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CLR Case Studies–Brooklyn Public Library


The new library director, Martin Gomez, expresses his desire for the library to take a leadership role within Brooklyn but more specifically to exploit the potential of information technology to bring people together to solve community problems. The board recognizes that virtual community can be as powerful as physical community. “Automation is our number one priority,” the director says. “We have to promote the theme of using information technology for the benefit of the public.” This message is often repeated to City Council members, foundations, local businesses, and the library board. Many library managers and employees in public service positions talk about his philosophy with open appreciation. They express willingness to take on the challenges of the information technologies they have seen and heard so much about. Many express support, almost relief, that the director has lifted automation to the highest priority. Articulating widely and often the need for developing an automation infrastructure paid off recently. The library has secured $2 million from the borough president and $1.5 million from the City Council to complete a system upgrade in fiscal years 1997 and 1998.

The staff indicates that until the arrival of Gomez in September 1995, the Brooklyn Public Library had been somewhat slow to implement automated library services. Technology had been introduced in small steps that could be taken without broad-based administrative support or technical infrastructure; several small-scale projects were initiated within a single department or building. A few staff members noted, however, that being behind the curve of cutting-edge technology has the advantage of allowing the library to learn from others’ experience. For example, learning from libraries in other boroughs, Brooklyn will choose to configure workstations with a different complement of services for different places or purposes, rather than expecting a single model of workstation to do everything.

Thanks to an active fund-raising program, the library has received several small grants to enable, among other things, the building of a local area network for the main library, purchase of software and equipment for the three literacy “Learning Centers,” and installation of a local area network for the business library. Recent grants have enabled the business library to offer a focused collection of print and electronic resources for small businesses and to make reference service available by an 800 number to New York state residents beyond the local telephone dialing area.

Because efforts to automate have largely been made piecemeal by individual initiative, the library has developed several independent systems. Over the past few years, the library has created a bibliographic database in electronic form and is using an online circulation system throughout the library system. Currently, the library’s public access catalog is pressed on CD-ROM disks and made available at public workstations through a Bibliofile system. The library is now poised to take the next step of providing an integrated online catalog system at all library buildings.

The library staff has begun to experiment with Internet access for reference and professional use, and the main library local area network will soon be upgraded to allow the public to gain access to the Internet. A special grant from the Microsoft Corporation and the Public Library Association’s Libraries Online! program has enabled the library to offer public access to the Internet at terminals in the Flatbush branch. In its plans for other branches, the library will emphasize the equitable spread of technology, providing a few workstations in as many of its branches as possible rather than concentrating resources in a few branches at a time.

Learning and Technology

Library managers believe it is important to add value to the information they provide by teaching people not only how to find it but also how to use it. The library’s current emphasis on developing technology supports one of the library’s highest priorities–serving learners. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Brooklyn Public Library was well known for its in-house English classes for immigrants. Today, literacy efforts continue to flourish at the Brooklyn Public Library at least in part because the library offers resources and instruction with no value judgments. Some 700 students are now enrolled in adult literacy instruction that has evolved from a phonics-based, one-on-one tutoring program to group methods that rely heavily upon computer technology. Students develop basic reading, writing, problem solving, and critical-thinking skills by using the same word processing, database, or spreadsheet software that they might find in a work setting. Students may sign up to use the literacy computer center any time, seven days a week. Within a more specialized family literacy program, adult learners find out how to select children’s books and use interactive reading strategies to share these books with their children. Using this approach, adult learners become the conveyors of reading and learning for their children.

The literacy classes are supported by New York City rather than by library funds. The literacy program operates within the Library’s Program Development Office, managed by veteran librarian Susan O’Connor, who says, “The library really supports education.” Listening to O’Connor speak, one begins to understand how a variety of public library services to learners of all ages have benefited from the library’s highly developed experience with innovative educational methods and computer technology that enables learners.

Another learning program, the Kids Connection, is an ongoing, after-school public library program for children. Science and career-related interactive video laser disc programs are being placed in branches where librarians are willing to try something new to provide more effective learning experiences for the large after-school student population. The librarians believe that children enjoy learning, and they are determined to place interesting and visually attractive educational materials in children’s hands. Within the library’s Education and Job Information Center a series of stand-alone terminals offers access to numerous job and career databases and related online or CD-ROM resources. Seeing people waiting patiently to be the next to use one or another database underlined how useful a networked approach to delivering the tools would be within the center, throughout the library’s facilities, and beyond.

Technology Directions

Library management recognizes that technology will not be as effective as it should be unless there is a plan for utilizing it. Individual efforts have been useful, but they need to be replaced by a system-wide effort. In order to ensure that library-wide goals for technology are addressed and that a higher level of technology integration is achieved, an office of library systems integration has been established. The director of this office, Mary Beth Beidl, describes the automation strategy as having two phases. Phase one is implementing access to a central integrated online public access catalog, as well as building a local area network (LAN) within each physical building that will deliver the same general reference tools to all branches. Connections among the LANs will rely on frame relay, because little fiber optic cable is in place in Brooklyn. Phase two would design a complement of online information resources tailored to each branch and delivered on the branch’s local area network. The current thinking of library managers is that information resources will be purchased or leased by branches to reflect the language and ethnic heritages represented in the branch population. Local content will be developed to serve branch needs but also will be accessible across the branches to the wider Brooklyn Public Library community. Each branch will have access to the online catalog and some system-wide resources but also will load resources at each branch that make sense for the local constituency. In addition, access to the electronic resources will be offered through dial-up.

Beidl emphasizes the need for a plan because the plan articulates the strategy for the vision, but she also notes the danger of being too wedded to details. Library management believes that technology is changing too rapidly to accommodate the long-term systematic planning to which librarians are accustomed. Particularly because the library is behind many of its peer institutions in offering networked information services, the librarians recognize the need to seek opportunities to secure external funds that will help the library move forward. The timing and sequence of activity may not always be the most desirable from a planning perspective, but no opportunity should be avoided or missed. The plan can always be restructured if it supports the vision.

Serving the Community through Branches

Library staff’s dedication to making each of the 58 branches community-based is evident, and this extends to most branches having their own Friends of the Library group. The library profiles each branch for collection development and program development. Also, the choice of which languages are supported is branch-specific. These branch-level decisions are based on census information, although observations between censuses are needed because the ethnic nature of the local communities is changing rapidly. The refurbishing of buildings is done on an ongoing basis, with three or four of the branches being refurbished at any one time. The system-wide plan for technology includes a plan for wiring each branch as it is refurbished. City Council members are consulted in making these plans. They respond to efforts to upgrade branches in their district and are pleased and responsive when a renovation is finished or technology is installed.

At the branch level, library staff are making new and renewed efforts to serve the community. For the Brooklyn Public Library, the most visible experiments have been made at the Flatbush branch. The coordinator of outreach programs for this branch, who was hired with grant funds, has made vigorous efforts to connect the library and the community. With a community outreach coordinator and a revived Friends of the Flatbush Library, more local groups have begun to hold meetings in branch library space. Library staff report that the number of library cards issued and total circulation have increased as the number of meetings has increased. Full network connections and a computer laboratory with 12 workstations have been installed with a grant from Microsoft and the Public Library Association (PLA). In the first unadvertised days of availability, workstations were always in use with even previously demanding patrons waiting patiently for a chance to surf the Internet and try the networked Microsoft software. The effort to bring technology to Flatbush seems more a result of seizing an opportunity than strategic planning. Counter to prevailing library philosophies of tailoring collections and services to local constituencies, the Flatbush branch has installed a set of Microsoft software the company was willing to give away, albeit with some titles in French translation to serve Haitian and Creole populations in Flatbush. The relationship to ongoing programs is not strategic but may well evolve with the project. The most promising indicator is the excitement exhibited by the community activists for the technology.

Technical Infrastructure

The Brooklyn Public Library’s automated circulation system runs on a Sequent SE/30 computer connected to 236 terminals over a low-speed wide-area network. The terminals are distributed throughout the central library and the 58 branches. The library makes its catalog available to the public on a Bibliofile CD-ROM system at 250 catalog work stations distributed throughout the branches and the central library.

A public access local area network (LAN) in the central library connects five workstations and provides reference databases and indexes on CD-ROM, including newspaper indexes from UMI and Newsbank. A second public access LAN will open in the central library in October 1996 with 12 Gateway Pentium workstations providing Internet access, word processing, and multimedia applications. The Business Library has a public access CD-ROM LAN which connects seven public access workstations and has a remote dial-in capability. The LAN at the Flatbush Branch has 12 public access workstations. Additional LANs are planned for the branches.

In addition to the networked work stations mentioned above, the library has about 30 public access work stations in the central library and 83 throughout the branches. 20 are available in the children’s service areas. With the exception of about eight Macintoshes, they are all 486 machines used to provide reference databases and multimedia applications. Periodical indexes and full-text articles on EBSCO’s Academic Abstracts CD-ROM product, for example, run on 16 of these stand-alone workstations in the central library and also in 40 branches. The Literacy Program has 25 public access Macintoshes in its training centers. The Library has a computer staff training center with ten workstations at the Pacific Branch.

The Library uses T1 and fractional T1 (128KB and 384KB) connections to connect from each facility to the local Internet provider. By the end of October 1996, the library will have a total of 30 public access Internet workstations with full graphical capability.

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