In March 1998 I attended the 7th American Public Library Association National Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. The conference took place over three very cold days (the temperature reached 30·C) and was entitled "Vital, Valuable, Virtual" . This is probably one of the biggest public library conferences in the world and was attended by over 6,900 people. The conference didnt have one theme but had 10 separate lecture tracks which in total consisted of over 100 presentations. The themes of these lecture tracks ranged from childrens services to marketing to library buildings to policy issues to technology. All the programmes took place simultaneously and so each session meant choosing just one paper out of ten to listen to this could be frustrating when two interesting sounding papers clashed. I concentrated mainly on attending the technology presentations.
Talking to American librarians at the conference certainly gave the impression that most libraries there were already making use of the Internet and everyone seemed to have their own e-mail address. Public Internet access seemed very commonly provided and was seldom charged for. Indeed, it has been estimated that by May 1998 approximately 86% of public libraries in the USA will have an Internet connection and that these libraries will serve 97% of the American population . This higher level of connectivity and lack of charging may be indicative of the comparatively low cost of computer hardware, the very low telecommunication costs and the high awareness of the Internet in national culture in America. Indeed it was impossible to avoid references to the Internet in America as it seemed that all adverts, packaging and television programmes contained an URL.
What was very striking about the conference was the large amount of practical experience that many librarians already have of offering Internet services. Discussions were not based on what ifs but on actual experience that has been developed over several years. This kind of hands-on experience is being developed here in the UK but is still at an early stage.
One of the presentations where this development of experience came across most clearly was given by Sarah Mack of West Bloomfield Township public library . She discussed the way in which her library had been trying develop their library web site so it can provide 24 hour access to as many library services and resources as possible. To this end the library has worked with local organisations to make community information available, worked with local schools to make homework resources available on the web site, the librarys OPAC is web-accessible and library users can even e-mail in reference queries. The library also decided to become an Internet Service Provider for the area. Library users who connect to the library using this service can also access a number of online databases which the library subscribes to. The library has moved away from buying CD-ROMs to subscribing to online Internet databases instead. This means that these databases are accessible to library users through the librarys web site outside of library hours. Databases included in this service are the Magazines Database, Newsbank Online and Encyclopaedia Americana. This has provided to be a very popular service with the librarys users and really is a step towards the development of truly virtual library services.
Another very practical presentation I attended was given by Karen Schneider about filtering. Rather than discuss the rights and wrongs of filtering this presentation was about assessing how effective the filters actually were. The presentation described the different types of filtering software available, how they work and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they could be improved. It was a very pragmatic and useful introduction to the topic which was based on many librarians experiences of using filters. Anyone interested in learning more about her work can do so by visiting her web site which gives details about the research and a downloadable version of this presentation .
Funding problems seem to be common to all public librarians irrespective of their geographical location. As in the UK American public libraries are having to develop Internet services in addition to their traditional ones without an increase in their budget. It was with interest therefore that I attended a presentation given by the Gates Library Foundation . (Interestingly this presentation was one of more low-tech one I saw. Microsofts PowerPoint up until this point had been used by all presenters and this was the first one I saw were the presenter used OHPs). The Foundation has been set up by Bill and Melinda Gates to help public libraries across America and Canada to provide networked services to the public. It helps libraries buy hardware and provides access to technical support once it is in place. It has a budget of $400 million and so obviously been the source of much interest for public librarians in the US. The Foundation is still in its early days of development and is initially focusing on supporting libraries in low income areas only. Already it has given grants to 97% of public libraries in Alabama which could soon be the first State with 100% public library connectivity. The Foundation has the potential to have a big impact on the development of networked services in public libraries in America and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Other presentations that I attended explored how libraries can develop community information services on the Internet, what technology issues libraries need to be aware of when providing public access services, how to measure networked services success and a polemic against corporate America by Michael Moore (admittedly not much to do with public libraries and the Internet but very entertaining nonetheless). In addition to the lecture programme there was a large trade exhibition to wander around and collect the obligatory pens from. It was here that I had my greatest surprise of the conference because I can now confirm that Elvis isnt dead after all he now does promotion for a library security system. Having my photo taken with The King himself definitely was an unexpected highpoint!
Overall the conference was a fascinating opportunity to gain an insight into American public libraries. American libraries seem very well resourced and developed in terms of networked services. There is obviously much that UK libraries can learn from the American experience so far. But I soon became aware that there was little discussion at the conference about how to manage networked public library services on a national level. There was no equivalent of the New Library: The Peoples Network  report providing a national vision of the kind of content-led services libraries should aim to develop. There was no sense of a co-ordinated approach to developing Internet services at either a national and/or local level and there was no American version of EARL. In general there seemed to be little collaboration and co-operation in the development of public library Internet services. In the long term, I feel, this lack of collaboration may seriously limit the development of networked library services in the US.