Public Libraries and Community Networks: Linking Futures Together?

Malabika Das argues public libraries and community networks have a future together.

Public libraries serve their communities by fulfilling seven basic roles, including knowledge archival, the preservation and maintenance of culture, knowledge dissemination, knowledge sharing, information retrieval, education, and social interaction [1]. Each of these roles offers the general public the opportunity to recognize and view libraries as an integral part of a democratic society where access to free information has been (and still is) both expected and demanded. By comparison, community networks also have similar ideals for serving the public. They focus on providing an open place for communication, interaction, and the exchange of information and ideas. Thus together, both public libraries and community networks ultimately strive to serve the needs of the public. This article will examine the relationship between public libraries and community networks and why their futures are potentially linked into becoming one.

The Role of Public Libraries

In the past, public libraries placed a heavy emphasis on providing their clientele with print-based materials. Access to electronic information was limited because it was costly and because libraries did not have the physical equipment to be able to access this information. The growth of the Internet, however, has changed common opinions of how information should be provided to the public. Many governments, educational institutions, an assorted array of non-profit agencies, commercial organizations and numerous others recognize the Internet’s potential for broadcasting information to the masses. Consequently, this has led to many of them quickly 'jumping on the bandwagon' to get their messages across to the public. Such a situation has led to a flood of information being available electronically and has also led to a confusing proliferation of various software tools or programs that allow access to this information.

For the general public, this growth poses a problem. Where do they get the information and, more importantly, how do they get it? In the past, the likelihood was that most people did not have modems and computers to access this information [2]. Now, a greater number of users have direct access to the Internet either from home, school, or from work [3, 4] and are likely to try finding information for themselves [5]. Are these users successfully finding relevant, accurate resources? What types of search strategies are they using and what types of tools are being used to retrieve information? Public libraries are ideally placed to provide guidance on such issues. They can provide their services and their physical locations to facilitate access to the Internet.

Specifically, public libraries can have several roles:

  • They can act as a 'safety net' for people who otherwise might not have access. This would include low-income individuals, people in remote areas, and people who are not familiar with networking [6,7].
  • They can help people 'navigate' through and critically evaluate the complex maze of new information technologies [6, 8]. For example, librarians can create pathfinders and/or offer training sessions on how to use email, search engines, or do word processing and
  • They can help people develop and use new resources and forums [6]. For example, if individuals wish to be more actively involved in an electronic medium, such as creating a public forum on local issues, librarians can help them get access to both local and remote resources.

Of course, certain problems exist and must be addressed before public libraries can fully provide a complete offering of electronic services including:

  • Cost - Who will pay for such services especially given that public funding for libraries is generally decreasing? Some sample cost issues are hardware and software purchases (including long-term maintenance of the hardware and the updating of software), staff training, and communication costs (i.e., phone line rates). Programs such as E-rate in the United States that exist today to help lower technology and telecommunications costs may disappear tomorrow as the government re-examines the value of such programs and its ability to fund them (see Appendix).
  • Lack of uniform policies - While many librarians recognize the importance of providing access to the Internet or other electronic services, there is no universal law that ensures that libraries provide particular types of access (telnet, FTP, WWW, email, newsgroups, etc.) Many libraries are taking on this responsibility by their own initiative and this has led to differences between systems (e.g., different user-interfaces, command languages, log-on commands, etc.) [9]. The introduction of uniform policies would facilitate standardisation and promote greater access and sharing of resources between library systems. Recent initiatives in this direction include the use of Z39.50, Dublin Core, and XML standards.
  • Organisation of information - Should libraries be true information 'filterers' and provide information on demand, similar to several online services? Or should libraries simply organise electronic information into traditional bibliographies or indices for people to use as a reference? How can libraries best serve their clienteles' electronic information needs without impinging on their goal to provide such services for free?

The above discussion describes only some issues that public libraries will have to address as our society continues to integrate technology into our lives, relying more on electronic means to access information.

The Development of Community Networks

Community networks are based on the premise that access to information via electronic means should be a fundamental public right. Traditionally, computer networks have been an elitist enterprise - for researchers, for organisations, and for anyone else who had money. Computer technology was perceived to be expensive and information on networks was thought to be exclusive - meant only for those who had access and reason to view the information. Community networks strive to change this perception. Their goal is to promote literacy in computer technologies and to provide free or low-cost access to this 'exclusive' electronic information. The Morino Institute, for example, has called this phenomenon public access computing while a more descriptive term for community networks is alternatively 'public-access networks.'

The major focus of these community networks is to provide local or community-based information [10, 11]. Most community networks also offer the public the opportunity to explore other features such as electronic mail, discussion groups, public forums or electronic conferences, and access to social service agencies and professionals (e.g., post a question and receive an answer or find a service by looking it up on an electronic directory). Access to the Internet is often an integral part of these networks.

Forging a New Relationship - Libraries and Community Networks

In an attempt to avoid the 'elitist' image and to provide access to those who do not have the necessary equipment, community networks often use public libraries as venues to place terminals. Many of these libraries are already actively involved in providing support to these community networks by answering telephone and e-mail queries. Some libraries are so involved that they are actually responsible for the community network itself by housing the equipment on-site and by providing staff to operate and administer the network.

Tom Grundner, founder of the Free-Net system, has also offered an analogy that links public libraries to the function of community computer networks in the future:

Simply stated, we find ourselves unable to imagine a 21st century in which we do not have community computing systems, just as this century had the free public library. Moreover, we believe that the community computer, as a resource, will have at least as much impact on the next century as the public library had on ours. [12, p.46]

Given that there is already a strong trend for libraries to support community networks, it is only logical to recognize that their futures are potentially linked - especially since some libraries are already offering connection services like traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs), access to electronic mail and online discussion forums (see Appendix). The term 'digital library' also promotes the idea that libraries should be more focused on electronic media than traditional printed materials.

Community networks, by comparison, may also be viewed as information providers; however, their focus emphasizes the electronic delivery of community-specific materials and not worldwide resources. Information delivery is based on the assumption that a local information provider knows what materials his or her users need, creates particular documents and then uses the established community network structure (e.g., document centers or menu headings) to distribute these documents. In some ways, this general description is similar to how public libraries serve their patrons - they know what their users need, create a collection to service their needs, and then place these materials in a structure that is readily accessible to all people.


In summary, community networks and public libraries should examine their similarities and differences and consider the potential for linking their futures together. Why? For the following reasons:

  • A majority of public libraries have already become wired for network access, leading to online library catalogues that can display the availability of local resources worldwide. Since electronic access to local resources is a key feature of community networks, the distinction separating the two (libraries from community networks) is closing;
  • Librarians have extensive experience in planning and developing community projects that relate to serving user needs. Community networks need this type of planning to be successful; if users cannot access it then they will not use it;
  • Librarians are knowledgeable about automated systems work and providing free access to information. This expertise would be helpful to those community networks struggling to understand how to use their systems to provide information to all users. Issues related to copyright, privacy, standards, and government information delivery are very familiar to librarianship as a whole [13]; and
  • Community networks often struggle for adequate funding. Librarians could help to determine what items should be free versus fee-based (if necessary since this might violate the mission of community networks). Pooling resources for one network versus two or three separate ones could lead to standardised protocols and the potential to deliver additional services to all users.

Ultimately, the merging of established ideals for both community networks and public libraries in the realm of electronic information will allow all individuals to be empowered (hopefully) by letting them readily and freely access computer networks and public information resources.


  1. Barker, P. 1994. Electronic libraries - Visions of the future. The Electronic Library, 12 (4), 221-229.
  2. McClure, C. R. 1995. Public access to the Information Superhighway through the nation’s libraries. Public Libraries, 34 (2), 80-84.
  3. The Nua Internet Surveys (1999) estimating how many people are online worldwide are at:
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. 1999. Access Denied. Changes in Computer Ownership and Use: 1984-1997. This report is located at:
  5. Lipow, A.G. 1999. "In your face" reference service. Library Journal, 124 (13), p50.
  6. Jordan, J., & Brintle, L. 1993. Coalition for communication: Developing a public communication system. Computers in Libraries, 13 (2), 29-32.
  7. Watkins, C. 1999. Opening the Gates. (grants to public libraries) American Libraries, 30 (9), 11.
  8. Whitlatch, J.B. 1999. Enhancing the Quality of Reference Services for the 21st Century: Part 3. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 38 (3), 233.
  9. Lago, K.N. 1993. The Internet and the public library: Practical and political realities. Computers in Libraries, 13 (9), 65-70.
  10. Schuler, D. 1994. Community networks: Building a new participatory medium. Communication of the ACM, 37 (1), 39-51.
  11. The Community Networking Movement web site is at: and additional information about community networks is at:
  12. Mattison, D. 1994. Librarians and the Free-Net Movement. Computers in Libraries, 14 (5), 46-50.
  13. Walsh, R.T. 1994. The national information infrastructure and the recommendations of the 1991 White House Conference on library and information services. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science


  • The E-rate (Universal Service) program in the United States has additional information at: (applications) and
  • Examples of community networks using public libraries as venues to place terminals:

    National Capital FreeNet (NCF)

    Room 402, Dunton Tower
    Carleton University
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    K1S 5B6.

    [Home page]:

    FreeNet terminal locations: the Greater Ottawa Region, including Ottawa Public Library, Cumberland Township Public Library, Gloucester Public Library, etc.

    Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN)

    34 Wall St., Suite 407
    Asheville, NC, 28801

    [Home page]:

    MAIN access via 35 public access terminals in rural libraries

  • Examples of libraries operating and administering a community network:

    Southeast Florida Library Information Network, Inc. (SEFLIN Free-Net)

    100 South Andrews Avenue
    Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301

    [Home page]:

    Administered by Broward, Dade, Palm Beach, Martin & Monroe county libraries.


    205 N.E. Russell St.
    Portland, OR 97212

    [Home page]: or

    Administered by Multnomah County Library System.

  • Examples of online catalogues (accessible worldwide):

    Queens Borough Public Library

    89-11 Merrick Boulevard
    Jamaica, NY 11432

    [Catalogue access URL]:
    [Community service databases]:

Author Details

  Malabika Das
Supervisor of Online Services
Queens Borough Public Library
Queens, NY

Web site:


Date published: 
Tuesday, 21 December 1999
Copyright statement: 

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