to the people
- In setting out to develop information and communication technologies
in libraries on a large and intensive scale, it is important that
library users' needs and motivations are understood, and also their
perceptions of IT in relation to current library services. It is also
vital that we listen to people's views about our proposals to develop
library services using the new technologies.This chapter therefore
describes the findings of a small-scale qualitative research programme,
conducted in June and July 1997, whose aims and methodology can be found
in Appendix 2.
- A range of experts was consulted to refine the vision of what
libraries might offer, and research was conducted among six key library
user groups, including mid-teens (aged fourteen/fifteen years in a
deprived inner-city location), school-leavers, families with a general
interest in the library, 'lifelong learners', and adults engaged in some
form of part-time study to make a career change or return to work.
Fieldwork was carried out in four different locations, selected to
represent a range of library services: a small local library, a main
central library, a library in a deprived inner-city area, and a rural
- In general, people's starting position was full of goodwill towards
the current service, even though there was dissatisfaction with cutbacks
in opening hours and with spend on bookstocks. A principal concern was
that the introduction of IT could be unrealistic in a regime of tight
- The findings in this section are based on the research analysis which
- The public library embodies the democratic principle of the public's
right to information in whatever form. People are conscious that the use
of IT is fundamental in today's society, and recognise that public
libraries have a role to play in making it accessible to all - to level
the playing-field and provide technology for those who cannot afford to
- With the introduction of IT, there is great potential to stimulate,
educate and inform for both recreational and vocational purposes.
- The greatest value seems to be in the area of education in its widest
sense. There is a tremendous opportunity for libraries to play a greater
role in meeting the needs of schoolchildren and school-leavers and in
supporting lifelong learning. More and more young people undertake
project work. Significant numbers of people fall through the net. Where
do the 3 million self-employed get their training?
The public library could become the natural place for people to turn to
for advice, support and practical training in IT and communication
skills, and could potentially play a significant role in training and
- Bearing in mind the limited scope of this research, the most
motivating applications overall were homework clubs, links to schools,
the idea of the one-stop shop for school-leavers, the library as a
training centre for information and communication skills, and advanced
Although the idea of open learning in a comfortable self-paced way was
appealing, people need first to acquire the basic computer skills to
enable them to do this. Only a few realised the full potential in
developing literacy skills.
Other applications such as access to rare archives had more specific
appeal, but those who responded favourably were very enthusiastic. It
seemed that specialist collections receive little promotion beyond
regional boundaries, and this would need to be addressed.
The value to the community of the library as a local knowledge centre
was understood and thought to be an essential service which could only
improve with the benefits of IT. Suggested links to local government had
limited appeal to the groups surveyed, but it would require a more
substantial study to confirm this finding.
- The networking solution adopted for rural areas could be different
and would require further investigation. Rural communities tend to have
fewer resources available, so there is more incentive to use the new
services - either remotely from home or from convenient village access
points. Recreational reading is enormously significant, and facilities
such as renewing books by remote access, making requests, and possibly
having books sent to you would be a big improvement in the service.
- The convenience of opening hours needs to be addressed from the
users' point of view. If the intention is to provide a service to
maximise use and further recreational and vocational learning, the
library needs to be open during evenings, weekends and lunch-times, so
that all can benefit from the service.
- Networking should not be restricted to national boundaries: people
realise that we are in a world information environment and that it is
essential to be part of the global network, otherwise we will get left
- The public library is an important focal point in the community.
There is a feeling that its position has been eroded, that it does not
currently present a compelling reason to go there and that it is lagging
behind the times rather than moving ahead. Though there is a tremendous
amount of goodwill for the public library service among users, there is
a significant opportunity to revitalise libraries, stimulate greater
usage, broaden the appeal, and make a big difference in people's lives.
- New technology and networked libraries are essential if libraries are
to gain status in the new world of networked information, knowledge and
learning. IT could be a big step forward in encouraging learning -
making it seem more fun and motivating, especially to those who
currently feel that libraries are not for them.
- People really value the quiet learning space provided by the library
at the moment, and any development needs to be complementary to this.
There were some indications from our research that new uses would add
value to the library in an exciting way, but that they would require
separate spaces. How the new technology should be integrated to maintain
important library values will need to be taken into account and
- The future of librarians will be to enable and facilitate. The
overall purpose of the job will be essentially the same, but the skills
needed will be different. Librarians will have to think about their
role, management skills, delivering services and 'customer care', and
this may require a cultural shift in attitude for some. More librarians
have to come out from behind the desk and be more outward-going.
- Most people had a narrow view of the total range of services offered
by public libraries. This was particularly true of people who accessed
books and information from other sources. This indicates a need to use
higher-profile marketing of the public library service, to show what's
on offer and to encourage broader use and access for the widest possible
range of people.
- Whether the service is free or could be charged for is an issue that
will need further examination. Libraries already make charges for some
things, and most people do accept this.
- When designing new services, librarians will need to understand in
more detail how far people are prepared to travel for particular uses.
In this study we found that specialised resources which are
self-evidently more costly were not expected to be available in every
- There will be some people who do not want IT to displace what they
value in libraries and would rather have better bookstock and a more
comfortable reading space. For these people it is especially important
to preserve the library atmosphere and the large-scale presence of
books, and to house any of the advanced services in a separate space.
- The experts we talked to who represented small businesses felt that
libraries potentially present an opportunity to be at the heart of
partnerships with the private sector. This area was outside the remit of
this study, but is a very important one in terms of service packaging,
marketing and financing, and will need thorough examination.
Overall reaction to IT development in public libraries
- The overall reaction was as follows:
- The development of IT in public libraries was regarded as essential
if libraries are to play an integral role in the new world of networked
information, knowledge and learning.
- Respondents were impressed by what the information technology network
could potentially deliver, and a large majority reacted very favourably.
- The most enthusiastic were the better informed - aware of the
Internet capabilities, and conscious of the fact that, if libraries did
not go ahead with public library networking and be part of the global
network, they would get left behind.
- The applications of networking libraries that aroused most enthusiasm
tended to concern education and support for lifelong learning, while
levelling the playing-field for those unlikely to be able to afford to
buy the new technology themselves.
- People perceived the library as the natural place for self-learning
and training in appropriate skills.
- The librarian was seen to have an important role to play in helping
and coaching people in IT. The presence of the librarian was also
necessary to maintain a 'human feel' - especially to encourage those
people with 'techno-fear', worried about the 'coldness' and
inaccessibility of IT.
- Access to the world's information bank was seen to be necessary but
was not a primary driver. Most needs were already fulfilled by the local
library bookstock and an occasional special request or visit to a main
central library. A more tangible benefit was having immediate access to
information when all relevant books were on loan.
- More advanced services, such as videoconferencing and virtual
reality, were especially appealing to the young audiences, and were
acceptable as long as the ideas were information- or
communication-related. The possibility of videoconference links created
- The people who did have possibilities of access from home were very
receptive to the idea of using services remotely.
- Most people felt quite strongly that development should not be at the
expense of the things that make a library special.
- A minority was slightly turned off by the concept of IT making
greater inroads into peoples' lives generally. This minority tended to
be older, enjoyed libraries the way they are, and simply wanted the
future to invest in more bookstock, longer opening hours and a few more
comfortable chairs. However, they did recognise the value of IT in
libraries as an investment for the future of younger generations.
- In the rural user group, the women with the greatest interest in
networked libraries were those who had children doing homework projects.
Meeting the needs of children
- Specific educational benefits of IT were welcomed with considerable
enthusiasm among both parents and children.
- Homework clubs with IT facilities were thought to be a
brilliant idea. The reasons given were:
- IT would motivate children and give them practise in essential
computer skills and other new technology;
- the library network would also ensure access to a wide choice of
relevant and interesting references for children's project work;
- the children would be less distracted in a library environment and be
able to concentrate more;
- help and guidance would be on hand, if needed.
- Links to schools were also felt to be a good idea - mostly
because schools' resources were thought to be limited and such links
would provide valuable support. Use for parent communication with the
school was of interest only among a minority; it was generally felt that
a direct link with schools would not be practical and could potentially
take up valuable time of teaching staff already under pressure. However,
mothers did feel it would be a good idea to have access to the national
- Women in the rural user group with children doing homework projects,
showed great interest in networked libraries and were very enthusiastic
about the idea of being able to remotely access information from home or
at a convenient access point.
Meeting the needs of school-leavers
- IT was perceived to be particularly beneficial to this age group. Not
surprisingly, they were particularly motivated by the concept which
Easy and fast access to a complete up-to-the minute picture on
- careers advice
- training opportunities
- FE, HE places
- company information
and at the same time be able to find out how to write a CV and practise
for an interview on a CD-rom.
- User suggestions:
'Real insight into courses and universities: town, campus, student
'Could catalogue people's opinions about the courses, and what the
college is really like. That would be very useful.'
- This age group especially welcomed the idea of an established base
where you could learn and use new information technology, including more
- Remote access from home was mentioned by this group as a potential
additional benefit, for those times when the library was closed or when
there was no need to use any of the other services.
Supporting lifelong learning
- People we talked to who were participating in any kind of lifelong
learning already used the public library for that purpose. The library
was regarded as a good place to go to pursue self-education with more
personal goals, or leisure interests and hobbies. Primarily it provided
a quiet study space and reference materials that people could use in
their own time - provided the library was open. Longer opening hours
were obviously a particular issue here.
- The majority thought that IT skills were necessary in a world in
which technology-based employment is growing, and some had already taken
steps to acquire these skills through public libraries. Others showed
enthusiasm at the possibility of acquiring these skills at the library.
- The concept of open learning in a library environment was
appealing to many, though a minority felt they would personally prefer
to have the greater social interaction from attending a course. The
greatest barrier for some would initially be that they would need to
acquire basic computer skills and to overcome some kind of 'techno-fear'
in order to do this.
- A few more socially minded females recognised the value in
encouraging literacy among people disadvantaged by a culture/language
who they felt would be less likely to enrol into formal education.
Meeting the needs of the community
- The library was already used as a local knowledge centre by
some, though it was recognised that IT could potentially significantly
improve that service and provide a way to be better informed about what
was going on in an area - either local or remote, if you were planning a
trip. People showed considerable interest in using such a service.
- Local history and culture archives had been used from time to
time, mainly for assistance in school project work, and were thought to
be an essential library resource, though IT applications in this area
were found to be of limited interest.
- Providing links to local government received a mixed
response. Some felt in principle it was a good idea but were doubtful
about how effective it would be. Women who seemed most likely to
participate actively in local government matters were the least
interested in this application of IT:
'Don't believe that local community action would really work.'
'Would my point really be heard on a computer? You can ignore a
computer - you can't ignore a person.'
Training centre for information and communication skills
- Reactions to the potential use of the library as a training centre
depended to a large extent on the subject-matter. People wanted what was
on offer to be complementary to how they perceived the role of the
library. Training connected to information and communication skills
received an enthusiastic response and fitted with their perceptions. The
advantages were that it would bring people into the library who could
not go to college.
- Basic computer skills training was particularly appealing,
though it seemed more appropriate for adults than for younger groups,
who were already taught such skills at school. The idea of an
introductory session to the Internet created strong interest in all
- Centres where people could improve interpersonal communication
skills generated interest and appeal across all groups, and overall
the library was felt to be an appropriate place to house them. People
responded favourably to the idea of improving communication skills
through subject-matter they were interested in. Not surprisingly,
guidance on interview techniques was of particular interest among
A place to try out new learning experiences
- The opportunities presented by videoconference links had
broad appeal. As well as education-related use, the most relevant
general application was as a way to access support groups in health
matters. The relevance of the subject-matter would encourage people to
use unfamiliar technology and to acquire basic skills.
- The idea of shared learning experiences through this channel had
mixed appeal. The prospect of being able to 'attend' a lecture or
consult an expert remotely was very motivating for a few, though the
majority of the people we talked to were uninterested in this
possibility. Learning a language was of interest to a few, as was the
benefit of being able to have a tutorial if doing a correspondence
- Access to advanced services, such as virtual reality, was
especially motivating for younger male audiences, who were very
enthusiastic at the prospect and thought it appropriate as long as the
ideas were information- or communication-related. It was seen as a way
for the library to move ahead and provide a unique service in allowing
people to try out and use the latest new technology. Moreover, this
group saw the library as the natural place where this could happen in
'If the library doesn't offer it, who will?'
- Security aspects were a concern across several of the groups. Worries
were expressed about vandalism, and about 'dealing with kids
Access to rare archives
- The idea of being able to delve into 'rare hidden collections' had
mixed appeal. Some were very enthusiastic, especially about the idea of
being able to visit a museum or exhibition. Many were indifferent, and
the males especially were more excited by the possibilities of being
able to access moving images such as sporting archives or news bulletin
Issues for users in introduction
and use of IT
Issue: Achieving the right balance
- People were passionate about books, about being surrounded by books
in peace and quiet, able to browse and find the unexpected - all
important library values people do not want to lose. There was a strong
concern expressed that 'once IT gets a foot in the door it could take
over' at the expense of the bookstock and the 'good values' of the
'Nothing's going to stop new technology, but don't go too far.'
'IT mustn't take over from the books but bring the library into the
'Worried that through technology the library will change and that
books might eventually disappear. Must retain the value of the library.
Issue: Will it be free?
- Keeping the service free was really important for many:
'The second you have to pay, you're putting it in a different
'If it isn't free, the people who couldn't afford to pay would be
- Mixed views were expressed regarding the acceptability of charges.
Young people were more prepared to pay for services generally. Many felt
that it would be acceptable to charge for some services, and compared
this to the charges now made for ordering a book, while others felt
quite strongly that all services ought to be free. There was a general
consensus that initial trial of IT services, and basic instruction,
should be free. Access from home was seen as a convenience for the
slightly 'better off' who had their own equipment, and as such could be
more acceptably charged for.
Issue: Having enough terminals
- The demand for IT in libraries was further evidenced by the issue
raised regarding the number of terminals required to provide an adequate
'Would you ever get enough terminals? How would you get on them?'
- Apart from the funding aspect - which raised some concerns - people
reacted negatively to the thought of banks of terminals, which they felt
could be intimidating. If the number of terminals was limited, people
accepted that some rationing/booking system would be necessary, to give
everyone a chance to use them.
- Other concerns were mentioned at a low level, but are worth noting:
- 'The introduction of new technology nearly always sees a
reduction in staff. For an effective service, more staff would be
needed: librarians to help and coach in skills, and technicians for when
the computers crash.'
- 'Techno-fear' was evident among some - especially women. Despite some
of them using computers at work, they did not seem confident about using
them in other situations. The role of the librarian in encouraging and
coaching will be vital with this group.
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