Libraries: Go Forth and Collect Your Wi-Fi Usage! (…OK, but how?)

The Texas Public Libraries Annual Report asks public libraries each year to provide their annual number of Wi-Fi sessions. In addition to some other information that you provide in your Annual Report, your library’s Wi-Fi statistics are given to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) where they are aggregated with information to illustrate the state of libraries in the United States.  Beyond this state and federal request, collecting your Wi-Fi statistics serve the library’s best interests. This information provides crucial data for decision-making on purchasing, as well as communicating the value of the library to your stakeholders. If you don’t know how many people are accessing your library’s Wi-Fi, then how will you know when to upgrade your bandwidth, install more Access Points, or develop programming to meet specific users needs?  As library staff, we know providing free wireless access to the community is a staple of what public libraries do; it’s a crucial, supportive service that improves quality of life and gives access to those the library serves who may lack it at home. It stands to reason we would want to be able to monitor our Wi-Fi network’s use over time so that we can show value to our stakeholders.

So how do libraries go about collecting those numbers?

It’s important to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.  Many libraries have tackled the issue with a variety of methods, and one or more methods may simply not work for you depending on your library’s network setup or staff’s expertise/comfort level.

As a quick introduction to what’s involved with library Wi-Fi usage collection, here’s a rundown of the solutions out there:

1) Your Wi-Fi hardware has a built-in tool that collects statistics

Access Points (APs), modems and routers are the devices that connect your wireless devices to your wired network and Internet.

A photo that shows a wireless access point.
Wireless Access Point

These devices often have a web management interface that shows connection information.  You’ll need to log in manually using the information that came with the AP. If that’s long gone, you can often find this information with a quick Google Search for the model and make of the AP.  From there, look for the numbers; sometimes the section you need is referred to as “site survey” or “client information” in the interface.  To start collecting the data, periodically log in at each of your library’s individual access points at a predetermined schedule.

Screenshot of a router interface
Screenshot of a router interface

New to the settings interfaces of routers and access points? Check out our “You Can Do I.T.! Basic Network Technology for Libraries” course for a step-by-step router settings demo.

Some routers or firewalls collect usage in their logs, and you may be able to get access to these logs by contacting your County/City IT or your volunteers.  If you can control how it sets its logs, make sure it’s set to log a minimum of 12-24 hours.  If it can’t keep a whole year, you may have to take an average day or week and extrapolate the amount for the year (for example, multiplying by 52 if weekly). Be sure to account for holidays and other closures.

Have Meraki? Here are instructions for how to find the data on its dashboard.

2) The Captive Portal Solution

A captive portal (also called a splash page) is a web page that is shown before the user starts using the Internet when accessing the library’s Wi-Fi.  Many libraries use their splash screen to provide the library’s wireless and/or Internet usage guidelines (also known as terms of use). After the user accepts, it then redirects to the library’s website.

Screenshot that shows an example captive portal
A example of a Captive Portal with usage guidelines (Source: Brooklyn Public Library)

Libraries have found ways to count the number of successful acceptances of the terms of use, or they simply count the number of times someone has accessed that landing page.  Using a Web Analytics tool, one can monitor the number of page counts.  You can purchase a turn-key product, or use a free or open source tool.  Free, browser-based Google Analytics has become very popular.  Libraries can embed  tracking code on the splash page, and Google’s bots will begin tracking the page’s traffic for you.  The number of Wi-Fi sessions during the year can be extrapolated from its reports.

 3) Network Monitoring Utilities

Network scanners are software that scan your library’s wireless network and display the list of all computers and devices that are connected to your network. This option requires a dedicated computer or device running on your wireless network (laptop, tablet, phone). Run it periodically throughout the day based on your schedule for sample data, or run 24/7 to collect all the data for later analysis.  Set up a spreadsheet to record the sessions and extrapolate for the full year based on the schedule.

TIP: Does your library have its own devices connected to its Wi-Fi?  You will want to find a way to exclude them from your count. This could be done by setting up separate public and private wireless connections.

Graphic of a confused person

Confused?

The above may be new to you, and that’s okay! We’re here to help. If you have any questions, please get in touch with TSLAC’s Library Technology Consultants, Cindy Fisher or Henry Stokes, toll-free in TX: 800-252-9386.


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