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Public Libraries Corner

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In the Public Libraries Corner for this issue, a guest writer, Catherine Wrathall, writes about the current provision of Internet-based community information in public libraries.

Methods of locating, obtaining and presenting information continue to increase at an unprecedented rate. The recent review of public libraries published by the Department of National Heritage [1] emphasised the government's view that public libraries are the logical choice as facilitators of access to information in all its multiplicity of formats. Community librarians, in particular, are expected to assist in the fulfillment of the information needs specific to the community served. Community information ranges from ephemera such as bus timetables to directories of local voluntary organisations. Whilst the information required may not be physically held in the public library, the knowledge of how to obtain it should be.

Community information has traditionally been presented in printed format, and frequently as collections of pamphlets on various issues. Initiatives such as Citizens' Charters have meant that information available to members of the public is expanding, although the methods of locating it may not be well publicised. It has been said that "the value of information derives from the consequences of its use" [2]. Without an intermediary, much community information may be inaccessible to those people whose need is the greatest. Some librarians see Information Technology (IT), and the Internet in particular, as the optimum method of information provision. Wood [3] went so far as to say that
"if they do not seize the chances now offered my own feeling would be that the public libraries would end up as neglected backwaters deprived of funding and gradually losing their purpose".
It appears that such warnings are being taken seriously, especially by community librarians. An increasing number of Community Information Networks (CINs) are now being created in Britain with the aim of facilitating access to information held at various locations, not solely within the public library. All the relevant sources of information are gathered under one umbrella service, allowing users guided access to a wider range of information than has previously been available to them and giving information providers a platform in which they have confidence.

Current initiatives in community information provision

Who is connected and how do they use their connections?

Recent research [4] found that whilst 53% of public library authorities were connected to the Internet only 2% of individual service points had access, and of those only 20% permitted public access. At the time of the survey it was discovered that 23% of British public library authorities were actively investigating use of the Internet, mainly through Project EARL. It is not known how many were planning CINs, nor is it clear how many CINs have been created. A search of the World Wide Web (WWW) using the Infoseek search engine discovered 11,896 entries using the keywords community and information. However, the majority of these were not British, or not public library services. Examples include Southampton University's Community Information site and the Citizens' Advice Bureau's Manchester site which uses community and information as search keys. The addresses for these Web sites, and others which may be of interest, are shown in the bibliography at the end of this article.

This may be because not all CINs are registered with search engine providers. The Manchester Community Information Network (MCIN) [5] for example, is not registered as it provides dedicated terminals at various locations around the city, including several public libraries, and does not provide links to general Internet access. It provides a wide range of community information, provided by a range of voluntary sector and statutory agencies, all of which is relevant to people living in Manchester and some of which may be of interest to a wider audience (for example national voluntary organisations). The service is, at present, free to users.

Ways to connect

The Manchester Public Library is one of the key partners in MCIN, other public libraries participate in local government initiatives [6]. The Cambridge Online City Terminal, for example, is "a fully sponsored terminal, using the Internet, which provides access to a wide range of Cambridge-based information" [7]. Some recent initiatives utilise new products developed by library systems suppliers. An example of this is Hertfordshire Public Library which uses ALS's Infocentre. Edinburgh has one of the longest established CINs which has expanded from 4 locations in 1993 to 23 in 1995, all in public libraries [8]. The Linwood Information Project (Linfo) and the Whitehill Resource Centre, Hamilton are both Scottish projects providing online access to community information. Linfo, however, interprets the information for users, whilst Whitehill's policy is to provide access without interpretation [9]. The latter approach is not unusual. Much of the literature concerning public library provision of information via the Internet implies that access is unguided except in a limited manner. Batt [10] describes ITPoint in Solihull as providing "public access PCs, with resources including CD-ROM, computer-assisted learning packages, spreadsheet and word processing and, of course, Internet access" but not guidance in accessing relevant information. In Cumbria it was decided that the public library authority would provide
"public access to the Web and a very basic introduction as to how to access and start to search, but after that it was up to users to find their own way around" [11].

Access may be enabled by implementing a public library specific CIN, as a partner within a wider initiative, or by ensuring that any CIN which is created by other agencies includes the public library as a source of information. Unless information relevant to the community is collected and presented in an understandable, accessible style it is debatable whether a service can be described as a CIN.

Commercial breaks

Private sector involvement

The funding of new services and the high cost of new technology are issues which must be addressed. Several projects have obtained funding from outside the public sector. Input/Output, KPMG and Global Internet are examples of private sector funding of information services in public libraries. Input/Output is involved in several projects, including Cambridge Online. KPMG is a partner in MCIN. Global Internet has created Cybercity at Bath Central Library. This has been described as "a cybercafe (without the coffee!)" [12]. It is a profit making venture by the company with no involvement of the public library service other than free provision of space. Whilst this may mean that the library gains kudos because it houses a high-tech development, it has very little control over the information provided. Although users of the library might assume Cybercity is a public service and expect access to community information this is not the case.

Private companies may become involved in community information provision for altruistic purposes but they may also need to make a profit and consequently wish to charge commercial rates for access to the service. It is important that the public library service ethos is not lost in the enthusiasm to provide state of the art information systems. It has been stated that
"A democratic society, it is argued, should provide facilities for citizens to become informed so that they can fully participate in economic, social, political and cultural life. A main way of doing this is for citizens to have access to resources and information regardless of the ability to pay" [13].

Users requiring access to community information may very well be those least likely to have that ability to pay. Great caution must be exercised to ensure that commercial considerations are not permitted to replace community needs.

Charging for inclusion on the CIN is another factor which may cause conflict between the needs of the community and the private sector service provider. As Sawyer [14] indicated "for most Web site authors, advertising is their only possible source of income". Private sector companies might interpret inclusion of an organisation or service on a CIN as advertising and therefore a source of income. This would possibly result in a reduction in the amount of useful information accessible to users.

Policies

Whilst all the major political parties have publicly announced a commitment to enabling all public libraries to access the Internet, none appears to have a policy for the utilisation of such a connection. Public library service librarians should ensure that policies are created which include the provision of CINs and training in the use of the technology. National guidelines on the content and functionality of CINs should be prepared to allow rapid implementation of effective services once connection to the Internet is established.

The issue of training needs to be addressed if the opportunities offered by connection are to be maximised. It has recently been stated that training will be provided for every member of the population [15] although it is as yet unclear as to how funding for training will be provided. Alternatives include funds from central government, from public library service allocations from local government or, possibly, as part of partnership agreements with private sector companies involved in the projects. The Library Association together with the Library and Information Commission created the Millennium Bid which addressed many of the issues concerning the Internet, including training. However, the bid was not successful at its second attempt.

The users - Web crawlers of arachnaphobes?

Information for all

According to Comedia [16] public libraries are "regarded as democratic, non-partisan, above sectional interests, inhabiting the value-free world of scholarship", a view which should mean that users feel comfortable and secure using public library services. This could be of particular importance for those using community information services as they may feel discomfort at requiring the information or needing help. To be presented with a computerised system with which they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable may present a barrier to their accessing information freely.

The needs of the users are paramount for community information service librarians. Whilst it is important that public libraries should be at the forefront of the exploitation of the Internet it must be recognised that it will be many years before computer literacy is as widespread as text literacy is currently. Public librarians must therefore be prepared to provide community information in forms which make it accessible to all members of the community. Pateman [17] recently expressed concern about the declining usage of public library services amongst the more deprived members of society. Undue emphasis on the use of technologies which this sector of the community is unable or unwilling to use may well exacerbate that trend.

Community profiling should ideally be an integral part of the provision of community information services in public libraries. Analysis of the structure of the community can enable librarians to identify its information needs. Statistics on computer literacy and the desire to use the technology should also be gathered to facilitate decisions as to formats used for the presentation of information.

The diversity of needs

Users may need information in a format they can remove from the library, as public access materials for use in the library, or as more complex resources for use with the assistance of a librarian. It may be necessary to present the information in several languages for members of the community for whom English is a second language. The needs of people with disabilities must also be taken into account, for example by providing braille, audio or large print versions of information resources. Information technology may be of assistance in providing information in various formats as software is now available allowing braille, audio and large print input and output.

The diversity of user needs and expectations means that community information services must be tailored to the requirements of each specific community. It is generally agreed that information on work, money, family and housing related issues should form the basis for all public library community information services. Certain other types of information, such as that provided in Citizens' Charters, will also be relevant to all communities, but others will be more specific. For example, a proposal to construct a new motorway in an area may create demand for information on compensation, environmental issues and planning committee procedures. Community librarians must be able to respond to such needs as and when they arise. In order to do so they must be aware of the community's current information needs and of developments which may affect them. They must also be aware of organisations which may provide necessary information, both locally and nationally. The Internet may provide a useful source of up to the minute information to enable community information services to respond to changing needs.

The future

The presentation of community information

As Usherwood [18] stated
"community information is not only, or even primarily, a library function. It is an activity which involves a wide range of organisations and many different forms of communications media".
It could therefore be said that the role of the public library community information service is to identify, locate, interpret and present this range of information in a manner which is accessible to all members of the community served.

One example of this is the printed guide produced by the Ferguskie project and distributed to each household in the community [19]. The guide contains information on council and Department of Social Security issues and details of community organisations. Information must be current and not outdated if it is to fulfil its purpose. The librarian must endeavour to ensure currency of information displayed, although this is not always easy to identify for either printed or electronic resources.

The amount of information available electronically is increasing rapidly. The Government Direct initiative, for example, aims to make a substantial amount of government information available in the near future, including tax and driving licence payment procedures online via the Internet. There are still relatively few people who have personal access to the Internet either at work, or at home. This creates the possibility of an information 'underclass' of those who have no access to certain information. Public library community information services are in a position to help prevent this.

Electronic access

Public librarians are seen as impartial, and therefore trustworthy, with no hidden political or commercial agenda, by both the public and information providers. They are, therefore, ideally suited to act as key-holders to community information held on the Internet. CINs are an early example of this. Whilst the public library is trusted as an institution there are concerns amongst information providers that users may download information from CINs for commercial reason. Librarians will need to investigate and implement methods of preventing this to ensure confidence in their service.

New definitions of community?

The advent of the Internet and other technological advances may change people's definition of "community". It is now possible to remain a member of one community whilst physically living in another. An example of this is a person who lives in Dallas, Texas, USA who organises the Huddersfield Town Football Club web site on the Internet, thus remaining a part of that community [19]. Perhaps CINs may be used by people who have emotional links to a community as well as those who are resident there. Librarians may need to include, and allow for, the impact of this "virtual" community when assessing the usage of CINs and when performing community profiles.

Conclusion

It is obvious that the Internet and other technologies are going to have an enormous impact on the delivery of community information within public libraries. However, the needs of the whole community must be taken into account, and not only those of the computer literate. The community information provision within the library must be constantly monitored to ensure that it meets the needs of the community in the optimum way.

CINs are an excellent addition to the resources available for community information provision in public libraries. Until such time as the community achieves equivalent levels of text and computer literacy such services should be run in parallel with more traditional, text based services. The role which public librarians are best suited, and most able, to play in the provision of community information is as facilitators of free and equal access to community information in all its formats and from all its sources for all members of the community. In so doing they will enable users to obtain the knowledge which they are in danger of losing in the current flood of information.

References

  1. Department of National Heritage et al.1997. Reading the future: a review of public libraries in England. London: Department of National Heritage.
  2. Barugh, John. 1989. The relationship between community librarianship and community information. In: Astbury, Raymond, ed. (1989). Putting people first: some new perspectives on community librarianship. Newcastle under Lyme: AAL Publishing, 39.
  3. Wood, Mark, 1995. Leading the charge or holding the fort? Library Association Record, 97(12), 659.
  4. Ormes, Sarah and Dempsey, Lorcan. 1995. Library and Information Commission public library Internet survey: first public report 20th December 1995,
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/publib/lic.html
  5. Gallimore, Alec, (1996), Putting partnership on the Web Library Association Record, 98(4), p.205.
  6. Sheffield University, U.K. community information networks,
    http://panizzi.shef.ac.uk/community/
  7. Anonymous, 1996, Free access to the Internet, Library Association Record. 98(8), 388.
  8. Dobson, Philippa, 1995, Information crosses new frontiers, Library Association Record: technology supplement, 97(11), 13.
  9. Hasson, Alan C., 1996, Reaching out, In. Kinnell, Margaret and Sturges, Paul, 1996. Continuity and innovation in the public library: the development of a social institution. London: Library Association Publishing, 148-166.
  10. Batt, Chris, 1995, Networking for the world, Library Association Record year in review supplement. 97(12), 13.
  11. Welton, Alan, 1996, Surfing in Cumbria, Public Library Journal.11(5), p146.
  12. Ormes, Sarah, 1996, Public libraries corner: Commercial partnerships in the public library,
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/ariadne/issue5/
  13. Comedia, 1993, Borrowed time: the future of public libraries in the UK, Bourne Green: Comedia, 39.
  14. Sawyer, Don, 1996, The Net's big commercial break, Internet Today. November 1996, 32.
  15. Her Majesty's Government, Government direct: a prospectus for the electronic delivery of government services,
    http://www.open.gov.uk/
  16. Comedia, 1993. Borrowed time: the future of public libraries in the UK, Bourne Green: Comedia, 16.
  17. Pateman, John, 1996, A question of breeding, Library Association Record 98(7), 362-363.
  18. Usherwood, Bob, 1992. Community information, In. Kinnell, Margaret, ed., 1992. Informing communities. Newcastle: CSG Publishing Ltd. 20
  19. Dyce, C. S., 1996, Huddersfield Town football club,
    http://www.uwm.edu/~dyce/htfc/

Author Details

Catherine Wrathall is a third year student on the BA(Hons) Information and Library Management course in the Department of Library and Information Science, Manchester Metropolitan University. This article about the provision of community information on the Internet by public libraries was inspired by the Community Information option taught by Margaret Kendall, who has provided guidance in editing the work for publication. The views expressed are individual and not necessarily those shared by the Department of Library and Information Science.

Email: tau@fire900.demon.co.uk
Department Web pages: http://www.mmu.ac.uk/h-ss/lis/
Tel: 0161 247 1753
Address: The Humanities Building, Rosamond St West, Manchester M15 6LL

Date published: 
19 March 1997

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

Catherine Wrathall. "Public Libraries Corner". March 1997, Ariadne Issue 8 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue8/public-libraries/


article | by Dr. Radut