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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

The library of the future: public Libraries and the Internet

Chris Batt, Croydon Libraries, Museum and Arts, Croydon, UK


Will the public library of the future be different from the public library of the past? For over 15 years we have seen the development of sophisticated information systems and the spread of the personal computer, yet all the public libraries I have seen recently look much as they did 20 years ago. They are places of books and people. The march of information technology has changed service presentation - library management systems have reduced the manual tasks of checkin, checkout, catalogue management and the like - but the media which are used today are those which have served public librarians for years. The changes wrought by information technology have been at the margins.

Will the public library disappear? If the Internet revolution which is promoted by the world's media becomes a reality, with limitless information available to every citizen wherever they are, will public libraries have any role to fulfill? Perhaps the question should be, when will public libraries disappear?

In this paper I will try to demonstrate that far from being marginalised by the developing networks of information epitomised by the Internet, public libraries throughout the world have the chance to become more relevant to people's lives than ever before. I will review some of the key developments in the use of the Internet in public libraries which have taken place and from this evidence I will describe the opportunities which public libraries have to place themselves at the centre of their community's information network. First, what is the Internet?

The basis of the Internet is the connection together of a very large number of separate computer networks. The statistics of size do nothing to help the scale of the Internet since the numbers are so large. Estimates vary from 30 to 40 million users and between 1 and 2 million information server computers connected. There is, of course, no strong central management of the Internet. No one deciding who can do what and how all of the countless information sources are co-ordinated to provide a unified system which is easy for even the na´ve computer user to understand. Nor is that likely when one becomes aware of the development background to the Internet.

The origins of the Internet lie in the various academic and research computer networks which developed in the 70s and 80s. Networks which started as a means of sharing information within a particular institution became joined together into larger meta-networks as the advantages of information sharing and person-to-person communication (e-mail) became quickly apparent. From joining institutional and regional networks together it was a small step to join those networks of networks to similar systems around the world. The Internet was born. This incremental development means that not only is there no co-ordination, there is no underlying framework for the interchange of information either. As we shall see, it is important to understand the structure of the networks and the traditional patterns of behaviour by users when exploring the value of the Internet to public libraries and their customers.

An example. We must understand that the academic origins of the Internet have influenced the priorities for development. The researcher or student expects to search for information. The serendipity of setting out in search of a particular piece of information and finding something completely different (but just as important) has produce many important discoveries. The story of Isaac Newton reading under an apple tree and being struck by an apple - belhold gravity, is perhaps an extreme example of this phenomenon. The need to search is accepted by the researcher and time will usually be invested without too much concern for the costs. Access to the Internet within institutions has generally been free of charge so that the only measure of success is finding useful information. The cost of finding the information has never been of much concern. Can we apply this academic model of searching to the public library context? The answer as we will see in more detail later is yes and no! However, in contrast to the academic world, the vast majority of public libraries will find that they must pay directly for network access and will expect to show some tangible return for their investment. They will expect to make judgements based on criteria such as better information resources, quicker answers, more cost-effective services. The academic model does not fit well with this; nor does the traditional structure of the Internet make it easy to gain access to the wealth of information without considerable effort.


Of course, such obstacles have not stopped public libraries joining in. An American survey undertaken in 1994 (McClure, C. Public Libraries and the Internet, 1994) shows that overall 21% of US public libraries have a connection to the Internet. The connection may be as simple as a PC and modem through which a 'dial-up' connection is made, (a method identical to the online searching that many public libraries have done for years). However, some of those US public libraries have made available comprehensive information resources which others may access across the Internet, from home, the school, the office, and 13% provide terminals for their customers to use within the library. There has been considerable state and federal support for the creation of information networks which are accessible to everyone, allowing them to communicate with others and obtain information which can add value to the quality of their lives.

While public libraries in the US have made the most use of the Internet, those in other countries have not been slow to experiment. Indeed, it is easy to be caught up in the Internet panic from which many librarians now seem to suffer. A feeling that they must become a part of the network, without much idea of what benefit its will bring (and what costs there are likely to be in reaching those benefits). The UK is no exception to this experimentation. There are currently three major research projects under way to explore the value of the Internet to public libraries and to help library managers to see what the costs and benefits of access really are.

ITPOINT is a project being run at Chelmsley Wood Library in Solihull, a town just south of Birmingham. Funded by the British Library Research and Development Department, ITPOINT intends to demonstrate the benefits of providing a particular community with a wide range of IT resources. The library has CDROM, computer assisted learning, and the Internet, all for direct public access. The project is still in progress and results are, therefore, not yet available, but it is already evident that community demand for the services, including the Internet, far outstrip the resources that can be provided - particularly the specialist staff who train and troubleshoot. With regard to the Internet, the evidence so far shows that while 40 or more hours a week of access are used by the public, that use is limited to a few enthusiasts. This situation reflects what some US public libraries found when first providing public Internet terminals. It is doubtful whether general community benefit can be gained from such patterns of use.

EARL (Electronic Access to Resources in Libraries) Project Earl is a collaborative exercise involving public libraries all over the UK. It is intended as a provider of network resources - it will have a World Wide Web server on which public libraries can mount their own pages of information; it will be a facilitator - negotiating discounted prices for network connectivity, giving advice on technical solutions; it will be a supporter - offering help when member libraries have difficulties; and finally it will be a co-ordinator - encouraging public libraries in the UK to collaborate in the collection and dissemination of information across the Internet. Earl has just started to offer some of these services, partly funded by government, partly by subscriptions from interested libraries. Project Earl represents an important experiment in network co-operation. CLIP (Croydon Libraries Internet Project), which I will describe in more detail, has now been running for a little over six months of its 18 month life. Based in the new Croydon Central Library, the purpose of CLIP is to establish the value of the Internet to public libraries in the UK. To provide pointers to costs and advantages; to show what is practical and what tangible benefits can be expected.

What components make up CLIP? There are the physical things that are needed to run an Internet project:

To give direction to these physical resources, there are objectives for the project and a framework timetable. The project proposal presented to the British Library Research and Development Department for funding detailed three objectives for CLIP. These were:

  1. The Electronic Reference Book Identify questions which can be more easily (or more cheaply) answered by INTERNET access rather than by traditional methods;

  2. Public Access Identify a control group of customers who will be provided with access to the INTERNET. Observe and evaluate the benefits which they gain from such access;

  3. Network Access methods of connection; the economics; technical concerns.

One and two represent two sides of a coin. The electronic reference book model provides the means of assessing how the resources of the Internet can be used to support the enquiry answering process. People have been using the Internet as a reference resource for a long time, but there remains a significant overhead in search times due to the poor indexing/signposting which has been a feature of the 'Net. A customer arriving at an enquiry desk with a question might be rather thrown by a staff member who said that they would go 'surfing' for the information, but it might take a couple of hours! What the customers in the queue behind would say beggars imagination. However, just as online searching in public libraries is a backroom, support task, so access to the Internet for information can be done in the same way. We have identified a number of relevant resources which will add value to current services:

Stumpers: a international network of librarians willing to lend their time to answering the impossible questions we all get. Put up your question and with luck an answer will appear from somewhere in the world within 30 minutes or so. Croydon Libraries staff have put up questions and answer questions as well. Stumpers raises some questions of return on investment should we be answering reference enquiries for a customer in British Columbia for example, when we could be paying more attention to our own? The concept of such co operation is very interesting and we continue to build a history of Stumpers activity to assess the balance of 'giving and taking'.

Specialist databases: we have spotted some very comprehensive databases the contents of which is not matched by anything in printed or online format. Glazebase at the University of Southern California is a good example. It holds information on glazes beyond anything we have found elsewhere. There are plenty of others.

Subject guides: there are a number of places on the Internet that now hold detailed subject guides for certain areas of knowledge. The University of Michigan is one of the leaders in this field, and their work is a model which public libraries might follow to produce guides of particular relevance to their own client groups. YAHOO and, of course, BUBL are other growing examples. Routes to these subject guides can be found on the British Library's Portico information service at <URL:http://www.bl.uk/>

This work has included the how as well as the what. Our Project Officer has trained a number of staff to use the Internet and while she advances to part two of the project, those other staff are developing their skills; which will provide further searching methodologies to be shared with others.

CLIP is intended very much as a learning process which can be offered to colleagues and we believe that while public access is important to the future of public libraries, we must understand the processes and patterns of use which are likely to be beneficial to customers, and those that are not. Our study of public access is a limited, controlled experiment with 12 library users.

We have now selected our 12 guinea pigs, chosen to provide a reasonable cross section of current library users. We do not pretend that we can produce a balanced sample or a sample chosen at random. We do not need to at this stage. Our purpose is to gain a better understanding of use patterns and value how can we help people to use the Internet effectively? What value can be returned to them? What is easy for them? What do some find hard to deal with? How can we help them to gain confidence? Quite obviously, 'the Croydon Twelve' will not prove any grand new theories. Our intent is more to do with the process than just the outputs.

We will train 'the Croydon Twelve' and then observe and mentor their use. After an agreed number of hours we will evaluate their experiences. This experiment is a means of exploring patterns of behaviour for users who mainly do not come from the academic world and therefore do not fit into the traditional academic model of network use. By the end of the process we will know more about people's behaviour; more about training needs and thus much more about the resources and costs involved in helping people to explore.

Finally the third objective (network access) presents a 'catch all' for a variety of practical issues. So far the technical problems of connecting across a network reliably to get WWW browsers working; of protecting what, until we started, was a private network; of matching routers; of understanding how the browser software interacts with our other networked systems have given the most headaches. The costs of getting the system to work on our existing network environment have not been trivial. In our experience the process will be both time consuming, frustrating and will cost more than you expect.

The 'supply side' economics is important. Value was referred to above under both the electronic reference book and public access aspects of the project. Value is the return that is achieved by the customer; it is their benefit (and thus our benefit). In exploring the use of the 'Net for public libraries, we must of course take into account the cost of service provision. We are separating set up and running costs and the various levels of Internet access that are available (dial up, dedicated connection) so that public library managers will be able to make sensible choices about what investment they may wish to make and what they can expect the investment to deliver.


What are the implications of all for this for the future of public libraries? How can we answer the questions that were posed at the beginning of this paper? The answer is that while we cannot be certain about the future for our services, we can and should be developing a vision which encompasses and enriches the potential of the Internet. If we do not do that then others will; and they will do it less well.

Despite resource limitations, despite the heavy demand many of us face for our traditional services, we must face up to the future and ensure that the unique skills of librarians to manage information and the unique value of the public library as a focus for community life are shared with others.

Let me share my vision with you. It is my belief that public libraries face their biggest challenge yet. A challenge which, if successful, could keep them at the very heart of community developments for many years to come. Information technology and networking now make it possible to manipulate and move information with ease; to package information in ways that can excite and enrich. We are already seeing the Internet being adopted by public librarians as a resource alongside CD-Rom, the PC and the library management system. However, in considering the future we must not simply translate the paradigms of the past into 'machine-readable form'! While there are features of public libraries which are to be cherished - the role as a community meeting place, a place to borrow books, a safe haven - we must look for new opportunities. Here are just a few examples:

Community Information Bank: Public libraries have for many years provided a focus for information about communities. Signposting information to other agencies has sat alongside files of information on the physical and intellectual resources that any community will have. With growing access to networks it is now possible to draw together all of the information resources more effectively. The traditional task of directing people elsewhere for information could be replaced by direct access to another agency's datafiles - a World Wide Web connection perhaps. Such an arrangement would furthermore allow easy access to the information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from any location with a PC and modem. It is already happening. The Freenets in the US and elsewhere, until now run by universities, provide a model which can be built on and public libraries in a number of countries are now beginning to explore this role as the community's information bank much more closely.

Virtual University: There is a growing awareness that learning does not cease at the end of full-time education. People learn throughout their lives and the development of open learning centres in public libraries is now receiving government funding in the UK. In parallel with this trend we find universities developing sophisticated network-based learning resources to support their courses. If they are networked, we should all be able to get to them. Rather than universities having rules to keep all but a few out, anyone and everyone could have access to these learning packages across the network. The public library, as the community information resource is set to become the virtual university. There are many people unable to follow course at a university who would be pleased to follow a high quality learning package designed for students, at the local library, or at home. The UK's Open University has demonstrated that remote learning is acceptable to many. It does not seem to me unreasonable to assume that within perhaps ten or twenty years the range of these resources will be such that we can replace traditional undergraduate learning with network-based resources available to all. The public library could be guide, resource centre and mediator.

New Markets: With network access it will be possible to develop services which are much more specifically targeted at groups within the community. While in the past many libraries have provided a wide range of business information in future we will be able direct selected information to particular groups and offer value-added services which will contribute to economic growth. In addition to packaging and delivering information it will be possible to open routes for those businesses to explore opportunities elsewhere, all from a locally managed service.

Connections: Finally, we must remember that the Internet is not just an information resource; it is a world of people. Public libraries could have an major role in the future in providing connections between people with similar interests. We try to meet the needs of many specialists; everyone has their own special interest and frequently traditional resources cannot match their demand for information. Mediating access to other experts and interest groups on the Internet would provide opportunities for information exchange which certainly do not exist for the majority of our customers today.

In time many of these activities will take place in the home, the school and the office rather than in libraries - it already happens. But it will be many years before such access routes become universal amd even then, I believe public libraries will still be needed as the place where the co-ordination is done, and the place where people still go for group activities and for face-to-face guidance.

We must take up the challenge now. If we do not promote the public library as a key player in the networked information game, others will take over and maximum community benefit may not be achieved. The technology exists to start these developments and by having a vision of possibilities which looks ahead two decades rather than two weeks, we can succeed.

People are going to need our help if they are to benefit from the wealth of information in Cyberspace; help to lead full lives and contribute to society with all the resources that could be available. With effective use of IT, public libraries could conquer the