The construction of information highway is going across America, across America's education institution, the defense industry, and large corporations. Yet, by and large, the public has still limited access to the Internet. Traditionally, public libraries are the only dominant institutions that ensure the public of having easy equal access to information. But the development of Internet services in libraries can be characterized as slow --- so far, except in academic libraries (in which because of historical affiliations), libraries are not Internet savvy. More importantly, little is done to equip libraries to provide this service. Many, including some library professionals, have asserted that the reason for such is because of lack of funding. I, however, believe that the problem is more deeply-rooted. In this paper, I would like to examine the issues concerning the provision of "quality services" to the Internet. What does it mean to provide "access" in the library context? Furthermore, I would like to look at the feasibility/viability of how libraries are structured and how the professionals are trained. By looking into these problems, I am examining the various ways under which libraries can provide meaningful Internet access to the public.
I would like to mention that this paper is speculative in nature. It is based on an assumption that World-Wide Web types of services would be pervasive. This, however, is not an unreasonable assumption if we think about Gore's proposals and the trend of large corporations merging together to realign their strength in this area. Pacific Bell has also came out with the news that it will start a high speed cable system, capable of carrying multi-media data, over 70 channels. John Cage, one of the founders for Sun Microsystems and one of the speakers at the noon forum, also asserted that Internet will be the marketplace and will be the institution for education. There is another assumption made in this paper: information delivered to end-users are multi-media in nature. In the past, Internet services such as e-mail and gopher are text-based. But these are not the types of services I envision for the general public. Internet services such as those offered on Mosaic is. What makes Mosaic attractive and distinctive among other services is its ability to carry and deliver multi-media data, data that consists of sound, image, text and video. Undoubtedly, propelled by technology advances and social needs, future Internet services will change, and Mosaic and World-Wide Web types of services will be evolved. My further assumption is that successors of existing Internet services will continue to be multi-media based; this is what the public wants. To make my arguments in this paper more concrete, the Internet service, from now on, refers to and are similar to those provided by World-Wide Web.
Internet is a network created by the U.S. government in the 1960s to allow widely scattered researchers to share information cheaply and quickly. But it has spreaded with remarkable speed. To join the network, all one has to do is to hook up an electronic link (usually via phone) to one of Internet's main arteries and follow some communication rules. Now, people from all over the world are using the Internet, making it the fastest growing telecommunications system ever built. According to Wall Street Journal (11/15/93, R7), an estimated 15 million people in 50 countries use the Internet, and the traffic seems to be rising as much as 15% a month.
Internet access, in particular World-Wide Web and Mosaic type of services, is so important because of its pervasiveness. The network's core constituents are still in universities and high-tech companies, but schools, employees at large corporations, banks, retail chains, people with personal computers, etc. are joining the Internet at an explosive speed. Ford Motor Co., for example, has its own on-line information service on the Internet. An article in the San Francisco Examiner (May 4, 1994. D1) tells how Joe Boxer, the well-known underwear maker, has posted billboards advertising its Internet address: email@example.com. Purpose? To beckon its customers into the computer age while providing information about their products. People are starting to take advantage of the Internet cyberspace, in fact, users are getting electronic junk mails, and a Silicon Valley company even has an idea of offering an "on-line shopping network that sells everything from pizza to real estate". (San Francisco Examiner, May 4, 1994. D4) Internet is a global electronic communication system that operates 24 hours a day and is available to anyone. Mosaic and World-Wide Web types of services has made the Internet more user-friendly, which means that it does not require much technical skills to use it. This, plus the convenience of flexibility of access is what makes it so attractive to everyone.
The Internet has no central authority. Basically, all types of information can be added on to it without censorship. One can search in an array of databases and catalogs, find pictures of movie stars, retrieve work by Shakespeare, etc. There is no limit as to what can be found on the Internet. It has also became a communicative medium. It is a network that brings people of common interest together (usually became a news group) to share valuable pointers and resources. In emergency situations such as an earthquake, latest news and information appear fairly fast on the Internet and has become a new way of communication in a crisis. The types of information and the speed in which information can be sent and retrieved make Internet so different from any other types of information system, and offers what a traditional library cannot provide.
Although the Internet is not well organized (for example, items available on the Internet is not cataloged or alphabetized), it is important for public libraries to provide this type of service. First, it's for library's own survival. This network, whether it will continue to be free or not, is here to stay and will be a part of our lives in the future. Since public libraries are public institution, it must respond to the needs of the public. Second, it is library's tradition and obligation to provide information, to make information accessible to everyone. Even though in many ways some public libraries are inefficient and expensive to keep up, they are the only place for people to obtain information freely. Also, they may be the only place where the "information poor" can find equal access. To stay technologically up-to-date, libraries must have Internet. Libraries are storehouses of information and there is no reason not to have something that permeates our community.
Another reason to have Internet in public libraries is that some of the information provided is useful and usable. Encyclopedia Britannica has just came out with an on-line version on the internet that uses Mosaic to display documents and illustrations and highlights words and phrases that have links to other documents. There will be a charge for searches done but the idea of having instant information available anytime is something to think about, not to mention how this would make lots of students happy. The concept of networking is a powerful one; library has been seen, at least once, as the center of communities, academic and public included. For example, libraries network with school district and government agencies in providing literacy services. Information flow through this kind of network. It would be difficult to see public libraries not taking advantage of Internet's wider, thus potentially more powerful, network.
It has always been difficult for libraries to receive adequate funding, and with recent budget cuts, public libraries have a hard time as it is fighting for funds to stay open and provide basic services, so funding for computer hardware and hook-ups to the Internet would definitely be hard to come by. It would also be hard to provide Internet services without professional staffing (computer professionals are not viewed as sufficient in providing services within libraries). But above mentioned problems are slight when compared to cataloging the Internet and using it to provide reference services.
Cataloging is an important part of the library profession. As I had mentioned before, materials on the Internet has not been cataloged. There is some kind of localized authority control to Internet services; for example, Mosaic has a page where information is organized by "subject". In addition, some servers do provide pointers to other servers organized by their locations. But this is not "authority control" in the library sense; LCSH would be an example of authority and subject control that library professionals are looking for. But, unless some method is developed to control how things can be added to the Internet, it would be hard to catalog it. In addition, how would one, for example, trace down the real name of the author for something on the Internet?? How can one validate the materials in the Internet to be true and correct? These types of questions awaits to be figured out. Maybe in the future, new software will be available to automatically catalog anything that is put on the Internet, but until that happens, I think it will be a waste of time to even think about cataloging it with its incredible growth rate.
Information overload on the Internet makes it hard to be a reference resource. We are already living in an information overloaded society where books and information of other media are ubiquitous. It is clear that even with more technology, one cannot possibly need more information, but perhaps only prefer information of a different type or from different sources. These are some of the important criteria in judging what is "quality service". Tremendous growth also make it hard to catch any intermediary information. I wonder if it's even possible for intermediaries to catch up. After all, the task to organize and manage information is a laborious and time-consuming one. Although libraries have successfully coped in times where books, serials, and recordings are abundant, it is not clear whether we can cope with the information explosion given to us by Internet. One important issue is the lack of intermediary resources. Traditionally, libraries aligned itself with publishers to form a strong partnership in the provision of bibliographic authority. This is especially true with printed materials. Librarians also rely on the resources publishers provide to review and validate textual information (ALA also provides some of these references). Publishers and writers are not only ultimate information providers but they are also the irreplaceable intermediaries, i.e., they provide libraries with resources that accurately pin-point and verify information source. This kind of intermediary is not available for the Internet and I doubt if such kind of intermediaries will be created in the near future. This may have put libraries and library professionals in a bind: they have to take up the entire reference jury task in order to provide the equivalent "quality services" as in textual information. Without have such bibliographic authority, workers in libraries can be viewed as merely clerks and researchers. This should pose a great dilemma and uneasiness to the library profession. It seems that the partnership between publishers and libraries have been invaded. It is not clear who will become successors of the "publishers" of the World-Wide Web. It would benefit the libraries, at least the existing libraries, if there is not a change of guards to the existing infrastructure to information. But that may not be possible. The minimum one can safely assert is that it would be beneficial to libraries if there will be some sort of order among the groups and individuals that provide information in the Internet.
Another problem in providing Internet services in public libraries is how would library professionals manage World-Wide Web types of information. New Judgement criteria such as interface and image quality are not traditionally familiar to librarians. This new genre engender new subject expertise to analyze, catalog and classify the materials.
If public libraries are not able to provide "meaningful" reference services and traditional cataloging services for World-Wide Web resources, does it mean that library cannot provide any World-Wide Web services to the public at all? More importantly, under what possible models can libraries provide meaningful Internet services, and at the same time, operating within the traditional operation domain, and fulfills the missions as described/defined by librarianship???
Before discussing some of the possible World-Wide Web models, I would like to talk about a likely solution. This solution (or strategy), however, would only put libraries as side players and would not, in my opinion, help libraries provide meaningful services. Some librarians and library professionals have suggested that libraries can focus on access alone and not the quality of information.That is, libraries can merely provide some terminals and absorb whatever cost to secure the hardware and software in order to provide network access. This way, Internet services is taken as an additional fringe and exceptional services in libraries -- libraries do not provide any active reference and cataloging services, as I have discussed. This model of operation coincides with some of the existing modes in which Dialog and Info-trac have offered in some public libraries. Oakland public libraries provide some kind of Dialog services, in which patrons would fill out a form to request information and librarians would provide the search services and results. San Francisco public libraries has Info-trac services, and patrons are allowed direct machine access, except during rush hours the patron's time is limited to a reasonable period of time.
These modes of operation, at first glance, is attractive because it has a low overhead. But at the same time, it fulfills one of the most important goal libraries have traditionally want to provide -- universal access to information. Such low profile in providing Mosaic services have flaw in itself, i.e., directly contradicting the idea of ubiquitous services, that is if Mosaic is truly becoming an ubiquitous medium pervasive in our society. Put it in another way, if connection to Mosaic can reach to individual home, and if public libraries decide to provide the same identical services, then the question become who would be the "public" that use Mosaic services in libraries? And what are the real advantage for the public to use Mosaic in the library instead of those that can be accessed directly in their home.
A better model may be obtained if we look at some other functions and roles public libraries have in communities. We know that libraries have strong relationship with education. For example, they work with school districts in organizing summer programs and reading programs. Here fostering partnership with other organizations who have common interest in developing and providing Internet resources and services would seem a logical approach. Internet and Mosaic have provided, as it has been discussed in noon forums, opportunities in distance learning, allowing closer collaborate work of people located in different geographic locations. Stanford University has been providing distance learning and it seems to be a working model. Libraries, perhaps, can adopt a similar approach: in this way, libraries would work with education institutions, high schools and community colleges, to provide the site, i.e., satellite campus, in providing some, if not all, courses that does not require on-campus support. This approach seems to be cost saving if it is run properly, and people are more enthusiastic when they are able to do things from their home.
Going further, if we take a look at the situations in public school, the budget situations for example, and how few books and meager collections school libraries can afford, partnership between public libraries and public schools would be replaced by a "virtual" public, which has a vaster collections and which potentially can provide much better service through multimedia links. Students can browse for reference materials, at least some of them, on-line. Control of materials can be done by both staff/teachers from schools and by the libraries.
I think these are viable models. Already we have seen some discussion co-sponsored by the State Library and by the state government, to link up public libraries and schools together. This serves an opportunity for additional, meaningful services to communities if libraries are ready to aggressively explore the technology and recruit funding to support these services.
Another model, one that also serves the community, is to provide community information using World-Wide Web services. A community bulletin board can be set up to inform people about events happening in the community. The Community Memory, mentioned by a speaker in the noon forum, is the idea to link the community via electronic bulletin board (and using Mosaic makes it much more interesting because it is multi-media). Newsgroups is another great way to link up information and ideas from the community.
Given that it would be hard for traditional libraries to provide Internet services and have trained library professionals to provide this ultimate kind of reference, the best way for public libraries to carry and participate in the new technology is to link with the community. By doing this, libraries can really know what services are needed to serve its patrons while lessening the pressure of handling new technology on its own. It would probably work out better, anyway, by getting the community involved. As more people become aware of what the Internet has to offer and realize that it is not hard to use it, Internet will be more popular than ever. Library should not wait until then to think about including Internet as part of the services it provides because lots of preliminary work needs to be done.
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