Public Libraries Corner: Internet Activity in Public Libraries
Current public library Internet activity can be divided into four main types:
- Initial Experimentation and Exploration
- Public Access
- Civic Information
This is a relatively small range of topics and gives an indication of the lack of resources available to libraries with which to undertake research. Whereas the eLib programme has allowed academic libraries to explore a whole range of topics ranging from electronic documentary delivery to digitization to on demand publishing, public libraries are concentrating on much more fundamental issues.
Initial Experimentation and Exploration
Here I group a number of projects which are providing libraries with their first experience of using the Internet. These are typically low scale projects involving one or two members of staff and using a dial up connection. It was this type of low scale activity that the Library and Information Commission survey clearly identified as typical of most public libraries with Internet access. The libraries are using these connections to experiment and evaluate the Internet - to become familiar with it and see what it is about and explore how it can be integrated into existing services. The Croydon Library Internet Project (CLIP) is the largest scale project of this type. It is externally funded by both BLRDD and Croydon Borough Council and is using the Internet to answer reference queries, to look at issues of how to manage public access and to discover the best type of connection model. It has received considerable media attention and its final report is due to be published shortly. CLIP has a larger budget than many other public library projects, and consequently was able to use a leased line to connect to the Internet.
By looking at all these projects as a whole there appear to be three questions that most libraries initially want answered
- Can the Internet be used to answer reference questions?
- Can we manage public access?
- How much will this cost?
These small scale projects represent public libraries first stage of Internet activity and it is possible that in time they might metamorphoses, when funding is available, into larger scale operations. But for the time being the most typical Internet activity taking place in public libraries involves a dial up connection, a small number of staff and an exploration of very immediate concerns.
An important point to note is that public libraries do not have access to a network like JANET. JANET is centrally funded: libraries in higher education do not currently see any direct cost associated with its use. It, and SuperJANET, provide a developing infrastructure which supports a range of services and research projects pervasively throughout the sector. To some extent, academic libraries can take the network for granted. This is far from the case for public libraries. Currently, they have to directly finance a connection from an Internet Service Provider. The low level nature of these connections limits the services that can be provided.
Public access is a concern of these 'introductory' projects but for the majority of them this is a long-term aim rather than an immediate goal. However, the idea of the public library as Internet access provider is becoming more pervasive. There has been considerable discussion, particularly in the USA, that public libraries should act as an 'information net'. As we move to a society where access to networked information becomes more important it will be essential that everyone, whatever their circumstances, will be able to access networked information. People could become actively disadvantaged if they are unable to be a part of this new electronic world. Public libraries, it has been suggested, should act as their safety net or information net and provide free access to those that otherwise would be disenfranchised. This will help prevent the creation of an 'electronic underclass' and maintain the public library ethos of providing information access to all. So public access projects are not just about teenage boys playing Dungeon and Dragon games but potentially have a centrally important role to play in society.
ITPoint was one of the earliest projects to offer Internet access as part of a more wide-ranging project remit. The project was set up with a BLRDD grant and aimed to explore how the public would use a library if it was fully equipped with the latest IT. The project was deliberately located in an area of high unemployment and social deprivation. This was an area that had been identified as being information poor. The project was very successful and heavily used. It proved not only that the public would use Internet access if offered but that such a service could be managed. Originally ITPoint was free but charging was introduced at a later date.
The South Ayrshire Cyber Project aims to make available 15 Internet workstations for the public in June 1996. Integral to the project is also a staff training programme which will allow the staff to learn to incorporate the Internet into all information services they offer. This project is fairly unusual in that it will be solely funded by the library service and the local council rather than an outside funding body. The project is still in its very early days and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Cybershack also offered public access and was set up by Hounslow library service. A room in the library was quickly converted into an Internet centre with some help with a couple of local computer companies. Four terminals were made available to the public. It was again very successful and heavily used by the public. It was originally designed to run for six months only but due to its success this is to be extended.
These projects are very good examples of how public libraries can effectively run access services and how they are likely to be successful. However, the Library and Information Commission survey showed that under 1% of public libraries were offering public Internet access and so projects like these are still highly unusual.
One development in this area has been partnerships between some authorities and private companies. Input/Output, for example, is a private company which offers a percentage of their profits in exchange for space in libraries to set up a computer centre. They offer charged access to wordprocessing, desk top publishing, some computer packages and the Internet. Commercial partnerships like this involve no investment from the library other than space and actually bring in income. For librarians with static or decreasing budgets this is an attractive proposition and these type of centres seem set to become more familiar. Interestingly, Input Output themselves state that the Internet should be available for free within the library and are currently testing offering free access within some of their centres.
In comparison, practically all public libraries managing their own service are charging. It appears that Internet access will not free but an additional extra like videos and tapes although some authorities such as Suffolk are committed to providing free access. This of course flies in the face of the concept of the public library as the last resort of the information 'poor'. If people are to be charged for the service it immediately puts it beyond the reach of some would-be users. But for libraries operating in today's economic climate there appears to be little that libraries can do as they must either cover their costs or make cuts elsewhere. In January 1995 Chris Batt, the head of Croydon Library Service, quoted a figure of £11,500 as the cost of a state of the art connection to the Internet for a year. In his words, this meant that 'someone without a growing budget may have to sacrifice the money for a library assistant for Internet access' (Batt, 1995). So although libraries may be committed to the concept of free access, it is an ideal that is not being attained. It just cannot be afforded.
Civic Information on the Internet
The area where there has been the most activity has been in the realm of Civic Information. Civic information is council information, details of local clubs and societies, news of local events and so on. It is continually changing data that needs to be easily updated and simple for the public to access. Computers have been used for several years to make civic information accessible to the public because they manage these tasks very easily. The most typical systems used are known as videotext or viewdata. These use 'low scale' networking technology to link a dumb terminal to the civic information database usually over leased or ISDN lines. The quality of the information presentation compares to teletext. Terminals are placed in prominent public sites such as libraries, council offices or even on street corners. Some Councils manage the service themselves using the library service only to host the terminals. However, in other areas it is the library service that is responsible for it.
Most civic information services have been very interested in the opportunities that the World Wide Web offers them to improve their service. At present most videotext systems can only be accessed from dedicated terminals, though a few do offer dial-in access. The WWW in comparison makes the information available to anyone with Internet access. The WWW is also a more flexible and usually more attraction method of information presentation. It also could allow the services to link to other useful WWW sites that are located outside of the service, county or even country. It therefore has the potential to allow civic information projects to be more accessible, more attractive to use and more comprehensive.
There are two areas of development in this area. WWW civic information services are either being set up from scratch or existing videotext/viewdata services are being converted to a WWW format.
Local County Councils/City Councils have become very keen to develop a WWW information system based on their area and get on the Internet bandwagon. It disseminates information about them around the world, and is also good for their image as organisations on the 'cutting edge'. Such services are very good and positive publicity for the Council - as well as, of course, providing an information service for the inhabitants of that area. Surrey, Barnsley, Somerset, Liverpool, Manchester are a few examples of authorities that have developed an Internet site that acts as a local information system.
Cambridge Online is example of one of these systems. If it had been initiated even just three years ago it would probably have been videotext-based. It provides information about Cambridge that is of use to Cambridge citizens - it not a tourist service. It still has kiosks at public sites in the city but the information is presented using the WWW. This makes it possible to access the information from any computer that has an Internet connection rather from just the dedicated terminals. The information being provided has not been changed, the purpose of the system has not changed, but the way in which it is stored, presented and provided has altered radically.
Leeds City Council Internet Project is another similar Internet based local information system. It gives information on the Council, tourism, business and education in Leeds. It has received considerable funding and is very high profile. You can find out who your local councillor or MP is, click on their picture and send them an e-mail. This is an attractive course for local authorities and they are currently investing considerable resources in developing these services. But the majority of these services are generally not being run and/or developed by the library service. Leeds and Cambridge's Internet services are unusual in the fact that they are library-managed. This is a worrying development as this is the sort of new service that would seem to be a natural development of traditional public library purpose as information providers.
Existing viewdata systems such as CAPITAL INFORMATION are also developing an Internet service. At present the system still operates using the more traditional videotext software but it is also converting it into WWW format. Hertfordshire and Hereford and Worcester's systems have also developed in a similar way. This is a trend that is appearing around the country. With one software company offering to convert 10,000 Viewdata frames into WWW format within two days this is an area that will undergo even more rapid expansion. The WWW could soon commit traditional viewdata/videotext systems to the realm of the obsolete and the outdated.
So where libraries already have the necessary information in computer form they are beginning to move very quickly to make it Internet accessible. It is the one area where there is rapid development. However when the service needs to be created from scratch public libraries are losing out. Local governments are not viewing the library authority as an organisation that could manage this type of service. This is possibly due to their lack of expertise and experience. This is the first indication that public libraries' lack of experience is causing services to be left behind.
Use by the Profession
Academic libraries have already discovered that the Internet is ideal for allowing geographically dispersed organisations to cooperate and share resources. Many of the eLib projects are either looking at how to develop this cooperation further or are using the Internet to facilitate cooperative research and services. A whole professional support system has developed with services such as NISS, BUBL and mailbase. For example, Lis-link, one of many e-mail discussion lists, has become the academic librarian's forum for discussing professional issues and more importantly a way of seeking advice and help. One of the final conclusions of the ASLIB Public Library Review was that public libraries must collaborate together on a greater scale. Public libraries are now beginninging to explore the possibilities that the Internet offers them for cooperation.
Information North and SLAINTE are two projects looking at putting this support system in place. Information North is aiming to create an Internet accessible bulletin board for National Heritage professionals including public libraries. SLAINTE is a WWW directory for and about information professionals in Scotland. Both projects show how the Internet can allow easier discussion between geographically dispersed professionals. Even the most far flung librarian will be able to access and contribute to the latest professional issues and so be better informed - in much the same way that many academic librarians are already doing.
Project EARL, however, is the major drive for cooperation. EARL is a consortium of public libraries that have joined together to coordinate the public library response to the Internet. EARL believes that by coordinating effort, public libraries will more effectively create, manage and maintain Internet services. It will offer advice, help train staff, coordinate activities and by gaining a critical mass of authorities be able to lobby and bargain with possible Internet/Cable service providers. EARL also maintains a WWW server that makes information about library authorities available to the public. As of May 1996, 62 authorities had joined. (Before current local government reorganisation there were 167 public library authorities in the UK.)
EARL has the potential to becoming the public library eLib programme (minus the funding of course) and has set up special interest groups to explore areas of research such as digitalisation, staff training and children's Internet services and so on. EARL has recognised that before public libraries can start to offer more complex services research will need to be done. Again they will be small scale compared to eLib but it is a positive and proactive move.
Public libraries are interested in the Internet but do not have the available resources to dedicate to exploring its usefulness. It is unfortunate that the Internet has become an issue when public libraries and funding bodies are facing budget crises. Many libraries simply cannot afford to investigate the potential of the Internet on a large scale having, instead, to concentrate their resources on maintaining the more traditional services. This lack of funding is the explanation for the low level of activity recorded in the survey - it is not a lack of enthusiasm or commitment on the behalf of public libraries. The project described above show that libraries are trying to become more active and more involved but this is proving to be an uphill struggle.
Full scale public library Internet services will require investment in infrastructure, equipment and staff training. Whereas most academic libraries are now involved in researching how to exploit the Internet, the vast majority of public libraries do not yet have access to it. The staff are as enthusiastic and committed as academic librarians; they are simply not as well resourced. It is in this context that public library Internet activity should be understood.
From existing activity we can draw the following conclusions about the future of the Internet in public libraries. Public libraries will offer Internet access either in partnership with a private company or as a cost covering service. Community Information systems will become far more WWW based and consequently will be accessible to a greater number of people. There is a danger that new services will no longer be the remit of the library authority but other council departments. Finally, there will be a move to greater cooperation and this is the area where the most effort needs to be concentrated. Public libraries have no one championing their rights in the age of the Internet and so they are going to have to do it themselves - and to do this effectively they need to do it together.