This is a 'pre-publication draft' version of the following paper:

The public library and the public information superhighway. Vine, Issue no. 98, March 1995.

In any citation please refer to the printed version.

Copyright to this work is retained by the author. Permission is granted for non-commercial reproduction of this work provided full acknowledgement of authorship and copyright is given.

Infrastructure does not happen by accident. It is planned (either well or poorly) and deliberately created often with the direct involvement of the government. ... The development of the information infrastructure will be no different in this regard.

Kahn & Cerf, architects of the Internet<1>

New information and entertainment services are not waiting on fiber to the home; they are waiting on imagination.

Nicholas Negroponte<2>

Because TV had very few channels the value of TV was very high so only things of very broad interest could be aired on those few channels. The information highway will be the opposite of this - more like the Library of Congress but with an easy way to find things.

Bill Gates<3>

The public library and the Information Superhighway

Lorcan Dempsey

UKOLN: the UK Office for Library and Information Networking

University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY

Some introductory remarks

Take the easier half first. What is the information superhighway? Easy because at this stage it can mean what you want it to mean. The Information Superhighway is shorthand for a range of technologies and services which have far-reaching implications for how information and entertainment products are created, disseminated and used. It suggests the complex future convergence of conduit industries (cable, telephone, Internet, ...) and new and old content industries (publishing, TV, film, ..) which will deliver distributed multimedia services to the home, the office, the wristwatch, and the brain implant.

However, the superhighway is currently limited to a few networks like SuperJANET. Most component networks of the Internet and other networks do not yet deserve the sobriquet 'super'. A pervasive high speed network is unlikely to exist for some time. But the Superhighway is not just about conduit, about the network. It is about content. In an interesting characterisation, Nicholas Negroponte talks of bits and atoms. Libraries, for example, currently handle atoms, individual physical items which need to be created, packaged, transported, distributed, fetched; items, which have mass and have to be massively duplicated. The Information Superhighway, he suggests, is about 'bits', about the 'global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light', about, in fact, being digital'. We are now witnessing a significant move into the digital sphere of information, entertainment and communication products. Old arguments about print versus electronic media, or about their relative future importance, seem quaint beside the need to begin to handle increasingly diverse formats, print and non-print.

To conduit and content, we can add a third idea: connectedness. Merely being digital is not enough - content needs to be transformed, exchanged, retrieved, manipulated in a variety of ways. New services rely on distributed applications which manipulate content from many sources and which hide the complexity of the interacting systems of service provision from the user. Increasingly, services will be built on communicating computers; 'connectedness' is what allows them talk to each other. It relies on agreed protocols, and ways of structuring information. Perhaps the best example of the importance of connectedness is the great success of the World Wide Web. What WWW does is add a layer of 'connectedness', literally a vast web through which content of many types can flow, and be integrated into the user's own working environment. It provides a framework for the use, exchange and transformation of audio, still and moving images as well as text, and a simple approach to its presentation and display. It is what has made the Internet the most suggestive precursor of what the Information Superhighway might be. In fact highway is a poor metaphor for most people's experience of the network. It emphasises conduit. The web, and other emerging technologies, have made it more like a place. People now can view the network as a collection of relatively high-level services and resources, rather than as a rather low level collection of hosts, systems and connections. Through the Web, some of the transformational promise of networking can begin to be made more tangible; it allows content to come alive within a navigable space.

The superhighway will rely on the components identified above: conduit, content and connectedness. At the conduit level, a sufficiently pervasive platform to deliver a critical mass of use and users is required. Without such a platform there will be partial participation in benefits, and there will not be a market for new content. Without content - information and communication services for learning and leisure - such investment is wasted. Without connectedness, users will be overwhelmed by the volume and diversity of resources. These components are co-evolutionary. For example, improvements in conduit lead to new forms of content which in turn place new demands on conduit. Again, look at the Web. Improved connectedness has caused an influx of new content types and suppliers.

The Information Superhighway, then, is a vision, not a reality. It is the object of media hype, marketing push and government aspiration. It is a political and commercial as well as a technical entity. It operates in a complicated political and funding context. Indeed much of the political debate in the UK has tended to revolve within some rather narrow concerns. It has focused on conduit and the regulatory environment in which the telephone and cable companies operate. More recently, prompted by US developments, the political discussion has broadened, but it is depressingly derivative of the Clinton-Gore rhetoric. The recent CCTA study on the public sector information superhighway aimed to "investigate the opportunities presented by digital Information Superhighways for public sector applications in the United Kingdom" and "suggests a framework for identifying and forming joint ventures with industry and government in the development of digital-based public services for the citizen." This study and the associated consultative exercise have begun a program of activity which is potentially of major importance.<4> Major commercial organisations are building conduit, and an array of providers are positioning themselves to offer content services.

These activities signal some sort of recognition that the Information Superhighway needs to be planned, built and paid for. Significant momentum has built up around the concept. It seems to be generally accepted that the majority of investment will come from the private sector.<5> However the relative role of public and private sectors is not yet clear. The precise role, and executive mechanisms, of the public sector in developing exemplary applications, in intervening to ensure appropriate equitable access to certain resources, in making its own resources available and in pump-priming initiatives are not clear.

Furthermore, despite all this activity, there is a limited sense of what services will actually be offered, of what consumer takeup there will be, of what people really want, and what they will be willing to pay for. In a recent issue of Wired<6>, Kevin Kelly reports a MacWorld survey of 600 people about what networked services they would be willing to pay $10 a month for. The top ten items were: vote in elections, search reference books, take courses, obtain local school information, search card catalogs, participate in opinion polls, obtain government information, get video-on-demand, search magazines/newspapers, search legal/scientific/medical journals. Kelly doubts whether this reflects their actual preferences, but it is nevertheless intriguing.

It is clear that if developments are to have the transformational effect that is being forecast then the networks will have to mesh with people's lives and activities along a broader continuum than is suggested by video-on-demand and online shopping. Such services, or content, do not yet exist in abundance, and mere discussion will not call them into being. They also need to be planned, built and paid for.

This provides an interesting link to the public library service, for public libraries are rich in the type of content this survey seems to suggest is what people want. However, this content largely exists as 'atoms', with low levels of connectedness. Public libraries in this country are only beginning to respond to the challenge the discussion poses. Although there is evidence that they are valued institutions<7>, the links have not generally been made between them and the networked future. For example, worryingly, the CCTA study mentioned above does not recognise the potential contribution in this area of public libraries. In a recent article in the Independent (in the Polemic slot) Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, suggested that public libraries were 'relics of a bygone age', that they provided free entertainment to the middle classes in 'outmoded, inefficient and expensive ways'. He suggests that libraries should ask themselves 'just what education and information services are needed in modern times. and what sort of institutions would be appropriate to provide them.' He suggests that the answer would be far removed from the 'Victorian relics we are left with'.

What types of institutions, then, should public libraries of the future be? What might a 'reader' of the future expect of a minimum library service? Access to the Internet? Access to the full text of the daily newspapers? Direct end-user requesting of materials? Much more, one hopes. But, although we can all think of a range of services that would be possible or desirable, there is not a guiding vision of the role of the public library which would allow such services to be prioritised, or which guides lobbying activity, effort and investment. There is no explicit vision which can be evoked in response to Pirie's challenge.

The discussion of such a vision is a rather larger task than can be attempted here. Some scenarios, parts of a picture, are presented in the next section. However, in this design and construction phase, public libraries should be more active in planning their contribution to public sector development. Rather than making them redundant, these developments present opportunities to extend and consolidate their role in a new environment where support at a variety of levels will be essential. Libraries select, acquire for collective use, organise, instruct in the use of, and preserve resources. In a rapidly changing environment the requirement for these core services grows, but the skills and approaches needed may change. They will provide an initial market for products and services in a well-known and reassuring environment, and points of presence throughout the country. They are uniquely placed to variously play the role of provider, broker and mentor. They need to begin to design and plan their own futures as managers of the flows of 'bits' as well as of 'atoms'. And on the basis of real services, develop the political cases for funding such public services.

Content and services - some scenarios

The public library of the future will not suddenly appear. Nor is it likely that each authority will individually transform its range of services. An exploratory phase will be required. Various libraries have embarked on this phase, and some of the results of their work are described in this issue of Vine . This individual work is necessary and will continue. I would suggest that a set of linked concerted initiatives which focus on some aspect of cooperative service is desirable, and which provide some focus for thinking about and working towards the future. These would aim to facilitate the development of a shared view of system and service issues and preferred development paths. They would concentrate effort, vision and skills. Each would involve a group of public library authorities and the communities they serve. More is said about how this might be organised below, but here I very briefly and in a very preliminary way describe some possible scenarios in a networked service environment.

Community maps

Rediscovering the fabric of community

Community is a strange word. It is strongly evocative, and unspecific enough to allow each to bring his or her meanings to it. It is a word, Raymond Williams suggests somewhere, that never seems to be used unfavourably.

That there is a role for the public library in describing the explicit relationships and objects which are evidence of a community and its sense of itself, or rather of the more or less multiple communities which share any library, is agreed. Local history records; sport, art, culture, social activities: these can be noted and described. At one end this perhaps shades into tourist information, at the other into archives. Individually such services provide value; made available as a network resource and brought into the same context of use as other such resources, that value is much enhanced.

The Citizen's Network

Sharing public information

An interesting component of Internet and superhighway discussions have been the focus on its use to more widely disseminate government information. In the US, this discussion has been given added impetus by the political interest and agenda of Newt Gingrich. The extension of the Government Information Locator System to other countries was discussed at the recent G-7 meeting.

Of course, public libraries in this country already provide a range of information that is of interest to their users as citizens. They liaise with their authorities to make a variety of types of information available. There is discussion about making information about European institutions available. Together with the initiatives towards 'open government' being coordinated by the CCTA, these present an opportunity for the design and development of the structures through which such information should be consolidated organised and delivered for effective use.

Business intelligence

Information for competitive local enterprise

Many authorities provide business information services. It is largely a local activity, despite the potential of shared effort. A shared service, where the cost and effort of supply was shared across several authorities with local tailoring would bring benefit.

In each of the above scenarios one would expect an audit of requirements and available information types, a review of providers and partners. Also, it would be sensible to begin looking at a standard approach to recording such information and a protocol framework for its exchange, drawing on relevant existing approaches. Without such attention part of the advantage of putting the services on the network is lost. It is within such a framework that individual resources can contribute to a larger whole, and the whole gains value from the addition of each resource. It will inhibit use and make the whole system more ineffective than it need be if, for example, if each resource providing community information is designed differently, with different access and search routines and data formats. One wants to be able to look at a local resource, and then look at resources in other authorities within the same framework. Take for comparative purposes the case of library OPACs on JANET. These are individually quite useful for specific purposes. But think how much more useful they would be if one could do a search across several of them as a unit, if one could be transparently linked to systems for requesting selected items and so on. Their value would be much increased by being part of a larger distributed resource, rather than by being a series of individual and quite different terminal-based resources. The move to client-server systems and standards like Z39.50 will facilitate this type of development, but clearly they can only operate within certain organisational contexts which have also to be established. Currently, looking at OPACs on JANET is like looking through shop windows in a deserted city centre after the shops have closed.

The national imagination and memory

Find any book, record, song

The collective public library resource is very rich. It represents through the book, journal, audio and other collections an important record of the national imagination and memory. Yet it is a fragmented resource - only a small fraction of it is ever visible to the library user. Of course there are procedures for borrowers to acquire materials from elsewhere, but they are slow, mechanical and unpredictable. They will, rightly, be increasingly unacceptable. Libraries have invested heavily in the creation of bits about the atoms they hold. But those bits, bibliographic records, flow in limited, non-interconnected circuits.

As this is still the core of the library service, it might be useful to consider in some more detail what would be required to provide more helpful services. The service issues may be familiar, even if some of the technical issues are only dimly discerned. Ideally, one would like to move towards a unified end-user interface which provides the effective integration of diverse services for identifying, locating, requesting and paying for items of interest, from libraries anywhere within the system. From a user point of view, this is an obvious service development: it is disappointing, even scandalous, that end-users cannot now easily request materials of interest to them, and that an effective cooperative system to quickly satisfy those requests does not exist. However, bringing this about is far from straightforward. The searching tools are fragmented (different library OPACs; different union catalogues; DSC files); union files may not be complete or kept up to date, and are not linked to circulation systems for availability information; automated requesting systems are not in place between libraries. To actually build such a service would require major engineering and systems development effort to transparently link the various components<8>, the development of service guidelines, and unprecedented levels of organisational cooperation. A variety of projects could be imagined here which build on existing work, on developing links to the British Library, and so on.

The electronic reference and reading room

Creating public knowledge

Many reference resources are now appearing on CD-ROM and some on the network. Newspapers, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, abstracting and indexing services: they lend themselves to electronic distribution. The future reader will expect to be able to use the electronic forms of these products, to use electronic reading and reference rooms.

They also lend themselves to shared acquisition. The case of BIDS in the academic community has shown the value of collective acquisition, where a centrally-led initiative to acquire the rights to electronic data for unlimited use within subscribing higher education institutions has transformed the information services are paid for and used. One can imagine an initiative where a group of public library authorities negotiate with publishers and suppliers for shared access to resources. Every library will have to have the OED, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the national newspapers, and so on: does it make sense for them all to do it individually? A project would need careful consideration, involving complex licensing, technical and service issues. A pilot might involve an existing third party host, such as Bids or SilverPlatter, or opt for an interim CD-Rom approach.

The learned society <9>

Life long learning

In a series of interesting recent talks about EARL Geoffrey Hare <10> has highlighted the relative increase of directed information use of public libraries. This will further increase, as public libraries are more used by those within formal full-time education but also with those general employment and domestic changes which are making learning a life-long activity, within more or less formal frameworks. Libraries are already important learning resources but are now exploring more structured support in a variety of ways. Within a networked environment, the opportunity for shared acquisition, creation and promotion of learning materials, for the development of distance learning environments, and for advice, referral and communication services, need to be addressed.

The information by-ways

Supporting new contexts of reading and writing

Libraries have bought materials for collective use. One of Madsen Price's arguments seems to be that the 'entry price' for such materials is now so low that such investment is no longer justified. However, the changes noted elsewhere mean the 'entry price' for many new information and leisure materials has been significantly raised.

It may be necessary to have a PC, an Internet account, or pay subscription charges to use various information resources. Information environments have been read-only, increasingly they need to support new contexts of reading and writing, and provide environments where their users can begin to equip themselves with these skills. In this, the library will complement, as it has always done, schools, colleges, general learning activities, commercial services. CD-Rom, Internet, word-processing: these may become routine components of some home environments in due course, but it will take some time, and there will always be entry costs.

Any projects in this area should begin to chart the desirable components of public information environments, work towards a shared view of desirable human and systems support, develop views about charging and 'for-fee' services, and begin to describe what a 'core' service might look like.

Some issues

Organisation and Planning

The library authorities do not operate as a system. Faced with fundamental change it is important that system wide solutions are sought where appropriate, and that the public library service does not fragment, developing different networks, systems and services.

A blueprint or plan for the future is needed which identifies the public libraries' contribution to the 'digital-based public services for the citizen', the infrastructural construction that is necessary to realise it, and an organisational framework which can carry it out. It is important that a shared view be developed of an interworking communications infrastructure, an open systems and applications platform, and where relevant, of a minimum expected set of network information services. This should proceed alongside and draw from actual experience of services, and I suggest above that it could be channelled through the shared implementation of a number of scenarios.

"Infrastructure does not happen by accident ..." However, to a large extent, developments in the public library sector are being left to accident.

There is little coordinated planning activity in the public library environment. There is some local innovation and experiment with network-based services, which may prove exemplary, but there is no systemic activity, nor is there a shared view of what contribution public libraries might make to the development of public information services, and what needs to be done to achieve it. This absence, and the absence of a forum through which such a shared view could develop, limits the potential impact of a public library voice in the overall development of the Information Superhighway. It also means that effort, lobbying and debate aimed at modernising library services tends to be dissipated.

The setting up of the Libraries Commission, the DNH review, and the stated intention of the Library Association to work towards a Millennium bid provide an opportunity to begin to build on existing projects, and move things forward as part of a planned framework of activities.


Libraries will have to maintain existing services. Much of the development discussed here represents additional cost; it is not clear how it will be paid for. The development of network services, and the applications necessary to support them represent significant investments over and above the procurement of any actual network links. Significant initial capital costs will be involved in taking this 'next step', and many of the proposed services will not be cheap to support. The public library community will have to become more alert to seeking partnerships, and new sources of development funding. In this context, the recent discussion about lottery money is interesting, and millennium opportunities have been mentioned. There is also some opportunity within the Fourth Framework Programme of the Commission.<11> Success in these endeavours will benefit from a clearer sense of purpose and appreciation of what ought to be attempted.

I have come back several times to the question of a shared view. It seems to me that such a shared view and effective lobbying activity on the basis of it is vital for winning support for public library services.

Communications infrastructure - a note on conduit

The public libraries network infrastructure, the conduit, is fragmented and uneven and there is no consensus about how future infrastructure requirements ought to be met. It is an archipelago, not a highway.

The draft DNH review prepared by ASLIB talks about the public libraries network (in the sense of an organised community of institutions) being supported by a public libraries network (in the sense of an electronic communications network).<12>

The question of what underlying transmission technology is used (e.g. ISDN) is less important at this stage than issues to do with organisation and funding of network provision.

Should the 'public library network', as discussed in the report, be linked by a public library communications network, procured from a network provider and having a peer relationship with other networks, Janet, for example? (This seems to be the scenario being realised in Denmark.) Or should individual authorities pursue individual solutions, through commercial Internet providers, and other avenues? If so, what coordinating measures should be taken to ensure interworking and some common levels of service?

Will a unified network infrastructure support the variety of requirements a library authority has (technical services, EDI or cataloguing for example; production system use, access to circulation systems for example; emerging public information systems and access to the Internet)? Or will a library authority support separate infrastructures? The situation is made more complex by the differing relationships with local authorities.

This is an area in which there is still limited experience. It is clear that some shared platform would benefit the development of the services described above, and that a shared view of requirements would do much to reduce current uncertainty and indecision. The EARL project, the Steering Group of which the author is a member, is described elsewhere in this issue. One of the major benefits that this project should deliver is such a shared view.

And finally ...

The public library system has enriched the life of the nation by creating well informed communities, by supporting local enterprise, by opening doors on the imagination and learning, and by sustaining information and knowledge industries. It is now up to libraries themselves to ensure that that role is maintained through the development of services relevant to their user's changing needs. The need to become 'bit' managers, not bit players.

UKOLN (The UK Office for Library and Information Networking) has identified public library networking and its interaction with wider public sector initiatives as an area of strategic interest over the next three years. It will work closely with EARL and the other projects described here, and looks forward to being part of some very interesting developments.

Author's note. This paper draws on UKOLN's comments submitted to ASLIB on the DNH Review of the public library service in England and Wales (Draft report, September 1994), and on some notes prepared by the author in the context of a possible LA millennium bid. UKOLN is funded by the British Library R&D Department and by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding councils. Any views expressed in the article are those of the author.


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Negroponte, Nicholas. Being digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.


As quoted in: Gilder, George. Life after television: the coming transformation of media and American life (revised edition). New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1994.


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Dutton, William et al. The information superhighway: Britain's response. Policy Research Paper No. 29 (PICT, Economic and Social Research Council). 1994


Kelly, Kevin. What people really want on the net. WIRED, February 1995, p.48.


Comedia. Borrowed time? The future of public libraries in the UK. Stroud: Comedia, June 1993. ISBN 1 87366745 0


Dempsey, Lorcan. Networks, standards and end-user information services. Vine . December, 1993.


A nice phrase of Chris Batt's.


e.g. Networking: community issues. Presentation at the LINC/BLRDD Networking initiative, 28/29 November 1994, Sheffield


Dempsey, Lorcan. The UK, networking and the European libraries programme. Library and Information Briefing, 57. London: LITC, 1995.


DNH review of the public library service in England and Wales. Draft report. London: ASLIB Consultancy, September 1994.