Information Technology in Public Libraries

Philip Barker (University of Teesside)

The Electronic Library

ISSN: 0264-0473

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Barker, P. (2000), "Information Technology in Public Libraries", The Electronic Library, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 69-75.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

For the last two decades (almost), the author of this book has been conducting surveys into how and why public libraries in the UK utilise information technology (IT). His surveys have been conducted by means of paper‐based questionnaires that have been sent out to respondents and (in most cases) returned by means of the postal service. The surveys have been conducted at roughly two‐yearly intervals – hence, the sixth edition of this book. The material in this latest release is organised into two main sections. The first part contains six chapters that discuss the findings from the survey. The second part, which is by far the larger, hosts a set of 24 appendices. These contain the basic data extracted from the questionnaires that were sent out. A copy of the questionnaire and the list of “contacts” to whom it was sent are also included in this second part of the book.

The initial chapter in the first part of the book deals with library management systems. It covers automated circulation systems, online catalogues (OPACs) and automated acquisition facilities. In his conclusion to this chapter, the author writes: “standalone library management systems are the way forward, with circulation, catalogue and acquisitions integrated around common databases”. He also suggests that there is likely to be an increasing trend towards allowing users to search catalogues from their own homes using the Internet and, at the same time, make reservations remotely as they go along.

In Chapter 2 (entitled “Libraries in Cyberspace”), the author explores trends in the use of CD‐ROM, the Internet, online searching and the provision of community information via public terminals and kiosks. For CD‐ROM, the survey results suggest that the medium will continue to be widely used – both by library staff and the public. Indeed, “the cost of buying into CD‐ROM can be low and the benefits significant” (p. 15). Internet access in public libraries really only started in earnest in 1994, and so there are not many data currently available for predicting trends. However, the results from the 1997 survey indicate that the most commonly used form of Internet connection currently in use in UK public libraries is still the dial‐up modem (the solution with the lowest start‐up cost). Furthermore, the scarcity of facilities presently available suggests that library customers in most parts of the country will have to travel some distance in order to get access to the Information Superhighway via a public library. Important uses of the Internet in libraries currently appear to be for reference work, sending and receiving electronic mail and accessing list servers. An interesting co‐operative venture that is mentioned in this section of the book is the Electronic Access to Resources in Libraries (EARL) project ( Online searching refers to the use of dial‐up services such as BLAISE and DIALOG. According to the report, “this technology which was once used by more than 50 percent of authorities is now used by just over one‐third”. Undoubtedly, the Internet and CD‐ROM databases have together served to reduce the need for dial‐up online searching. In many authorities, electronic public information systems are now being used to provide access to council and community information through the use of terminals in public buildings and unstaffed kiosks. The results from the survey indicate a significant rise in the use of library management systems to facilitate the delivery of this type of information – indeed, at present, this is generally the most popular method in use. However, many authorities are also now using the Internet for this purpose and have dedicated Web sites.

The third chapter in the book deals with the survey results relating to the use of public libraries as an IT learning resource. The main issue considered here is the provision of public access to microcomputers – either for hire or to support open learning activities (to facilitate skill development and “reskilling” through the use of computer‐assisted learning techniques). In this chapter considerable emphasis is given to the Government’s recent initiatives for the support of “lifelong learning”. Much significance is attached to the important roles that public libraries could play in helping to develop this mode of learning and in providing facilities to access both the National Grid for Learning and the People’s Network. According to the report (p. 31), “lifelong learning is set to become a major growth industry within public libraries during the coming months and years”. One way of achieving this is through the use of “telecentres”. The report shows that there are currently 59 authorities with telecentres installed and running or planned for the near future.

It is inevitable that, at some point, attention has to be paid to funding issues and the costs of providing various library services – particularly, access to IT‐based resources. In this report, these issues are discussed in Chapter 4, which is entitled “The Price of Information: Public Library Charging Policies”. Within the questionnaire, five categories of charging were considered: use of CD‐ROM, online searching, public access to personal computers (PCs), open learning and the Internet. The charges for these facilities varied considerably with many libraries providing free access to most resources but charging for the cost of any printout that was produced (with costs ranging from 10p to 50p). Usually, the cost of online searching seemed to be passed across to customers – unless a search was deemed necessary by library staff. Where a charge is made for Internet access, the costs varied from £1.00 through £6.00 per hour – the most popular charge being £5.00 per hour. Where they were levied, similar charging rates were imposed for access to PCs. Within most libraries, the most common costing strategy for the use of open learning materials is to make no charge. If a charge is levied then the income seems to be used to support the purchase of new resources for the service.

The last four questions in the questionnaire dealt with systems management, training and any future plans that individual libraries might have for future IT developments. The survey results arising from these questions are discussed in Chapter 5. From the perspective of systems management, the results reflect that most library services manage all or some of their systems themselves on an in‐house basis. However, many of the other libraries appeared to rely on the corporate provision of management, technical support and training by their parent local authority (usually from the IT unit). The responses to the question relating to future plans indicated that 51 authorities had public library IT strategies. Indeed it would appear that “information technology features high on the agendas of the majority of public library services in the UK \dots. By and large the public library service, despite resource difficulties, has recognised that future roles will depend on the effective use of information technology” (p. 48). In terms of specific plans for future development, the three most popular responses were: replacing, extending and enhancing the library management system; more use of the Internet; and extending access to CD‐ROMs.

The sixth, and final, chapter in the book takes the form of a “conclusions” section. Here the author consolidates the findings reported in previous chapters and discusses them in relation to the concept of “averageness” – and its limitations with respect to trying to paint a picture of a “typical” public library. Some comparisons are made between UK public libraries and those that exist in the USA and other European countries (such as Denmark and Finland). He then comments: “we (the UK) are not then ahead of the game” (p. 58). An important point made in this chapter is that “as a community resource the public library service is about to face some of the most dramatic changes of its long and honourable existence … The choices are about responding to the changing needs and opportunities and, most significant of all, signing up to a new style of service development” (p. 54). Of course, here again, the author is making reference to the likely effects that the implementation of the People’s Network and the National Grid for Learning are likely to have on public libraries. According to the author, “If the public library is to play a central role within the emerging information society, it will be as much about creating information and mentoring users as about the shape of the technological systems that make these activities possible” (p. 55).

Overall, I found this book very interesting to read. There are lots of contact addresses provided and it also contains a wealth of information that would prove a valuable asset to those researching into the use of IT by public libraries and trends in its deployment. It also provides some useful insights into how the services and facilities made available in public libraries might change in future years as a consequence of the wider and greater uptake of information technology.

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