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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

INTERNET in all Public Libraries. A major government initiative in Flanders (Belgium)

Mr. Jan Van Vaerenbergh
Centrale Openbare Bibliotheek,


In the course of 1996-97, the Flemish government connected its complete public library system to the internet. Although the main objective was of course to provide all citizens with an access to information worldwide, the underlying aim was to install a co-operative network among public library institutions that are basically solitary working bodies. Three steps have already been made:

The challenge for the future is to allow the infrastructure to evolve into the backbone of a genuine public libraries network, that strengthens the collaborative organisation and attitude of the networked individual public library.



Since 1995 Belgium is a federation of two language communities : the Dutchspeaking ‘Flanders’ and the Frenchspeaking ‘Wallonia’. In the seventies, cultural matters, including public libraries, was one of the first gouvernamental departments to be transferred to the communities. Both entities had a public libraries act voted in 1978, that was very similar with regard to rationale and content and that had the intention to bring about a landscape of interrelated public library institutions organised in a semi-hierarchical structure. These acts replaced the previous, completely outdated legislation of 1921.

This article deals with the situation in Flanders. (5.6 million inhabitants)

A crucial factor in the implementation of the library act, is the legally imposed responsibility for local authorities to organise a public library; only the private initiatives already operational before 1978 could continue to exist. The Flemish government has taken a bottom-up approach in stimulating the establisment of local public libraries that comply with the rules and regulations of the library act. The considerable financial effort of grants for staff (85% of wages) and, until 1995, 60% of investment costs resulted in 90% of the 308 communities having a public library, with over 90% of the population living in a library-equipped community. Six central public libraries, one for each province, fulfill a supporting function to the smaller local public libraries in their working area. The coping stone of the Flemish public library structure, a national support center, has not been established so far.

A tangible result from the library act, is the VLACC, the Flemish Automated Union Catalogue, that was initiated in 1987. The last four years, the impact of this networking initiative has increased markedly because of enhanced automation and networking technology. It is kept up to date through shared-cataloguing by the six central public libraries. It is the backbone of the national interlibrary loan-system and it offers single public libraries both input for acquisitions as the possibility to download records in their local databases.

Half of all public libraries regularly use VLACC-data for inhouse activities, but most of them use one of the batch products: a cd-rom or diskette format. Seven out of ten libraries have been automated or are in one or another preparatory phase. It is not self-evident that also the smaller public libraries will effectively get automated over the next few years.

After all, the majority of the local communities in Belgium have a very small population, the average being 20.000 inhabitants. This is too small a basis which hardly leaves any margin for major investments or innovative services.

The local authorities are autonomous bodies -every one has to cater independently for their citizen’s needs- and so there is no stimulus or tradition of co-operation. As mentioned before, the implementation of the library act resulted in a densely populated library landscape because most local authorities stood up to the challenge, but all of them seperately and with few means. Since grants are tied up to the number of population served, the other side of the coin of this dense public library landscape is that most libraries do not have any financial strength for whatever IT related inintiatives they might be interested in.

Moreover, on the local level, internal administrative rules are too rigid to allow for a flexible and autonomous policy. Since libraries are city depertments, they don’t dispose of a dedicated budget the librarian can spend as he sees fit. Every purchase has to be approved by the city council. This way of deciding and financing severely hampers the integration of new services.


Within the libraries Department of the Flemish Ministry, a double strategy to overcome this deadlock has been developed. First of all, the library act is actually being revised in order to impose co-operation within a networking structure on all individual libraries. At the same time, an intranet amongst all public libraries is being put in place.

In July 1996, the Flemish government decided to connect all public ibraries to the internet. Of course, the overriding objective of the government’s decision is to provide all citizens with an easily accessible -both in terms of money as in assistance offered- connection to information worldwide.

Before this aim can be accomplished, it is necessary a) to have an infrastructure in place, b) to make sure that librarians are able to work with it and c) to provide guidance and assistance for the non-professional user. These requirements correspond with the three main parts of the initiative:

1.1. The infrastructure was put in place by the end of June 1997.

This was a major technical operation, implying:

All costs associated with this project are paid for by the Flemish government, except for the communication costs of individual libraries.

1.2. BIBNET is the website for public libraries.

Apart from being a convenient tool for the librarian, BIBnet allows the “average” library to become familiar with the internet and its features.

1.2.1. BIBNET as a communications channel

At the moment, three communication types are available:

  1. Communication between public libraries and their users

  2. Communication between the public libraries by

  3. Communication between the public libraries and the Government through

    Two communication types will be developed at a later stage:

  4. The communication between the public libraries and their suppliers.

  5. The communication between the users.

1.2.2. Contents of BIBnet

BIBNET consists of two sections. The first one is intended for the library users. The second part is reserved for the librarians.

1. The section ‘library user’ of the site contains the following main headings:

These files can be accessed in 2 ways:

This index is updated daily on the basis of new classified sites and of new or altered keywords, input by the VLACC.

All the pages are structured according to certain layout instructions and reflect a very high degree of user-friendliness.

2. The section ‘librarian’

This section comprises a public librarian’s entire working field.

The librarian also has all the options that are offered to the user.

1.3. training of staff

For each library, two members of staff attended a two-day training. The first, theoretical session, covered the following:

In a second, parctical session, staff was trained in


2.1. Steering Group , composed of representatives of the Libraries Department, the technical partner in charge of the project and twelve librarians.

The assignment of the Steering Group is:

With respect to the latter assignment, the following have been achieved so far:

2.2. Important areas of work to be accomplished in the near future are:

The BIBNET-website is expected to act as a catalyst to get more -if not all- Flemish public libraries on the internet. BIBNET will offer them a standard yet indivudualisable page on the Web.

Referring back to its rationale -to stimulate co-operation between public libraries- this initiative should exceed its features of worldwide information source and professional communications channel and evolve into the backbone of a public libraries network. The aim is to strengthen the collaborative organisation and attitude of the networked individual public library. Models for resource development and resource sharing will be drawn, subsequently tested and evaluated on their impact and cost-effectiveness.To learn as much as possible from co-operative experiences from other library systems, the Libraries Department has submitted a project proposal in response to the latest call for proposals from the European Commission. The consortium, consisting of the Greek Ministry of National Education, Probiblio (the largest regional service-providing organisation for rural public libraries in The Netherlands), the EARL-consortium of the UK and the Finnish Library Association, will develop different models, tools and applications for building and enhancing public library network infrastructures over the internet. Economic models will be applied and social and human aspects related with the shift to networking will be taken into account and the possibilities of cross-sectoral co-operation will be explored.