[UKOLN] Internet Activity in Public Libraries

By Sarah Ormes, published in Online and CD Notes, Vol.10, No.5, June 1997

The Internet is the term used to describe the network of computer networks that has developed over the last twenty years. This network is global and supports facilities such as e-mail and the World Wide Web. It allows a two way exchange of information and data. Its growth has recently been extremely rapid and it is now a well established and heavily used source of information. Public libraries have quickly identified that if they are to remain effective information providers then they must integrate the Internet into their services. This commitment was reflected in the Library Association’s 1996 Millennium Fund bid which sought funding to connect every UK public library to the Internet but unfortunately did not succeed.

Most Internet activity in UK libraries is still at an early stage. The recent Library and Information Commission public library Internet survey (Ormes and Dempsey, 1995) revealed that in November 1995 only 3% of all UK service points had an Internet connection. The survey also revealed that the majority of those libraries with connections are currently exploring and evaluating the Internet. This emphasises that libraries are still learning about the Internet. This article provides a brief overview of the type of Internet activity which is currently taking place in public libraries. This activity can be divided into four main types:

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 and service development. In comparison academic libraries have a much greater range of Internet based activities underway. With support from the £15 million E-lib programme academic libraries are currently developing Internet services on topics ranging from electronic documentary delivery to digitization to on demand publishing to how to train library staff to be able to use all these new services. Compared to this activity public libraries are concentrating on much more fundamental issues. However, although it may be less extensive this activity is incredibly important as it represents the foundation on which many future public library Internet services will be built.

Initial Experimentation and Exploration

The Library and Information Commission public library Internet survey revealed that most public libraries had one or two dial up connections to the Internet and were using them for ‘initial experimentation and exploration’ projects. The library typically sets up a small project where a small number of staff – usually technical or management team – experiments with the Internet often in an ad-hoc way. These projects usually have three main concerns:

These projects represent the librarys’ first experiences. Libraries at this stage are unwilling to commit a large amount of scarce resources to the unknown of Internet services. They are very much a learning experience for the library staff involved and represent (hopefully) the first step in the development of the authority’s Internet services.

An important point to note is that public libraries do not have access to a network like Joint Academic Network (JANET). JANET is a centrally funded network available to all HE academic institutions. The funding for JANET is topped sliced from the institutions’ budgets and consequently the libraries in these institutions do not see any direct cost (from their budget) associated with its use. It, and SuperJANET, provides 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. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent using the Internet and the cost to the library. This relationship acts as a severe inhibitor on the scale of Internet service development and can be seen in low-level and low cost nature of public libraries’ first Internet experiences.

(CLIP) is one of the few exceptions to this low scale pattern. CLIP explored how a public library can use the Internet to answer reference queries, provide public access and also explored the best type of connection model. It received funding from the British Library Research and Development Department (BLRDD) and Croydon Borough Council. This funding allowed the project to take place on a much larger scale than usual with a full time project officer and leased line connection to the Internet. It received considerable media attention and its final report to the British Library has now been published (Batt and Kirby, 1996).

Public Access

Public access is a concern of these 'introductory' projects but as 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 and Denmark that public libraries should act as an 'information net'. As we move to a society where access to networked information will become more important it will be essential that everyone, whatever their circumstances, 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 who 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.

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 were fully equipped with the latest IT – including Internet access. The project was deliberately located in an area of high unemployment and social deprivation - an area that has been identified as information poor. The public used ITPoint and the Internet connections very heavily and the project was very successful. It proved not only that the public would use Internet access if offered it but that such a service could be managed. Originally Internet access was offered for free but charging was introduced when BLRDD funding finished.

The South Ayrshire CyberCentre made available 15 Internet workstations for the public in Ayr public library in June 1996. Integral to the project is a staff-training programme, which will allow the staff to learn to incorporate the Internet into all the information services they offer. This project is fairly unusual as it is large scale and yet funded by the library service itself. This funding was made available by transferring money from the book fund for one year. The project has been well received by the library users and staff and will soon be expanding to include another library site. The centre charges the public for access to the Internet.

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 from local computer companies. Four terminals were made available to the public and access was charged by the hour. 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 was extended.

These projects are good examples of how public libraries have effectively and successfully run access services. They show that there is a demand for Internet access in libraries and that services will be very successful. However, the Library and Information Commission survey showed that under 1% of public libraries were offering public Internet access and so despite this demand projects like these are still highly unusual.

One development in meeting this demand in a public library context 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, desktop 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 types 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 at present which is not being attained. However, Internet connection costs are set to decrease as such connections become more common. Although libraries may have to charge at present there may be hope for more free services in the future.

Civic Information on the Internet

The area where there has been most activity is 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 are commonly used for civic information systems as they manage these tasks very easily.

The most typical systems used are known as videotext or viewdata. They 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 the service is completely the library authority’s responsibility.

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 attractive method of information presentation. It also allows the services to link to other useful WWW sites located outside of the service, county or even country. It 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 without an existing civic information system in particular have become very keen to develop a WWW information system. These systems offer a way of disseminating information about the Councils around the world, and are good for their image as organisations on the 'cutting edge'. Such services therefore provide 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 a system developed from scratch. 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. If it had been developed even just three years ago it would probably have been videotext-based.

Another example of a service of this type is the Leeds City Council Internet Project. It provides 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.

These services are an attractive option for local authorities and many are currently investing considerable resources in developing them as they view them as very important. Worryingly the majority of these services are generally not being run and/or developed by or in association with 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 the traditional public library purpose of information provider. 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.

In comparison existing viewdata systems such as Edinburgh’s CapInfo ’96 are also developing an Internet service under library control. CapInfo’ 96 at present 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 which is a national trend. 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.

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.

Use by the Profession

Academic librarians 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 (ASLIB, 1995) was public libraries must collaborate together on a greater scale. Public libraries are now beginning to explore the possibilities that the Internet offers them for cooperation.

Information North and SLAINTE also are offering services to the profession. Information North is aiming to create WWW pages for National Heritage professionals including public librarians. 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.

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 April 1997, 113 authorities and other partners had joined.

EARL has recognised that before public libraries can start to offer more complex services a considerable amount of collaborative research will need to be done. It has therefore set up a number of task groups to explore the issues surrounding public library Internet activity. These task groups are exploring issues such as digitalisation, training concerns and children’s Internet services. These task groups are small in scale compared to the eLib programme but represent an important proactive move by the majority of public library authorities.


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 for the near term future. 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 in order to make the most of limited resources.

Overall, however, the picture of public library Internet activity is encouraging. There is great interest, much enthusiasm and despite concerns about resources public libraries are developing Internet services. Many of these services may currently be limited in scale but they are a first and important step.

ASLIB (1995) Review of the Public Library Service in England and Wales for the DNH: Final Report. ASLIB. London.

Batt C. and Kirby H. (1996) British Library Research and Innovation Report 13 : CLIP: Croydon Libraries Internet Project. Available on the WWW at http://www.croydon.gov.uk/cr-cliphtml.htm

Batt, C. (1995) "Creating the Clapham Junction of Knowledge". Library Manager. No 3. Vol 1.January 1993.

Ormes S. and Dempsey D. (1995) Library and Information Commission public library Internet survey. Available on the WWW at http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/publib/lic.html