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Twelve Case Studies: Analysis

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Analysis of the Case Studies

Dramatic developments are taking place in public libraries across the country–developments that are altering how libraries deliver information and interact with communities. As the information revolution sweeps not only across the nation, but around the world, public libraries have a unique opportunity to harness new technologies to provide resources that were unimaginable a few years ago. The Internet as a communications medium and World Wide Web technology are serving as links to bring people and communities together. But technology alone is not enough. In many regions, cities, and towns, it is the public library that stands as the community’s information nexus.

With networked communications technology, libraries’ horizons have expanded, but also challenges have multiplied. The Council on Library Resources, which for more than 40 years has identified library issues and developed new approaches to library operations, is interested in addressing the challenges public libraries face in an era of information revolution. Through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Council has established a program to study innovation in the use of information technology by public libraries to serve local communities. At the recommendation of the Council’s Kellogg Program Advisory Committee, the Council’s staff asked libraries to describe how they were serving their communities through technology. From the responses, the Advisory Committee selected 12 sites to study. Teams from the Council staff visited the sites; talked to directors, library staff, and users; and prepared case studies to describe how these libraries are working in and with their communities in the new era of electronic information. In this essay, Council staff present an analysis of findings in the case studies.

The Case Studies-General Observations

A case study is not a fully documented depiction of an organization. These 12 case studies represent the Council teams’ attempt to capture what they witnessed and learned on-site, supplemented by printed and Web information. The central theme in each story is the use of technology to expand and enhance the public library’s ability to serve the community’s needs. The studies illustrate how a few public libraries have articulated a vision and recruited other parts of the community to join them in providing new opportunities for the whole. These library efforts have not been without conflict or pain, and their effects are yet to be evaluated for the most part. But all began with a vision for the future.

Most importantly, we discovered that public libraries are continuing to serve important community functions, but that the future of these institutions is not assured. Many variables are at work in the public library sphere, including the uncertainties of funding, the costs of building and maintaining a digital telecommunications infrastructure, the increasing number and variety of information providers within communities, the rapidly changing nature of the technology itself, and the need for training library staffs and the public they serve. Quite fittingly, the final years of the twentieth century represent endings and beginnings for public libraries. The future of public libraries as we know them today cannot be assumed, for the roles they will play in the next millennium are not yet known. Moreover, these roles may take a variety of shapes and sizes–some of which have begun to evolve from the familiar past, and others of which have yet to be revealed.

In traveling to these libraries, we learned that there are no universal solutions for using information technology to serve communities or to provide greater public access to information. One common denominator, however, did emerge: The most vibrant public libraries look to the community at large to determine appropriate goals and objectives, and to partnerships with individuals and organizations in the community to carry out the objectives. There are other common components. In each example, these libraries have leadership with vision, common values about open and equitable access to information, funding (in relative terms) to create a new environment using information technologies, and community-centered strategies for making a transition into the increasingly digital information world.

Beyond these fundamental conditions and values, the libraries show a wide range of responses to the challenge of how to use technology innovatively and effectively. Each of the 12 libraries has its own story to tell, and the 12 stories are as different as the communities they serve. But innovation in the use of technology, we found, is a relative term. These case studies feature a sampling of innovative electronic services in public libraries in early 1996. If these studies are taken as a barometer of innovation in service, public libraries are only beginning to take advantage of the range of capabilities of networked information technology.

Serving Communities

Serving the local community has been the focus of the mission of the public library for years. As long as basic financial support is local, this focus on local needs will continue to drive public library services. How libraries determine local needs and how they respond to those needs varies widely.

The libraries we studied are located in communities that range from 15,000 to 2.5 million people. Common to all is a commitment by the library to the local community, not simply as an organization that provides information, but as a cultural and educational center. We heard what library staff and management said about their technological initiatives, but what we saw was far broader in scope. They are transforming their institutions to meet the needs of the future while keeping themselves grounded in traditional community library services and practices. In all cases, management and staff have positioned these libraries as important community centers. They have seen an opportunity to use technology to provide services to members of the community in new ways, even through it has meant substantial investments in computers and telecommunications infrastructure, software and electronic publications, and training initiatives. Library services in these cases are offered based on an assessment of community need–whether the assessment was documented through a strategic planning process or less formal means of discovery. Understanding community and translating community needs into objectives for library service have placed some of the libraries in a strategic position of readiness to take advantage of funding opportunities as they come along. These planning efforts have been meaningful for institutions large and small, with or without the development staffs or administrative infrastructure to seek and manage large grant-funded projects. We observed that libraries’ knowledge of the community and proactive planning efforts helped to ready them to use technology to reach new and larger audiences, and to address community needs by serving these audiences in new ways.

Need for Vision

Public libraries became ubiquitous features of the North American landscape when Andrew Carnegie donated money to thousands of communities for the construction of library buildings in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first 15 years of the twentieth century. The deal he struck required local governments to cover the cost of books and staff. Carnegie believed access to books and education would provide opportunities for motivated workers to improve their minds, and in the process, their economic conditions.

What would be a comparable contribution to American people today? If Carnegie were alive, would he connect every home to the Information Superhighway? Would he fund one virtual library, which the nation could access through the Internet and the World Wide Web? Would he invest in community-based information networks or Free-nets? Or, would he equip libraries to provide electronic information from inside or outside the library, wiring the old Carnegie library buildings for tomorrow’s technology? Would he build new branch library buildings to serve expanding urban and suburban populations? These questions are not fanciful but are aimed at the very heart of the question about the role of the public library. Is it a place where information resides or a conduit for information, or both?

The public library has been, and continues to be, both of these things and more. The debate about roles is important, however, because municipal or other local funding for public libraries is not likely to increase, at least, not in the current political and economic climate. More and more, public libraries must make difficult choices or seek external funds to pay for new programs. And the financial requirements for connecting community members to the Information Superhighway are immense. As they seek resources, library leaders are finding themselves in new and unprecedented relationships with public and private funding agencies of all kinds. Public library administrators have to make a clear and direct case for their institutions, and they must take the lead in articulating a vision of what the public library can mean to a community in the twenty-first century.

The libraries highlighted in the case studies are doing just that. The leaders of these 12 possess vision and know how to articulate it: Once articulated, the vision is implemented and refined by the entire staff, community leaders and supporters, volunteers, and institutional partners.

Common Values

One great advantage of public libraries is their neutrality within communities. They are public spaces that offer a place to learn on one’s own about any subject and without review by an authority figure. The library staff need not be consulted or involved in the pursuit of knowledge unless the patron wishes. Carnegie referred to the public library as the “people’s university,” and this conceptualization of the institution has continued in the public’s mind over the years. The collections in libraries allow for anonymous and unfettered inquiries into all subjects, and unlike a school, the public library has no predetermined curriculum or pedagogy. Individual curiosity and time are the only limitations on the knowledge that can be acquired. The neutral space has another advantage: It is available to individuals of all socioeconomic groups and all ages. The no-questions-asked policy makes it possible for anyone in the community to take advantage of the library’s services. The success of some library-centered community development projects we saw was attributed in part to the neutral and accessible position of the library within the community. The principle of open access for all to information has remained a steadfast conviction in the 12 libraries we visited as in thousands of public libraries around the country, even when that ideal is tempered somewhat by community standards and budget. For the most part, all library services in these sites have been offered without charge to members of the community, but in those few instances when charges have been levied, the services have been offered equitably to one and all. This attribute has distinguished public library service in the United States for the last 100 years. We observed library managers and staff within the 12 libraries working vigorously to perpetuate library traditions of free and equitable access to information within the electronic environment, even though the actual costs of information and access are not readily apparent to the public and have never been “free.”

Evolving Roles

For decades, public libraries have played a wide variety of roles within their communities, but the availability of electronic information and interactive communications technologies has enabled them to take on more and increasingly complex roles. Public libraries assume roles that make sense for the local communities. For example, across the nation libraries function as independent learning centers, popular materials centers, community information centers, preschoolers’ door to learning, research centers, cultural centers, and homework centers for youth. Libraries participating in the evolution to new forms of service through technology point out that much of the public has not understood the number or variety of roles the library has played in the past, and they point with some frustration to the number of new roles they should and could take on in the digital age if adequate resources were available. Library leaders are concerned, generally, that the expectations of the community for libraries and their own expectations for these institutions are greater than the resources will accommodate. In some places, librarians have expressed concern that digital library initiatives are usurping disproportionate resources when compared to the full range of services the library provides. Other librarians have cast such concerns aside and embrace the future that the digital world seems to be promising.

Although librarians talk a great deal about the new services they are providing, it may be that so far they are taking advantage of technology to enlarge and improve traditional services or to customize services that previously had been more generic. In delivering these new or enhanced services, are libraries playing new or significantly changed roles within their communities? For example, in sites we visited libraries have served as catalysts in community development, problem solvers for community organizations, or coordinators of community information delivery. In some communities these roles would be described as merely new names or extensions of what they have been doing all along. With electronic information and a community telecommunications infrastructure, there are many possibilities. It remains to be seen whether totally new roles for the public library will evolve as the technology evolves. The more important evolution may be library leadership’s own broadening vision of the potential roles libraries might play within their communities. At any rate, from our site visits we learned that technology is enabling libraries to take on roles and carry out tasks in ways that are more visible to the public and that the librarians themselves believe will be more effective.

The Challenge of Partnerships

Although libraries for many years have joined with other libraries to increase the efficiency and decrease the cost of information delivery, public libraries have turned to new types of partnerships to help broaden their resource base and reach more deeply into the community. What is changing is that these libraries are forging alliances and partnerships with organizations many of which have not, until now, been central to the workings of public libraries. Further, these partnerships involve organizations on an operational level in relationships that are more complex and often more mutually beneficial than that of funder and grantee. Such partnerships are making new and enhanced services a reality. Libraries are collaborating with telecommunications and corporate partners, new types of libraries, community organizations and agencies, schools, and others to provide new services, increase public access to information, and create community-based information resources. The collaborations have helped libraries establish new constituencies and build wider support (and even, in some cases, broaden and diversify the sources of funding). The challenge is to find partners who share the vision and who have the resources to invest in that vision.

The case study partnerships have been dynamic and varied–as varied as the libraries’ sizes and locales. In sites we visited, these alliances among libraries at regional or state levels have been and are increasingly important to the local library because the cooperative networking, training, and purchasing projects of these alliances are making information technology more affordable on the local level. On our visits we have seen public libraries join forces with their local telephone companies or cable television providers to take advantage of fiber optic network installation. Others have looked to nearby universities and colleges for technical expertise and networking experience. Libraries have benefited from alliances with local school systems, administrations, or individual schools. In one example, the public library has put together an alliance that includes a publicly owned utility company, the mayor’s office, a local university, and the community chamber of commerce. One urban area has reaped particular benefits from a partnership with a large bank and other corporate sponsors; a rural library received its first computer terminal as a donation from the local bank. Two libraries have partnerships with commercial information system developers to work collaboratively in the development of new or enhanced products for libraries. The point is that the partnerships–in whatever form they take–have proven to be advantageous for those public libraries that have pursued them with vigor and diligence and with a certain creative imagination.

Some librarians, not accustomed to forging alliances, particularly with the corporate sector, have expressed concerns about demands that might be placed on them by the new partnerships. Most, however, have embraced the new alliances with enthusiasm and the hope that the partnerships will increase opportunities and programs. Partnerships generally require more work than anyone ever forecasts or readily acknowledges. But in looking to the future, public library leadership has identified partnerships as a way, despite all the uncertainties and risks, to make their vision of the future possible.

Libraries and Community-based Information Networks

Providing information to meet the needs of community members is not new, but libraries are working in less-familiar territory as they collaborate with a range of organizations to develop a network of information from many different information providers. Although public libraries have gathered and made available information about their local communities, the public was little aware of this activity until the advent of community-based information systems delivered in electronic form. In addition to simply gathering information, many public librarians see themselves as adding value to this information. Many are applying traditional library approaches to adding value and information in electronic form. Some of the libraries have organized or indexed the information created by other organizations to make it more useful, and made it accessible as a logical component of the local library system. A few have customized these resources by linking to them from logical places on their homepages on the World Wide Web. Many of the sites have carefully selected electronic resources that correspond to the interests and needs of the various segments of the community. Other libraries have geared their efforts not only toward increasing public access to this information, but toward making sure that the underrepresented and the underprivileged in their communities have the means to access it as well. In most cases, however, the electronic services provided mirror the services libraries have long provided. But more needs to be done to take advantage of the interactive capabilities of the technology that will enhance communication and facilitate problem-solving with and among segments of the community.

Libraries are accomplishing their community-based goals in many different ways. In some instances, the library system and the community-based information system (community network or Free-net) are not directly connected. Although they may serve related or overlapping missions, they may be financed and managed as separate organizations. This may reflect some libraries placing a higher value on retaining autonomy than on taking the risks involved with nurturing creative partnerships. In some libraries the concern is expressed differently: They regard alliances with community networks as a kind of social service that should remain outside their realm.

Thus, not every library has viewed its future as tied to the fortunes of the local community network or Free-net. But in many places, the public library has extended the definition of itself as an information provider and has assumed a new role by adding a community-based information network or Free-net to its palette of services. There is no single answer. What has worked in some communities may not work in others. The range of types of alliances formed to provide community information are as varied as the communities they serve, and the role of the public library within each alliance varies with the style and capacity for leadership within the library.

Staffing and Training

In every library we visited, and from conversations with many other public librarians, one of the concerns voiced most frequently is that the staff expertise needed to play a leadership role in the digital environment is not readily found among existing staff. Public libraries we visited have hired technical experts to join the staff, on occasion without a background in library and information science. Some public libraries have encouraged current staff to develop technical skills and leadership expertise; others still, in a few instances, have promoted technically proficient staff into key areas of information systems management.

All of the libraries cited the need to invest much more heavily in staff training. Practically every person on the staff of today’s public libraries needs to know more about computers, electronic resources, and working on teams, and many will need to learn about fund-raising. Although part of the necessary learning must be achieved by individual effort, the libraries recognize that they have an obligation to equip staff to work in a different kind of environment: one that fosters communication among staff at all levels, takes advantage of technology, and uses staff skills in different ways. Some libraries also have recognized that their technical experts could benefit from some training in traditional library functions and activities. The difficulty is that training budgets in public libraries have been, traditionally, very small. The need to retool the current staff is huge in comparison to the funds that can be obligated readily to this purpose. Nevertheless, these libraries are doing what they can to facilitate training, even if that means informal tutorials and exchanges of information among staff. Training is a priority in public libraries, but it may be among the hardest activities to fund, perhaps because of the difficulty of documenting and articulating in layperson’s terms its direct impact on the services received by the public.

Since many public libraries are already stretching to acquire hardware, software, and connections, as well as information in electronic form, they are not readily finding the resources to support comprehensive training. As public libraries become more familiar with technology and its uses, and as they expand their partnerships in the community, training possibilities may more easily present themselves and may be the outcome of new, innovative alliances. Nevertheless, library leaders need to be able to articulate effectively the need for training and to implement effective training strategies.

The Need for Buildings and Space

Opinions differ, even within the library community itself, about the need for building or expanding libraries in expensive urban real estate zones, especially as the availability of networked information expands rapidly. Library staff who see community members seeking human contact in a safe, warm place and who provide desperately needed services for the community’s children see clearly a need for physical library space. They despair when technology enthusiasts speak glowingly of virtual libraries and the development of virtual communities through the Internet as an alternative. If money were not an issue, both the virtual and the physical community centers could be fully developed, staffed, maintained, and promoted.

The case study libraries are both virtual libraries and community centers. They support the philosophy that to serve communities effectively today, public libraries must be both, despite the resulting strain on resources. Building and maintaining adequate physical space to carry out library services is an important issue: Of the 12, four libraries have completed recent significant main library renovations, four others have constructed (or will construct shortly) new central library facilities, and two will go to voters this year with bond referenda for new main library buildings. In addition, three of these public libraries are building new branches to serve growing suburban or neighborhood populations. Library administrators’ ongoing concerns for sufficient, attractive, and well-maintained facilities are exacerbated by the need to wire buildings for network connections and reorganize space for delivery of electronic information. At every site, technology has required some form of refurbishing and rearranging space.

Many libraries have established public computer laboratories in their main buildings to provide access to the Internet for all–including those without the physical means of connecting to the library from home or office. Each of these libraries is committed to providing equitable access to electronic information from all library facilities including branches, but extending the full range of electronic services to branches is a steep financial and technical hurdle for multi-site library systems. These public libraries provide or have plans to provide electronic information to people who cannot visit a library building through dial-in or Internet connections. Not everyone has the means to connect to the libraries’ electronic services or visit a library facility. As a result, some libraries are creating partnerships with social service and other agencies and to install networked computers in shelters, senior citizen centers, half-way houses, recreation centers for youth, and bus terminals. Even in an era of increasing availability of networked electronic information, libraries must still confront the problems of space, buildings, and physical public access to ensure that the gateways to that electronic information are open to all.


In an environment in which technology offers hope for helping society to improve itself, it is understandable that library leaders would look to technology to make their institutions more relevant to the communities they serve. There is a fortuitous confluence between the services libraries in fact have offered to their communities and the opportunities offered by electronic information and new forms of delivery. Several of the libraries we visited have crafted programs that use technology to solve the most difficult problems of the community, such as literacy programs that are based on developing computer skills while learning to read or to communicate in English. Other libraries have developed special resources for the business community, recognizing that the equipment installed for that purpose will also be useful to others for many different purposes.

There is a difficulty, however, in that the public libraries’ most well known and appreciated features have little to do with technology. When asked to comment about the value of the public library in the community, most respondents to opinion surveys and polls, including a recent survey1 and focus group conducted by the Benton Foundation for the Kellogg Foundation HRISM program, remark that the public library is the place where all citizens, without charge, can gain access to information, find recreational literature, or gather materials for children’s homework. But, there appears to be a mismatch between the mission of the library that is known and loved by the community at large and the vision of those who know about the potential of the library to serve vital needs of the local community.

Public libraries in North America are much admired by local citizens and are considered useful educational agencies and important for their services to children. The public opinion polls have confirmed this fact. These warm feelings about public libraries are found even among that segment of the population that does not generally use the public library. And this good will is also a fundamental weakness. People think of the public library as a good place for children, but they do not think in terms of the financial investment required to make the public library an important information resource in the community. Nor is the public library thought about as a leader in information policy.

The best public libraries–and these include the 12 we visited–understand that digital technology has the power to create a new or more highly evolved kind of community agency. The case studies offered here give insights into how a dozen library directors and their staffs have recognized that technology, properly applied, can strengthen and enhance a community by drawing in individuals and organizations who have not been part of the library’s family in the past. Personality and style differences of library leadership, the traditions and history of the institutions, and the make-up of the communities they serve are important factors, but the common elements among these library innovators are: community-centered strategies for library service, leadership with a vision of information technology serving the community, the ability to articulate this vision convincingly, and a belief that access to information is a fundamental right in a democratic society.

1Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age. A report on the public’s opinion of library leaders’ visions for the future. Prepared by the Benton Foundation. Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. [Washington, D.C.] November, 1996.


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