcribed 1.3 million dishes from over 17,000 menus.
  • UCLA hosts the Tahrir Documents Project, an effort to digitize, translate and post online printed discourse collected during and after demonstrations responding to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The project had approximately ninety volunteer translators located in Egypt and abroad, working continuously to scan and translate collected documents between March 2011 and May 2012. Over five hundred diverse documents—ranging from flyers, newspapers, personal essays, poetry, advertisements and political party communications—were scanned and published, alongside partial to complete translations, on the website.
  • Zooniverse is a platform that partners the research community with volunteers around the world to crowdsource transcription, new discoveries and information. Zooniverse currently hosts 75 projects, from the Cyclone Center (classifying over 30 years of tropical storm data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), to the Milky Way Project (measuring and mapping the galaxy) to Operation War Diary (annotating and tagging diaries from World War I), to Shakespeare’s World (transcribing handwritten documents from Shakespeare’s contemporaries to better understand his life and times), allowing anyone to visit the project of interest online and contribute by answering simple questions about the content or transcribing information. The projects have produced published research papers and open-source sets of analyzed data. One of Zooniverse’s current projects is the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza Project, a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Princeton Geniza Project, the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library. The Scribes of the Cairo Geniza seeks volunteers to sort fragments to prepare them for the transcription phase based on their script types. As noted on the project page, “The results from Scribes of the Cairo Geniza have the potential to rewrite the history of the premodern Middle East, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade, and the Jewish diaspora. Until now, most of the information has remained locked away in undeciphered manuscript fragments; less than one-third of the 350,000 items have been catalogued in the 120 years that the cache has been known to exist.”
  • A number of libraries have hosted “edit-a-thons” for online communities, such as Wikipedia, to improve a specific topic or type of content. Wikipedia edit-a-thons have often focused on a specific topic, such as cultural heritage sites, museum collections, women’s history, social justice and other issues. For example, Michigan State University Libraries hosted a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in March 2017 to improve articles about people named to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Arizona State University Library joined in with Wikipedia Library and SPARC for an edit-a-thon for open access week in October 2015  to improve open access-related content.

Interactive Connected Spaces

  • NYPL hosts the game, “Find the Future,” an interactive, overnight experience played inside the Schwarzman Building. Find the Future is an ongoing online game that combines real-world missions with virtual clues and online collaboration, inspired by 100 works in the collections of the library. Find the Future was launched on May 20, 2011 as part of NYPL’s Centennial Festival and continues to be played today around the world, using a smartphone or computer.

Facilitating Data Management

  • Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN) enable researchers to organize and store their data and notes on their computer or mobile device. ELNs allow for searchability across notebooks, remote access and the ability to share notebooks with collaborators. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), LabArchives, a cloud-based ELN, is available to MIT faculty, staff, students and representatives. LabArchives allows data to be stored securely and multiple redundancies ensures availability at any time. Researchers can maintain all revisions of ELN entries and also create an offline notebook. The University of Chicago uses Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment (OCHRE) Data Service to record, integrate, analyze, publish and preserve cultural and historical information devoted to the study of the Ancient Near East. This integrative software system can be run from a link on a web browser and provides tools for entering and managing data of all forms. OCHRE is well-suited for collaborative projects as it is fully customizable and the model supports features to include attribution of specific content to the contributing scholar, allowing distinct interpretations of single items by different scholars, and multilingual and internationalization features.

Online Courses

  • Institutions of higher education today offer a wide range of online education, ranging from hybrid classrooms to fully online courses. George Washington University hosts GW Online, a division of Libraries and Academic Innovation, which provides online degree programs ranging from certificates, to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, to master’s degrees in disciplines including liberal arts, business, education, medicine and nursing. The Bachelor of Science in Clinical Health Sciences online program, for example, offers active-duty individuals in the Navy, Army and Air Force a way to formalize their specialized military training in medical fields to fulfill requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Penn State University hosts World Campus, with more than 125 degrees and certificates offered and nearly 18,000 students. World Campus operates as a centralized online delivery unit of Penn State and has provided online education since 1998 to distance learners, growing from the online education courses it began in 1892, when it launched its first correspondence study programs to farmers in Pennsylvania. Today World Campus specializes in serving adult learners, corporate partners and the military and its students can earn certificates and degrees, including master’s and doctoral degrees. In order to maintain the academic integrity of the program, some courses require assignments to be completed in a live setting on webcam. For example, students may be required to participate in live video conferences to earn credit for foreign language oral exams.