Monday, July 3, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

Austin public libraries to expand videoconferencing

The Austin Public Library Friends Foundation received a $120,000 grant from Google.org last Friday for Austin Public Library to expand videoconferencing to the rest of its branches.

The foundation applied for the grant that will fund needed technology, and it will award the money to the libraries in a public announcement soon. Google already funded the technology for existing videoconferencing units in nine libraries, with one in each City Council district except District 9. This grant will provide funding for the remaining 11 branches and the new Central Library, which is currently under construction.

“We are ecstatic to work with Google to provide videoconferencing technology for Austin public libraries,” said Tim Staley, the foundation’s executive director. “Once this technology is set up in the various branches … it is in the hands of the community to use and take advantage of and to develop useful and compelling applications of the technology.”

Videoconferencing is set up through Google Hangouts, an online video-calling service accessed either in a browser or through the app for iOS and Android devices. All users need is a Gmail account and a Gmail address for the person they’re looking to reach.

The grant allows libraries to purchase the cart, television and camera to hook up to a computer to activate Google Hangouts. Joe Faulk, Austin Public Library’s information system and business enterprise manager, said it takes staff about an hour to initially set everything up. Faulk said setting up Google Hangouts online is simple and only takes a few minutes, a task with which library staff can help.

“If you grew up using phones or whatever today, it’s basically Google Hangouts,” Faulk said. “Without even following directions you can sort of intuitively do it because you’re used to using apps like that.”

Toni Lambert, interim director of Libraries, said people who do not have the technology to video call at home can go to the library to connect with distant relatives and friends. Lambert also said since groups in the community use the library rooms for meetings, people who are homebound can participate in those meetings through videoconferencing.

“Say, for instance, you have a family member who was serving in the military overseas and you wanted to set up a videoconferencing chat session so that you could see and hear that person,” Lambert said. “And not just do the videoconferencing with one person but say you and your children want to talk to dad, well you could actually schedule a time to use the videoconferencing equipment.”

People have also used the videoconferencing to speak during the Citizen Communication portion of Council’s regular meetings, sparing them the trip to City Hall. The sign-up process to speak via videoconferencing is the same as it would be in person: by registering in advance through the Office of the City Clerk.

City spokesperson Alexa Muraida said there have not been any technical difficulties with videoconferencing for Council meetings.

Lambert said the community may use the public service however they wish, and hopes it will be used to connect people in new ways.

“I think that our customers will find lots of innovative ways of using it, and I think it’s great that Google is providing this,” Lambert said.

This story has been updated to clarify the grant was awarded by Google.org.

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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