Web Magazine for Information Professionals

IPL: The Internet Public Library

Schelle Simcox describes a Web-based public library, designed in many ways to mimic, and improve on, features of and within a real, large-scale library.

The Internet Public Library (IPL) is the first public library created of and for the Internet community and its style and service is similar to any large library. Your experience of the IPL will be different depending upon who you are and your expectations or needs when you visit its homepage. Given your needs, it can be a comforting place to base your explorations of useful material, a place to begin your research, or a place for a child to turn the pages of one of the books in the youth division. On the surface level, the IPL consists of a ready reference collection, youth and teen divisions, an exhibit hall, a reading room, services to librarians and a MOO (a multi-user real-time telnet accessible environment). Until you get to the "services to librarians", and the "MOO", this seems very familiar - reminiscent of a typical library with walls and books. However the IPL is a library that from the first, was conceived on and for the Internet community. This fact often changes the viewpoint of a visitor to the library in some very fundamental ways. What the IPL is and what services it offers, who the people are behind the scenes at the library, and why they "built" it the way they did are questions which arise for librarians and our patrons as they explore this site. The IPL web site is quite popular, receiving over 100,000 "hits" a day, but the problem now becomes an issue of how the library will be sustained. This article will attempt to answer these questions, while at the same time, present many of the issues we as librarians have been grappling with as the Internet becomes a routine part of our lives.

Work began on the IPL in January 5, 1995 and the electronic doors opened on March 17, 1995. The IPL consumed three very intense months (actually 70 days) of work by 35 graduate students at the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies (SILS) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Thanks to an extremely well-written press release, we had over 3000 members on our listserv in less than a week, and an extensive following before the library even opened. At that time in early 1995, the Internet was still very new, and nothing like the Internet Public Library existed. In fact, the description of the graduate seminar attracted potential members by asking the question: "What do you think a library on the Internet would look like? What would it be?" This question was answered in three short months, with the library looking very similar to what you see today.

A special group of people, ready to take on the challenge of the unknown began the IPL. In 1995, the typical library student was changing at SILS. The school was beginning to accept "Digital Library Associates" - students with experiences in computer science, engineering, publishing, and media communications. These students, along with students with a more traditional background of law, literature, and the arts, came together to investigate what this new genre had to offer the library profession. In the first class meeting for what was to eventually become the IPL, class members separated into various divisions: reference, youth, services to librarians, public relations, design and technology. In each group the task of translating traditional library services to the web began. The design and technology group had the additional task of translating each groups' ideas into feasible web design.

It may be asked: Why use a library metaphor, why not create something completely different? However, it was obvious that the library example was a powerful one. It allowed us to easily talk to each other about core concepts of a library and begin the work of translating them to this environment. This metaphor has also worked beautifully with our patrons; the Internet community who can immediately imagine the kinds of services that "should" fall under the headings reference, reading room, or youth.

In order to delve a little deeper into the IPL, let's take a quick tour of the library:

Reference Center

The reference center [1] consists of the "ready reference collection" and the "Ask a Question" service. The ready reference collection was developed as a broad subject based collection of Internet resources that would be used by librarians and patrons to answer a broad range of questions quickly. This collection continues to grow, although our selection policy is quite thorough and collection development is time-consuming. Resources for the ready reference are selected if they are maintained consistently, clearly organized, contain adequate information on a specific topic, contain a clear statement of responsibility, and graphics add to content rather than detract from it.

In the "Ask a Question" service, volunteer librarians from around the world answer reference questions. This extensive email-based reference service is handled by the software product "QRC" - developed specifically for this task. QRC is web-based software that organizes, archives, generates automatic responses, and handles both incoming and outgoing email. Through our reference service, and similar interactions, the IPL is seeing what people expect of librarians, and obtaining a glimpse our near future. We have found that people come to us expecting to find everything they need in electronic form. Many people desire extensive citation and research services, however, many of them do not know that these services are expensive and are available only in larger research institutions. It is likely that all libraries will find themselves a part of a world-wide community, in other words, the world will come to our doors via the Web. This will have ramifications for libraries and the services they can provide via the Internet; until there is a widely accepted method of billing for services via the Internet, libraries may need to limit the kinds of services they can offer to this community.

Reading Room

The reading room [2] consists of over 3000 titles that can be browsed or searched. Recently, as a result of cooperation with the Humanities Text Initiative [3], the IPL has added innovative browsing and searching features. The collection is now browsable by author, title, subject or Dewey decimal classification heading. All works can be searched by key word, author, title, subject or Dewey decimal classification heading.. These improvements were made possible by transferring each record contained in a Filemaker Pro database into SGML. These SGML records are then indexed by an SGML indexer, and CGI scripts interface with an SGML search engine to provide the searching and browsing capabilities.


The teen division [4] must adequately serve the needs of teenagers and young adults. In this division, teens have been asked to take a direct part in creating their own space. We have solicited teenagers from around the world to become a part of the teen advisory board. Social issues, college information, entertainment, and personal information must be made available to teens. Regardless of the worries in the popular press about access to explicit or inappropriate content for children, teens need to be treated with respect regarding their ability to use the Internet as a positive research tool.


The youth division [5] continues to be lauded in the press as a premier site on the Internet for children. In "Ask the Author" , authors have a chance to respond to children's questions. Once added to the list of authors, they are able to point to the IPL as a resource when they cope with their extensive fan mail. The "Story Hour" was the one requirement of us from our professor, and now Director, Joeseph Janes. This is a place for original electronic books. Children can open up a book, turn pages and in some books, hear the text read aloud to them. Many children from around the world participate in "A World of Reading", contributing their reviews of books they have read, and contribute to an annual story writing contests. For now, our major collection efforts for children have focused on science in the "Dr. Internet" section.

Exhibit Hall

The exhibit hall [6] began with one exhibit from the Detroit Museum of African American History, but has proven to be extremely popular as a place to explore curatorship in a web environment. In the exhibit hall: a special resource on music history combines audio clips with art history, we collaborate with Euphrates to present photographs from a black community, document a family history, and present exhibits from special archives and museum collections to a world-wide audience.

Services to Librarians

Our Services to Librarians [7] section contains resources for librarians on technology and on-the-job resources. This division will undergo a large refocusing of effort in the coming months. The services to librarians section will become the core of the "Internet Library Consortium".

Today the IPL continues to provide services to a worldwide community. We are based at the School of Information at the University of Michigan and receive funding from a variety of sources including the School of Information and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. With a full-time staff of six, we grapple with ways to sustain our "free" public library knowing that the services we provide: collecting, organizing and disseminating information, answering reference queries, and creating new resources does not come cheaply. We find ourselves in the position of needing to educate the information consumer - our patrons- of the monetary value of information and the value of library work. In addition, we must find funding so that the librarians from the IPL can continue the kinds of innovative work we have begun.

Our current major funding source, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded us so that we may find ways to sustain our operations for the long-term. This funding was for four efforts: the founding of an Internet Library Consortium, an Internet newsletter for children, an investigation into fee-for-service research, and the organization of a friends program (volunteer support) for the IPL. One of the projects, the publication of a newsletter for children is in full swing. "WebINK: Internet Newsletter for Kids" [8] is a bi-monthly print and web-based publication available via subscription for $19.95 US and $29.95 International. From the start, the newsletter was designed to introduce the Web to parent, teachers, and children. Twelve pages of articles (including four pages for parents and teachers) include citations to books and Web resources, showing children and parents how to integrate this new media into their lives, find meaningful sources of information, and learn how to utilize the web. WebINK covers a single topic in each issue from many angles, integrating the web with curriculum and other forms of learning. The response from teachers, school librarians and media specialists has been quite good, and we hope that eventually the profits from this publication will fund the day-to-day operations of the library.

The IPL has become a kind of online publisher, creating specialized resources for patrons such as "Associations of the Net" [9] a collection of associations who provide useful information on the Web, POTUS: Presidents of the United States [10] - an extensive resource that includes historical documents, audio clips of speeches, photographs, and other information. We have created many other special resources such as the photo collection: Genesis: A Photographic Essay of the Black Community in Kansas City, Missouri from 1885 [11] and a virtual tour of an auto assembly plant for children in the resource: "So You Want to Make a Car...." [12]. We began publishing these resources because many patrons have requested them or because we have seen a lack of depth on the Internet in a particular area. Perhaps this will be a similar future for many libraries, who will find themselves responding to the stated needs of their patrons, and will collect, write and publish web-based resources addressing those needs. Many libraries possess material that is fragile or available only on site, or at special request: one must go to the collection in order to make use of it. It may become more and more important for libraries to offer those special collections digitally, thereby reaching a far wider audience than ever before.

What will the digital library of the future be? Many of us have been expected to answer the question: "Do you think we will need libraries in the future when you will be able to find everything on your computer?" As electronic texts in various formats become commonplace, many wonder if paper and books will be replaced by "digital libraries". We don't believe this will happen, not anytime soon. Until we have solved some fundamental user-interface issues, possess ubiquitous and flexible electronic formats, and created usable standards for all electronic media, the world will likely want and need libraries and books for many years to come. The IPL is not only a collection of electronic texts, although we do collect, catalog, and bring them together in one comprehensive collection, our library is more than that. The IPL has shown us that the "digital" library allows us to know patrons in a way never before possible, respond to their needs in novel ways, and rely on an ever widening group of colleagues who will be providing unique resources of their own. This must affect the public's perception of our profession, and our perceptions of our own role in providing services to this rapidly expanding world view. The Web is different from anything that has come before, it allows communication and sharing of information in ways never before possible.


[1] Reference Centre,

[2] Reading Room,

[3] Humanities Text Initiative,

[4] Teen Division,

[5] Youth Division.,

[6] Exhibit Hall,

[7] Services to Librarians,

[8] WebINK: Internet Newsletter for Kids,

[9] Associations on the Net,

[10] POTUS: Presidents of the United States,

[11] Genesis: A Photographic Essay of the Black Community in Kansas City, Missouri from 1885,

[12] "So you want to make a car" Web site,

Author Details

Schelle Simcox is the Assistant Director and Managing Editor of the Internet Public Library
Email: ssimcox@umich.edu