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Public Libraries Corner: Life After the Millenium Bid

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After the recent disappointing turn-down of the millenium bid to connect public libraries to the Internet, Sarah Ormes wonders where we go from here.

With the failure of the second public library Millennium Bid the dream of a gift-wrapped-paid-for-by-someone-else-national-networked-public-library-service disappeared. Although Information for All [1], the company set up to run this bid, has pledged to continue looking for funding from other sources it seems unlikely that they will be able achieve the national implementation that Millennium funding would have made possible.

The failure of the Bid, however, must not be seen as the end of Internet services in public libraries but as a starting point.

Public libraries are already behind the majority of society as it adapts to the new opportunities offered by networking technology. Opportunities are being missed. This is especially true when we compare public libraries with other sectors which do not even have the provision of information as one of their primary aims. A recent survey by Berkshire Library Service found that 54% of companies in Berkshire with a turnover in excess of £500,000 have Internet access with a further 14% planning to have access within the next six months [2].This is symptomatic of other sectors like schools, universities, companies and even councils which are adapting to the new electronic environment and learning how best to exploit these new opportunities. This sense of being left behind was succinctly expressed by Jennifer Cram [3] when talking about Australian public libraries and the development of the Web [4].

During 1995 our civilisation changed profoundly. In this single year we moved from an atomised disconnected hierarchical civilisation to public recognition of a networked interconnected globalised civilisation. This was the critical moment of transformation and virtually all public libraries in Australia missed it.

Well, two years further down the superhighway most public libraries in the UK are still missing it. It is time now to get on and get connected - the failure of the Bid was a disappointment but also a wake up call. It is highly unlikely that there will be another national initiative which will wire up public libraries. Public library authorities are going to have to take the initiative themselves and develop their own services if they do not want to fall further behind.

With tight budgets this may initially seem impossible, hence the Millennium Bid is the first place, but already some authorities have found methods to fund Internet services.

These methods can very roughly be split into three types:

  • get someone else to pay for it
  • make use of resources you already have
  • get someone else to do it.

Getting Someone Else To Pay For It

A number of library authorities have funded their Internet services by securing new sources of funding for it.

The most obvious source for additional funding is from the library's local authority. A number of library authorities have secured funding in this way. They are typified by their strong and clear vision about how Internet services are important to the library, community and consequently the council. Basically they have sold this vision to their council. They have taken their enthusiasm and belief in what needs to be achieved and successfully communicated this to their council officers. They have done this to such an extent that the council now also believes that the development of these services is so important that they have freed up additional money.

Other authorities have explored the development of Internet services through research funded by bodies such as the Library [5], the Department of National Heritage [6] and the European Union. Money of this type tends to be for a limited period only and is not for use for day-to-day costs of running an Internet services. Often a research grant will not cover the cost of computer hardware.

However, it has allowed a number of authorities to explore the implications of offering Internet services through the funding of a specific research post. This research can then be used by the public library community when developing their own services. Importantly it will have brought the networked culture into the library and will have enabled the library to experiment and learn about the new technology. It will also give the authority a higher profile which consequently will assist in securing additional funding in the future from other sources.

Finally, in America many libraries have funded the development of their Internet connections through sponsorship with commercial companies. The largest example of a model of this type is the Libraries Online [7] programme which is funded by Microsoft [8]. It is perhaps in the facilitation of this kind of development that the future of Information For All lies. Little sponsorship of this type has taken place so far in the UK.

Using What You've Already Got

A number of authorities have taken another route and used resources already available to them to develop their services.

South Ayrshire [9] took the difficult decision of taking money out of its library resources fund (book fund) in order to fund a public access Internet services and a computer centre. This is perhaps the most difficult choice to make as actually cutting back on buying books has the potential of being extremely unpopular with the library users. However, the cybercentre has been very successful and well received. The willingness to make a short term cut in resources has proved to be worth the long term benefits which the cybercentre can offer.

Suffolk [10], in comparison, are using existing physical resources in a new manner. They are using the network over which their library management system runs to also provide Internet access. At present it is still in quite early days of experimentation but free Internet access is available in a number of libraries with plans to expand it to the whole county.

One drawback of this method of delivery is that due to the restricted bandwidth of the library network the graphics on the WWW browsers need to be turned off as data-heavy images could potentially slow the network down and affect the library management system. This lack of graphics is a drawback and may become more of a problem in the future as the Internet develops. But at present the users are very happy with the service and it has been a great success. So through lateral thinking Suffolk have maximised their resources and found a cost effective method of offering free countywide public Internet access.

Letting Someone Else Do It

Another option for libraries is to work in partnership with a commercial company. The major example of this is the Input/Output Centres [11]. They rent space from libraries to set up computer centres from which they provide PCs for hire, training services and also charged access to the Internet.

This model has the advantage of being a means of income generation and allowing a library to be seen - in partnership with Input/Output - to be offering a high quality computer services to its readers. The money generated from such partnerships could be used by libraries to fund the development of - to some degree- their own Internet services.

Conclusions

This has been a very brief run through some of the various methods by which some authorities are developing and funding Internet services. Admittedly all these methods do have drawbacks and will not have the national in-depthness of the failed Millennium Bid. Whereas libraries now have to concentrate on developing local Internet services it is still to be hoped that they will retain some national view through bodies like EARL. But importantly the methods discussed here show that the failure of the Bid need not be the end of Internet services in public libraries but could be the beginning.

References

[1] Information For All: Millenium Public Libraries Bid
http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/informall/

[2] Library Technology Record 2 (1), February 1997, p.20

[3] Jennifer Crams Web pages
http://www.alia.org.au/~jcram/

[4] Engaged in Triumphant Retreat? Public Libraries and the Social Impact of the Internet: by Jennifer Cram
http://www.alia.org.au/~jcram/engaged_in_triumphant.html

[5] British Library Web Site
http://www.bl.uk/

[6] Department of National Heritage Web Site
http://www.heritage.gov.uk/

[7] Libraries Online Programme
http://www.librariesonline.org/

[8] Microsoft Web Site
http://www.microsoft.com/

[9] South Ayrshire Local Government Web Site
http://www.south-ayrshire.gov.uk/

[10] Suffolk Government Libraries and Heritage Web Pages
http://www.suffolkcc.gov.uk/libraries_and_heritage/

[11] Input / Output Web Site,
http://www.iocentre.co.uk/

Date published: 
19 January 1997

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How to cite this article

Sarah Ormes. "Public Libraries Corner: Life After the Millenium Bid". January 1997, Ariadne Issue 7 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue7/public-libraries/


article | by Dr. Radut