How librarians and firefighters built a special library in Champaign, Illinois, USA: a community informatics story

Claudia Grisales Bohorquez (Informatics Programs, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, USA)
Lian Ruan (Illinois Fire Service Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, USA)
Kate Williams (School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, USA)

Digital Transformation and Society

ISSN: 2755-0761

Article publication date: 30 December 2022

Issue publication date: 2 February 2023




This paper aims to understand how a special library helped firefighters in Illinois navigate the digital revolution by evidencing the elements and forms of work that made its innovative services possible.


The authors examine the history of a special library through a community informatics lens, drawing from sociomaterial perspectives to highlight forms of work often invisible in digital innovation. Data was collected through documentary revision, oral histories and semi-structured interviews. Deductive-inductive coding and constant comparative analysis was used in the analysis.


A historical narrative of the library between 1990 and 2021 highlights three sociotechnical innovations that assisted firefighters through the digital revolution: the facilitated collection, the co-created collection and the inside-out library. To develop these innovations the library drew from institutional relations, personal relations, grants, labor, knowledge of firefighters and technology. Various forms of articulation work brought these elements together to create innovative services.


The role of special libraries in addressing the digital divide has not been sufficiently detailed so far; this paper is a contribution in that direction. It also has practical value for professionals working in specialized libraries and information centers.



Grisales Bohorquez, C., Ruan, L. and Williams, K. (2023), "How librarians and firefighters built a special library in Champaign, Illinois, USA: a community informatics story", Digital Transformation and Society, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 42-59.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Claudia Grisales Bohorquez, Lian Ruan and Kate Williams


Published in Digital Transformation and Society. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

1. Introduction

At the start of this project, people asked: “how are firemen and librarians related?” someone even brought up a dystopian novel: weren’t firemen the ones who burned books in Fahrenheit 451?” In this siloed world, such questions are not surprising. They reveal how rigid our ideas about forms of knowledge and their place in society can be. But this is a true story of librarians and firefighters overcoming those barriers to create innovative library services. This research taught us a lot about the fire service. For example, firemen are sometimes women – thus the word firefighter – and over half the 1m firefighters in the United States are volunteers (U.S Fire Administration, 2022b). Firefighters do much more than put out fires, just as librarians do much more than handle books. With this close look at the history of a special fire library in the information age we set out to reimagine the relationship between firefighters, librarians and their unique forms of knowledge.

The next section introduces our theoretical background in three themes: firefighting, special libraries and information professionals in the digital revolution. Section 3 details our methodology and the subject of our research: the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) library. Section 4 offers a historical narrative of the IFSI library that highlights three distinct innovations in special library services. The following two sections present the results of our qualitative analysis in terms of elements and types of work used for these innovations respectively. The final sections discuss these results and present a brief summary of contributions and possible future work by way of conclusion.

2. Background

2.1 Firefighting

Firefighters train intensively to avoid critical mistakes on the ground. They train to respond to highly complex scenarios, since “no two fires are the same” (Ruan, 2011, p. 209) and firefighters have assumed additional responsibilities like emergency medical services, hazardous materials and public education, among many others. In sum, firefighting is about managing risk in communities (Klinoff, 2015). For this, firefighters acquire cognitive knowledge, psychomotor skills and social knowledge – which refers to attitudes and values – through long periods of study and training, individually and in groups (Ruan, 2011).

Traditionally, experienced members of the fire service pass along skills and knowledge to newer generations (Fritz, 1997). In the United States (U.S. hereafter), this occurs at local fire departments and in fire training programs (Ruan, 2011). Although tradition plays a fundamental role in fire service culture, firefighting has transformed in response to environmental and technological changes, research and evidence-based practice. Part of this has been the gradual incorporation of computers into fire stations and apparatus. However, proficiency with digital technologies is not a requirement for aspiring firefighters in the U.S.

Firefighters’ information-seeking behaviors were described in depth by our second author in her dissertation. Her research showed that firefighters are “savvy, active and determined information seekers” (Ruan, 2011, p. 206), who try to bring different sources together and incorporate new information into their work practice. They are lifelong learners driven by a constant desire to improve their practice and knowledge of the fire service.

2.2 Special libraries

Since the 80s, libraries in the U.S. implemented community networking projects to democratize participation in the emerging information society. Drawing from these and other experiences, community became the central theme of community informatics research (Williams & Durrance, 2009). This research has examined community-oriented informatization experiences in multiple sites including public libraries and community technology centers; however, the role of special libraries remains underexamined.

Special libraries are devoted to specific subjects and they serve a limited clientele (Special Libraries Association, 1910, p. 1). Some are independent entities, and some are smaller units within academic or public libraries, but most are part of specialized organizations such as corporations or public service institutions. These libraries tend to be highly familiar with their users, providing high levels of service such as customized information selection and analysis (Murray, 2013). User instruction – including information literacy – has not typically been a primary concern in special libraries. Instead, delivery of information is key and “whether the user knows about the library and its tools is incidental to this goal” (Harris, cited in Murray, 2013).

Special libraries share some concerns across their various contexts. Key to their practice is a need to constantly prove their value to their parent organization, whose mission and administration structure determines the library’s budget and possibilities for action. Additionally, special librarians work surrounded by professionals in different areas, which makes networking and collaboration with other librarians a paramount concern (Murray, 2013). Finally, special libraries tend towards small staffs, with librarians performing multiple job functions that may include administration tasks, public service, technical tasks and archive management (Davis & Saunders, 2020).

With networked technologies, libraries automated many of their activities and adopted new approaches to service. The information age led to an existential crisis for many librarians, whose profession was seen by some as obsolete (Murray, 2016). However, librarianship transformed to face the emerging challenges and opportunities of the changing landscape; this includes special libraries, as this research shows.

2.3 The paradox of information professionals

In the digital environment, information professionals have to grapple with a paradox: “the easier they make it for their users to access […] information resources, the harder they make it for those same users to understand how much work is actually involved in making those resources available” (Marty, 2012). Scholars studying technological design noted that part of the problem is that new technologies tend to obscure the work they require. In response, they reconceptualized technologies as sociomaterial configurations – continuously assembled, demonstrated and performed – rather than as objects that work seamlessly once installed. As such, making technologies is a practice of configuring new alignments between the social and the material (Suchman, Trigg, & Blomberg, 2002, p. 163) and articulation work refers to the continuous efforts required to make and sustain these alignments as working configurations (Suchman, 1996).

Articulation work takes multiple forms in the design and use of digital technologies. Artful integrations, for example, names the “various forms of professional configuration and customization work, as well as an open horizon of mundane activities involved in incorporating technologies into everyday working practices, and keeping them working” (Suchman, 1996). Translation is another form that refers both to the transformation between different languages or representational schemes, and to the movement of a thing from one place to another (Philip, Irani, & Dourish, 2012). As we know, there are good and bad translations, which is how the notion of care becomes important in this type of work.

Care is both an affect or disposition and a concrete activity that ensures the continuity of something. It is “at once a practical response to specific needs and a sensitivity to the ordinary details that matter” (Laugier, 2021). Libraries are rich places to encounter care work because of their role as service institutions. Over time, helping others get online and make use of information technologies became an integral part of library work that can also be understood in these terms. Indeed, providing help with technology and getting others online has been compared to a form of reproduction work in the information society (Williams, 2005).

3. Research methodology

The three goals of this project reflect concerns of each of its researchers: first, to narrate the history of the fire library in Illinois; second, to examine how firefighters and their library navigated the digital revolution; and third, to reveal overlooked forms of work that have made information technologies useful and useable for firefighters. Our formal research question asks: how has the Illinois Fire Service Library helped the firefighters’ community in Illinois navigate the digital revolution?

After approval from the Institutional Research Board at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the first author began collecting data through document analysis, oral history, semi-structured interviews and site visits. Documents reviewed included newsletters, annual reports, grant reports and meeting minutes. This information was used to create a timeline tracking different aspects of the library from 1990 to 2021. She then wrote a chronological account of the library and discussed it with the other researchers.

The narrative was contrasted and supplemented with 14 interviews with current and former library and Institute staff, fire instructors and firefighters. The interviews (13.6 hours) were performed and recorded on Zoom between April and June 2022. Open, axial and selective coding (Silver & Lewins, 2014) was performed on interview transcripts and analytic memos written during the documentary revision. On the first round of open coding, 104 descriptive codes were identified. These codes were grouped during the axial coding phase into 6 groups that named assets available to the fire library, and 5 other groups that named the types of work performed by librarians. Finally, we identified articulation work as a key category encompassing the work performed, and selectively matched the identified categories to concepts in the literature.

Our subject library was built within the IFSI . IFSI is the official fire academy for Illinois, operated by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (see Plate 1) as a continuing education and public service activity with the mission of “helping firefighters do their work through training, education, information, and research” (IFSI, 2022). There are currently 1,106 fire departments and 40,647 active firefighters in Illinois (U.S Fire Administration, 2022a). Around 80% of the fire departments rely primarily on volunteer firefighters (U.S Fire Administration, 2022c).

The Institute reaches about 60,000 students each year through the delivery of more than 1,600 courses (IFSI, 2020). To do this, IFSI employs 600 field instructors, who are the state fire service’s key training force. When the library was founded in 1990, IFSI served 15,000 students through approximately 700 courses, and it employed 70 field instructors. As we will see, the library became a key driver of the Institute’s growth.

4. How the library grew: four distinct periods over 31 years

We identified four distinct phases in the library’s thirty-one-year history. The first phase (1990-1997) was building the library by relying on traditional librarianship principles. Then (1997-2007) the library became a beehive of facilitating access, widening definitions of who could be a user. Next (2007-2015), the library focused on co-creating collections, where users were recruited – or recruited themselves – to make new library resources. And finally (2015-2021), the focus became turning the library inside-out, incorporating much firefighting history and experiences from local cabinets and memories to make these available outside the library and the Institute – even outside the country. This section describes each period and then turns to our research question over the role that the fire library had in helping firefighters navigate the digital revolution.

4.1 Building a library (1990-1997)

In 1990, Lian Ruan was hired to establish a library for IFSI. At the time, 10 faculty located on campus were the intended users, with sporadic used by 70 field instructors teaching around the state. Ruan worked as a solo librarian; she mostly cataloged the Institute’s collection, which consisted of some 500 bound volumes, a dozen journals, magazines, trade publications and newspapers, 20 newsletters from fire associations and state fire training organizations, motion picture films, audiovisual tapes, slides, computer manuals and software. Many of the materials were not centralized but stored in faculty offices.

The Institute had adopted digital technologies since the late 80s thanks to its close relation to the University. Mary Avelis, a computer support specialist working at IFSI, helped Ruan build the first database for the library’s catalog around 1993, which was available on-site only. A list of materials available was printed and mailed to instructors annually. Ruan advertised the library in IFSI’s newsletters, insisting that the library was “not just books,” and that it could provide “access to a wealth of information, no matter where you live, but you have to ask” (Illinois Fire Service Institute, 1990).

During this period Ruan visited other fire libraries, including the New York State Academy of Fire Science Library, where she met a role model: head librarian Diana Robinson. She also joined inFIRE, an international consortium of 18 fire libraries that shared professional experiences. However, during this period the library was practically a stand-alone library within IFSI with a focus on collection management.

Ruan had no previous relation to the fire service, but she began to learn by organizing fire materials for IFSI and the Champaign Fire Department, where she also worked as a librarian:

I felt like I didn’t know them at all … I catalogued books for them, and then I just didn’t know what’s going on beyond that, but I knew they needed books. I organized them so they could find them (LR, librarian).

4.2 Facilitating access (1997-2007)

In 1997, Colonel Richard Jaehne became director of IFSI. The Institute began “a fundamental metamorphosis of goals, organizational and financial structure, and programs” (Illinois Fire Service Institute, 1998). They adopted the goal “to reach every Illinois firefighter with the training, education, and information he/she requires,” which included bringing firefighting training online. With Jaehne, “they all learned they had to know more about computers” (MA, computer support).

The library had to define its role in this new scheme of things:

‘97 really is a breakthrough to myself, because I saw [Jaehne’s] strategic planning, I knew I needed to have mine, and the first thing was ‘what is my vision?’ Second thing was ‘how do I get there?’ I don’t know those answers actually, but because he asked the question ‘what’s your value?’, I had to answer it (LR, librarian).

Ruan had two ideas: (1) to transform the small in-house library into a state fire library and information center through an outreach program and (2) to make IFSI’s institutional information more accessible by creating an archival collection.

The outreach program would offer no-cost fire library services across the state. To determine its viability, Ruan conducted a statewide survey of fire departments – 576 out of 1,293 departments responded. This became the baseline to understand the information needs and capabilities of the library’s user base. It also made evident that firefighters needed these services, particularly those lacking funding and resources, depending only on volunteer firefighters. Plus, it showed that over 90 firefighters were willing to serve in the library’s Advisory Committee.

Out of responding departments, 63% had access to computers and 44% had internet access. However, only 19% of the respondents were in the southern, more rural part of the state, so actual connectivity was likely much lower than the survey indicated.

The outreach program was launched in 1999 after the library joined the Lincoln Trail Libraries System – a regional network of cooperative library resource sharing. This enabled free interlibrary loan across the state, access to a professional support network and leadership programs, and eligibility for the Illinois State Library grants. In partnership with other Illinois libraries and the newly established library Advisory Committee, Ruan attempted to reach all members of the fire service in Illinois.

From 1999 to 2006, the fire library received nearly US$224,000 in Illinois State Library grants. With this support, digital infrastructure and services were expanded through partnerships with libraries and fire departments. In 2000, four firefighters were hired as “library trainers” for one of the grants. They performed 79 workshops in 64 cities to teach other firefighters to use the library’s website and catalog, as well as to use local libraries to receive fire materials from IFSI.

The online catalog was supported by inMagic software, purchased in 1999. Avelis set up the server and Ruan worked with students to migrate the library’s catalog to the new database. In parallel, she created a thesaurus – a list used for cataloging and searching that shows how different terms used to describe items in the library’s specialized collection relate to terms used elsewhere (Ruan, 2001).

Marketing, user training, and outreach were the focus of this period:

We tried to get more people to know […] we used grants, we teamed up with different agencies … I didn’t care much about the outcome [of grants], I cared about getting people to know me more … And this was also a time period to show our director that the library had a very important role to help the Institute grow (LR, librarian).

4.3 Co-creating collections (2007-2015)

This third period is defined by the development of the Illinois Firefighter Line of Duty Deaths (IFLODD) database. The database was inspired by a book compiled by deputy director David Clark and displayed as a memorial at IFSI’s entrance (Plate 2). To broaden its reach, the library used a grant from the Illinois State Library to develop an online searchable database with information about firefighters and the incidents leading to their death. IFLODD memorialized fallen firefighters while sharing lessons learned from these incidents. This project was meaningful because it incorporated firefighters’ own experience-based knowledge into the collection. This transformed the library into an important part of the community, as evidenced by the multiple gestures of appreciation extended to librarians, and recognition from the Illinois Fire Service Association in 2010.

The database relied on relationships built with fire departments and the ability to gather valuable lessons to prevent future mistakes while honoring those who died: “That’s built 100% on trust” (LL, firefighter). Project archivist, Adam Groves, conducted research all over the state to add 733 records by the time the database was published in 2007. Since then, it has grown to include 912 incidents occurring between 1857 and 2021, 684 of which include digitized images and 19 accompanying oral histories.

Ruan’s dissertation (2011) confirmed the importance of experience-based knowledge for firefighters and in 2013 the library initiated other community knowledge management initiatives: the digital database of Illinois Firefighter Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor recipients and the Reflections Oral History Project (Ruan, Ehrenhart, & Richardson, 2015).

I didn’t realize why this [project] was such a big one then… I realized from [firefighters] later and that also helped my PhD; it’s really unique, because I had seen that experience-based knowledge needed to be curated, organized, and made accessible […] and this database is a wonderful example” (LR, librarian).

In 2014, the library also advanced its automation by implementing barcode labels and scanners. Rebecca Eveland, part of the Institute’s Information Technology team, assumed the task of customizing the new library management software:

I took a look at [Koha library software] and it did 95% of the stuff we needed, and that extra 5%, I was able to shorten the gap with stuff I wrote to plug into it and some external tools. We went with Koha because it was free, and I was able to get it integrated with our systems… I took on this project like this was my baby (RE, IT support).

4.4 Turning the library inside-out (2015-2021)

By 2014, the Illinois State Library funds had dried up (KE, state library staff). In the absence of grants, international programs became the main focus of the library. When she was a PhD student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Ruan organized a summer exchange program for Chinese librarians in 2005. This work helped open doors for firefighters abroad, and Ruan was named director of IFSI international programs in 2006. She insisted on operating these programs from within the library, instead of creating a separate department. By 2019, the library staff had helped train 411 Chinese librarians and brought 142 international scholars and 36 delegations to Illinois. They coordinated trainings in China, trainings on campus for international first responders, and international visits for IFSI staff – which included managing visa applications.

This period also saw an increase in the library’s research production. As the graph in Figure 1 shows, between 2015 and 2021, the staff produced between 5 and 16 academic outputs per year, with a particular focus on presentations in conferences and other international events. Just like grants had helped promote the library at the state level during the second period, research presentations did the same for an international audience in this fourth period.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, international travel stopped and the staff focused on updating and expanding the library’s digital resources and remote services. For the reference team this included creating over 17 specialized subject guides (LibGuides) in response to users’ requests and current issues in the fire service:

We had a research request concerning barriers women find to entering the fire service and […] the patron wanted to address the process involved in becoming a firefighter. In response, we added a section for aspiring firefighters in the “Women in the Fire Service” LibGuide (DR, librarian).

For the archives and metadata team, efforts geared toward digitization. The Institute’s online archival collection – hosted at the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship (IDEALS) by the University – went from 57 to 281 items between 2015 and 2021, including newsletters, brochures, annual reports and course calendars, among others. Following the patterns of the IFLODD project, librarians collaborated closely with fire departments and individual firefighters to digitize their materials for courses and for different digital archives in Illinois.

This period shows the library leading efforts to collect, organize and share its parent institution’s information and experiences to make them available for a broad public. Moreover, it shows the library’s initiative to systematize its own experiences through research, and to share these broadly through publications, presentations and teaching, as a way to continue to open doors for the Institute and to make the fire service visible to other communities.

4.5 Coda: navigating the digital revolution together

The first period described above (1990-1997) shows the beginnings of the IFSI library, established within a public service organization directly linked to a public University. The next three periods each highlight a distinct innovation linked to the library’s digital transformation. The first was the outreach program that turned the library into a hub of facilitating access to information resources for firefighters all over the state. This stemmed from a timely reading of firefighters’ needs through the outreach survey, and it benefited from strengthening connections between firefighters and libraries all over the state.

Because of the outreach program, many firefighters became library users; some fire departments even applied for corporate library cards at public libraries. Enthusiastic users became library spokespersons to their communities, while acting also as representatives of firefighters’ interests within the library through the Library Advisory Committee. One of the firefighters hired as library trainer in the 90s even became IFSI’s “first firefighter librarian” (DR, librarian) when he began managing a distal library collection in his fire department. He spoke about the benefits of the outreach program:

It made people look at libraries differently […] just the fact that if you don’t have a library close by, IFSI will still mail you the books, so literally there is no one unserved. I think they’ve made the fire service more knowledgeable, and just made everything more accessible to the fire service community. People who normally wouldn’t even check out a book now are (MR, firefighter and former library trainer).

The second innovation emerged when the library began co-creating digital resources with firefighters based on their experiential knowledge, starting with the IFLODD database in 2007. These resources have been useful and meaningful for firefighters in training, instructors and fire service administrators. In several courses at IFSI, students are asked to research a line of duty death case, for example. Beyond serving such practical needs, the sensitivity and care put into these initiatives have helped align the library with the important tradition of honoring firefighters who died. This has been meaningful for the fire service community, even beyond active firefighters:

There’s been cases where I’ve been reached out by the sentimental partner of a firefighter who died 30-40 years ago … and I’ve worked with them sometimes over many months to gain information about their loved one. And I know from the emails they send how much it means to them, that [their partner] is going to be remembered as part of that project (DE, librarian).

The idea for the last innovation, the inside-out library, emerged in 1998 when Ruan proposed institutional knowledge management as a way to prove the library’s value for the Institute: “I realized there was no way you will find IFSI annual reports on Google” (LR, librarian).

The inside-out library concept was proposed by Dempsey (2017) as a way for academic and research libraries to respond to the centrality of the user in a network environment. For IFSI, the innovation came together during the last period (2015-2021), in which the library focused on sharing the institutional information they had gathered, as well as the knowledge IFSI had created through their experiences – and this included the library’s knowledge. What we highlight here is that the library expanded IFSI’s networks by adding nodes through their work, and sharing relevant information:

We share our experiences, we publish, we do conferences, and we let others understand firefighters, we also help open more doors […] I think that’s a kind of value we keep adding to our fire service community (LR, librarian).

5. How the library innovated: six essential elements

Table 1 summarizes the library’s transformations through the four periods. In the last part of section 4, we showed the importance of that the library’s innovations had for the fire service community. In this section we look at these innovations from the library’s perspective by describing six elements essential to their achievement.

5.1 Institutional relationships

IFSI’s relation to the University of Illinois has been fundamental to access ideas, technology and support of all kinds. IFSI library is affiliated to the Social Sciences, Health and Education division of the University library, however, it has some autonomy since it is actually part of the Institute. For example, the University supported IFSI’s independent application to the Lincoln Trail Libraries System in 1998.

IFSI has also benefited from Ruan’s sustained relationships with the School of Information Sciences (iSchool), that allows for student work, mentorship and collaboration in research projects and academic events. In turn, the iSchool has benefited from this relation by having IFSI library as a partner in teaching. For example, Ruan has repeatedly taught a course on special libraries.

The library has also promoted other institutional relations, detailed in the last column of Table 1. By 1997, Ruan was part of an international consortium of fire libraries. During the 1997-2007 periods, she focused on connections within Illinois – evident in the amount of endorsement letters from fire departments and libraries attached to her grant applications. By 2007 she had served in multiple positions and committees in several professional organizations. These activities developed her career while allowing her to bring value back to the Institute. Especially in the last period, her sustained relationships with organizations in China opened doors for the Institute abroad.

Finally, there is the relation with IFSI as parent institution. In 1997, Ruan saw that the library had to become more central to the life of the Institute and its user community if it was going to survive. It became a goal “to not only support but help further the mission of the Institute” (LR, librarian). In 1998, director Jaehne institutionalized strategic planning at IFSI. Appropriating this practice, Ruan established the library’s Advisory Committee with 18 volunteer members from fire departments across the state and developed the library’s mission statement and the first 3-year strategic plan with them.

She needed to be connected to what the institute did and what its needs were, and I think that happened very quickly … I think the Institute to some extent had a smaller vision of itself as well, so, I think they grew collaboratively and compatibly (RJ, institute director)

5.2 Personal relationships

Besides the relationships described above, defined by institutional guidelines, the library has also cultivated personal relations. These affective bonds have often motivated collaborators to go beyond their job description to contribute to the library. This was the case of Mary Avelis and Rebecca Eveland; each of them worked for the infromation technology department at IFSI, and they became familiar with the library through informal conversations with librarians. Both helped with different stages of the library’s automation, though it was not part of their job description.

Avelis helped establish the bases for the library’s automation early on, while Eveland used open-source software to build library management software that would have been costly to buy and maintain otherwise. All the software used today was either installed, configured or written by Eveland before she left the Institute in 2020.

It was, to me personally, the most important project on my plate, because I started really caring about library science and the IFSI library and how they could better support the firefighting community if they were able to better find their own resources (RE, IT support).

5.3 Labor

Ruan began as a solo librarian, but she quickly realized the importance of a team for the sustainability of the library. Over the years, she used grants to hire students for specific functions that proved valuable for IFSI and were thereafter funded as permanent positions. In this way, Ruan built a permanent team now consisting of a refence and user training librarian, an archivist and metadata librarian, an international outreach services librarian, an hourly cataloger and a head librarian.

Students working at the library have been fundamental to its growth. From 1999 to 2021 the library employed over 75 students; others worked as interns, practitioners and volunteers. Students assumed a role in everyday operations and maintenance. For example, one student designed all database structures when IFSI purchased the inMagic software and another edited over 3,000 entries when the records were migrated from the old database. Other students helped implement new ideas, like the statistics student that suggested the outreach survey in 1998. In turn, IFSI librarians have provided mentorship and training – all student workers so far have found a job after IFSI (LR, librarian).

5.4 Grants

From 1999 to 2008 (see Figure 2) grants from the Illinois State Library supported the library’s outreach program and growth. These grants worked as seed money to experiment with new library services that IFSI could not fund. The State Library offered flexibility and support to innovate, “To discover what works and what doesn’t work with the grant money” (KE, state library staff).

Grants helped bring professional consultants to the library. This included Professor Pauline Cochrane, who evaluated subject access and suggested building a thesaurus in 1999, and a local architect who worked with Ruan to design IFSI’s New Research and Learning Center Building in 2001 – a project in which the library was protagonist. Figure 3 shows the blueprints of the building that was inaugurated in 2012. The library permanently occupies 10,000 ft2 – a vast improvement compared to the 700 ft2 room from before). Grants also helped hire staff and students – at the grants’ peak in 2006, the library had 3 full-time librarians, a part-time librarian, an hourly cataloger and 11 student assistants.

5.5 Technology

Grants mostly helped pay for labor, travel and new technology, including printers and scanners. However, some equipment and software had prohibiting costs, so the library worked with technological assets available whenever possible. An excellent example of this is that Ruan mapped existing computing facilities at fire stations and libraries in Illinois in the late 90s, which she later enlisted for the outreach program.

Regarding software, the library first relied on the programs available at the Institute, like Alpha4, used by Mary Avelis for the first catalog database. In 1999, they purchased inMagic, a database management system that generated separate text-based files for every database. InMagic Publisher also allowed the catalog to be posted on the library’s website. When they decided to replace inMagic, the staff intensively searched for an integrated library management system, but they found the existing proprietary software too expensive to build and sustain. Koha, a free and open-source project started in 1999 and sustained by a vibrant community of librarians and developers, was an excellent alternative.

5.6 Knowledge of its users

One of the IFSI library’s main assets is librarians’ knowledge of the fire service. This is how they meet firefighters’ information needs and try to anticipate them. Librarians have gained this knowledge, first, by interacting with IFSI’s specialized collection.

It took a long time to get those [reports] in the catalog, but I learned a lot along the way about what firefighters talk about at their meetings, and what kind of research they’re doing and what they teach. That was very intensive and very instructive (EH, cataloger)

In turn, the cataloger uses her own experience, her understanding of firefighters and IFSI’s thesaurus to classify materials adequately. This was also the way in which Ruan first learned about firefighters before 1997. Then, the outreach program survey demonstrated the importance of user research, which led Ruan to investigate firefighters’ information behaviors in her PhD.

Informal conversations are another important source of knowledge about the fire service for librarians. This includes technology training at the library:

An instructor asked me to teach him how to get around on a computer, to do email, to use the Internet […] I think that was so meaningful for both of us that we could work together like that, and he could tell me things about the fire service that I didn’t know, and then I could help him with the technology and just also how to use the library (DR, librarian)

Finally, there is direct experience with firefighting – the current archivist and metadata librarian even became a volunteer firefighter for a while. This knowledge makes the library’s team uniquely suited to tend to, and advocate for, its user community, as well as to help other communities and institutions understand this group better.

6. How the library innovated: bringing articulation work to the front

In this section we attend to our third goal by drawing attention to the essential but often invisible forms of work that have made information technologies useful and useable for firefighters at the IFSI library. First, there is a relatively visible form of articulation work that involves bringing together actors with multiple interests and ways of working and aligning them to achieve common goals. This work is about continuously demonstrating that partnerships and ensembles – even the less obvious ones – are worthwhile. Ruan has led the institutional articulation work at IFSI by drawing from her own professional and personal relations, her experience in multiple committees and her position as director of international programs. IFSI’s trust and support has been essential in empowering Ruan to perform this work.

The less visible part of the work involves dealing with institutional constraints and guidelines to align different actors; it is performed by librarians, students and officers at different organizations that work creatively within these constraints to make things possible through what are usually called bureaucratic procedures. For example, a grant involves “making sure that all of those federal requirements or state requirements are also being met” (KE, state library staff); while librarians submit narrative reports, University officers review and submit financial reports. This type of support is very important, and also unique to this special library. Another example is visa applications for international travel that made programs like the Chinese Librarian Scholarly Exchange and others possible. These procedures were first managed by Ruan only (over 20 visa applications each year) – currently, there is an international outreach services librarian.

We draw from Lucy Suchman (1996) to name “artful integrations” another form of work vital for the development of IFSI’s digital innovations. It refers to a sensitive and insightful re-combination of existing elements and networks of people to deploy a technology effectively through actions that are highly attuned to context – therefore including informed improvisation as well as planning. The library’s outreach program is a perfect example of artful integrations led by the library. It recombined existing computational facilities, library networks, the state’s networking infrastructure and librarians to bring information resources to firefighters all over Illinois. In this process, all actors were reconfigured as well – most prominently, firefighters became library users and some even became librarians.

Part of the work in artful integrations includes customization and maintenance of technologies – like the work performed by Avelis, Eveland and the rest of IFSI’s information technology team to create the library databases and maintain its servers online. It also includes mediating between dissimilar forms of information, like the work students did to migrate records from one database to another or the work performed by catalogers to classify materials so that they can be found online.

Another form of work is translation, which has been necessary to trespass geographical, disciplinary and practice boundaries to bring firefighters, librarians and other communities closer together. IFSI librarians have helped translate books and formularies from Chinese to English for firefighters, as well as served as interpreters during international events. They have also undertaken the labor-intensive task of creating a specialized thesaurus, which has helped translate between firefighters’ natural language and other formal and informal languages used to classify information resources. Finally, librarians have helped other librarians and general community members understand firefighters better. This story from the reference librarian helps illustrate:

We received a request for information from the Community Emergency Communications division of a city in Illinois … there had been mistakes in handling fire and EMS calls because the dispatchers didn’t understand some of the words that were being used. We provided several resources to the supervisor, and she was so grateful, she said she was going to begin training using those resources so that [dispatchers] would understand what firefighters and the EMT’s were saying over the calls (DR, librarian).

Care is a vital part of all libraries, but it is particularly noticeable at IFSI, where the library serves people that care for their communities. This is quite evident in the way librarians see their work as a way of supporting firefighters’ work, and in the respect and admiration with which they speak of their users. As a specific action, as well as an affective disposition, care work at the library includes paying attention to details essential to sustain the library’s relations to its users. For example, “ensuring for the 20th time that we’re spelling the name [of a deceased firefighter] right, because that will affect how they’re searched for” (DE, librarian). Attention to details and human relations has been fundamental for the co-creation of digital resources relevant for the fire service, as is the case of IFLODD database.

It’s very emotional for a lot of firefighters […] you have to always understand you’re talking about a firefighter who died and a lot of times in a very unpleasant manner. These were people, friends and coworkers, and you have to be very careful about when you reach out, how you reach out to them, and so fire departments may not partner with us for many years after a firefighter dies; we give it some time (DE, librarian).

A final form of work essential for sustaining the library’s innovations has been user training and technology help. IFSI librarians try to understand the particular situation of firefighters (“they are very busy,” they repeat) to provide the help they need, which often entails performing detailed research for them instead of pointing out to specific resources, as is usual in special libraries. However, the library has also taken what they call “user training” quite seriously since 1997. They have continued to train firefighters in how to use the library and the digital information technologies available: “the library followed the technology train, but we want to bring this train back to our users to help them and kind of keep them up to date” (LR, librarian). In turn, this work has allowed librarians to become advocates for firefighters as information technology users. The following story help illustrate:

We worked with the National Medical Library; they developed a very interesting device […] we took their researchers to the fire station to show them how firefighters used it. Firefighters wear big gloves and then, how could they push those small buttons to find information? […] Not only do we introduce them to technology, but we also ask, “how can we improve the technology we give you?” (LR, librarian)

7. Discussion

In the previous sections we responded to the question “how has the IFSI library helped the firefighting community navigate the digital revolution?” in two ways. First, we showed the development of three distinct innovations in library services aided by digital technologies and their importance for the firefighting community. Second, we detailed the elements and forms of work that have made these innovations possible.

Relevant to community informatics, our research highlights the role of special libraries in helping bridge the digital divide in specialized communities whose practices have not been closely linked to digital technologies. For the fire service in Illinois there are various factors configuring differential access and use of information technologies: first, the availability of infrastructure. While urban fire departments had early access to computers and the internet, rural departments did not. However, the library continually looked for mechanisms to serve them despite distance and lack of connectivity, including getting information and materials to them through IFSI’s regional representatives and local libraries. Another factor is the hands-on character of training and work for most firefighters, and the fact that new and older generations commonly work together. Administrative fire staff in Illinois had early access to computers and the internet in wired areas, which allowed them to learn as they worked, but other firefighters didn’t have this need. Additionally, whereas younger generations tend to be familiar with digital technologies, older members don’t tend to consider themselves as skillful. The library has helped bridge these differences with ongoing user training and technology support over the years, as well as a way to think about technological change and tradition together.

Some of the elements described in section 5 are specific to the IFSI setting. For example, having a constant pool of library and information science students willing to work, volunteer or do research at the library. However, we believe that this description is useful for other special librarians to map analogous elements in their own context that can help them configure similarly innovative services.

Three reflections are useful here. First, it is important to notice the varied nature of the elements employed by IFSI to achieve these innovations. We highlight the fact that these are sociotechnical achievements, bringing together electronic and print, technical and social forms of knowledge, digital and social networks, etc. Digital technologies alone are but one element here.

Second, the forms of work described in Section 6 emphasize the library’s innovations as continuous achievements rather than the result of a brilliant idea emerging at one point in time. We hope this description provides a model for special librarians to understand their own work and to continue to advocate for their unique expertise and value in the information society.

Last, it is undeniable that digital technologies have transformed libraries – that doesn’t mean that librarians have no agency in that transformation. IFSI library’s digital innovations described in this article outline three important questions that might guide special librarians in thinking about the role of their own libraries in the information age: 1) who are the library’s current and potential users? 2) whose knowledge is present in the library? 3) what are the boundaries of the library and what is the library’s work at these boundaries?

8. Conclusions

Our research describes three sociotechnical innovations implemented by the IFSI library to better serve its user community in the age of networks and information. First, the library built a unique collection including local and networked resources and made it available to firefighters by connecting them to local libraries and supporting their access through multiple channels: the facilitated collection. Second, the co-created collection, exemplified in the line of duty database that organized and made available firefighters’ experience-based knowledge. Third, the inside-out library in which librarians became ambassadors for firefighters to other communities locally and abroad. From a community informatics perspective, our research shows how the library supported firefighters’ meaningful use of information technologies by working with them as a knowledgeable community instead of one lacking technology or information.

We also described six distinct elements and the forms of work required to bring them together into working configurations, highlighting the unique ethos and expertise of librarians. Over time, the IFSI library has shown that firefighters have a place in libraries and libraries have a place in firehouses. We invite further research on similar endeavors by other special libraries with their respective user communities.


The Illinois Fire Service Institute facilities in Champaign, Illinois offers a 28-acre training ground and at bottom left the Learning Resource and Research Center that houses the library

Plate 1

The Illinois Fire Service Institute facilities in Champaign, Illinois offers a 28-acre training ground and at bottom left the Learning Resource and Research Center that houses the library

Firefighter line of Duty Deaths Honor Book located in the Memorial Hall at the entrance of the IFSI Resource and Research Center in Champaign, Illinois

Plate 2

Firefighter line of Duty Deaths Honor Book located in the Memorial Hall at the entrance of the IFSI Resource and Research Center in Champaign, Illinois

Library research outputs between 1998 and 2021

Figure 1

Library research outputs between 1998 and 2021

Grants awarded to the fire library through 2021

Figure 2

Grants awarded to the fire library through 2021

The IFSI Learning and Research Center was completed in 2012

Figure 3

The IFSI Learning and Research Center was completed in 2012

The four periods of the fire library: Building a library 1990-1997, Facilitating access 1997-2007, Co-creating collections 2007-2015, and Turning the library inside-out, 2015-2021

PeriodIFSI directorLibrary staff+LocationCollectionElectronic infrastructureNew memberships and connections
1990-1997Gerald Monigold (1976-1996)1 research information specialist (50%)Institute warehouse for old computers and books turned into library1,738 books,
916 nonprints*,
215 periodicals
100 vertical files
ALPHA4 (in-house catalog),
Pro-Cite (in-house bibliographical search)
inFIRE (1990), National Research Council of Canada, Fire Sciences Library in Toronto, New York State Academy of Fire Science Library, National Fire Academy Library, National Emergency Training Center (NETC) Library, University of Illinois Library, Champaign Public Library, Urbana Free Library
1997-2007Richard Jaehne (1997-2012)3 librarians (100%), 1 librarian (50%), 1 cataloger (5h/week), 9 student assistants7,152 books
4,453 nonprints,
113 e-resources,
464 periodicals
InMagic DB/TextWorks (Operational databases and catalog);
Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) via InMagic WebPublisher; “Fire Talk” Thesaurus in MultiTes;
Digital Archive Collection at IDEALS @ Illinois (30 items)
Illinois Emergency Response Network (1998), Lincoln Trail Libraries System (1998), Library Advisory Committee (1999), Special Libraries Association (1910), American Library Association (2001), Health Science Librarians of Illinois (2001), Illinois Library Association (2001), Medical Library Association (2001), Chinese American Librarians Association (2003), Online Computer Library Center (2004), Chinese Librarians Scholarly Exchange Program (2005-2019)
2007-20152 librarians (100%), 1 librarian (63%), 1 cataloger (5h/week),
5 student assistants
700 ft2 room with reference desk, user study area, break corner and computer lab12,026 books, 6,729 nonprints, 450 e-resources, 514 periodicalsKOHA (Operational databases and OPAC); Experience-based Knowledge Management Databases (IFLODD - 873 records, Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor);
6 LibGuides;
Digital Archive Collection at IDEALS @ Illinois (57 items)
International Federation of Library Associations (2011), Beta Phi Mu (2001), Chinese Visiting Scholar Programs (2008-2021), China Endowment Fund Scholarship Committee (2012), Hong Kong Fire Services Department (2009)
2015-2021Royal Mortenson (2012-2021)3 librarians (100%), 1 librarian (63%), 1 cataloger (5h/week), 5 student assistants10,000 ft2 of dedicated library space in New Learning and Resource Center (since 2012)13,125 books, 6,702 nonprints, 1,642 e-resources,
517 periodicals, 291 audiobooks
KOHA (Operational databases and OPAC); Experience-based Knowledge Management Databases (IFLODD, Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor);
17 LibGuides;
Digital Archive Collection at IDEALS @ Illinois (230 items)
Hazardous Materials Operations Training Program for Chinese firefighters and first responders (2015-2018), Chinese Professional Archives and Library Internship Program (2018-2021), MOUs with 18 organizations in China (2019-2021)

Note(s): +Student assistants’ work dedication varied between 5 and 40 hours/week. They include graduate and undergraduate students distributed throughout the year. *Nonprint materials include videotapes, slides, films and transparencies


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The authors thank all participants who generously shared their stories and reflections for this research. The authors also thank IFSI library staff, David Ehrenahrt, Diane Richardson, Shuyi Liu and their team of graduate students for facilitating information and providing invaluable insights into their work. The authors extend their gratitude to the Illinois Fire Service Institute for supporting firefighters, libraries and research, as well as to the anonymous reviewers, whose constructive observations helped improve this work. Finally, the authors thank the editorial team, who made this publication possible.

Corresponding author

Claudia Grisales Bohorquez can be contacted at:

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