CLR Case Studies–Brooklyn Public Library


The staff of the Brooklyn Public Library has a strong commitment to the library as a place. It has an equally strong commitment to public service. Consequently, staff members are eager to provide electronic resources to the members of their community. They are less sure about the desirability of making networked resources available to individuals’ homes. They seem somewhat apprehensive about taking any steps that would put distance between the librarian and the user. They seem uncomfortable, too, with any plan that would further separate the privileged and the underprivileged users. Thus far, at least, the library’s leadership envisions that technology will be installed in the main and branch libraries and that citizens of the community will come to one of the buildings or dial in to use it. This will further position the library as the public access point for community information. Several of the librarians remarked that the changes in use patterns will be monitored closely as technology is installed sequentially across the branches. They hypothesize that individuals beyond the normal boundaries served by a particular branch may begin to frequent the library facility that provides electronic access.

Library managers find themselves making policy “on the fly” because the world in which they now operate is so different from the print-based world. Many decisions are made for them by public utilities, vendors, or external funders, and this breeds a sense of uncertainty not present in earlier days. They are also finding it harder to communicate within the system. Until now, most of the branches have operated relatively independently. Managers chose the materials they thought members of the community would find useful. Today, because providing access without owning the material is a central feature of librarianship, they are discovering a certain interdependence within the system. Consequently, the library staff is forced to improve its methods of communicating across the system. In the area of technology purchases, the library has uncovered a need for increased standardization and centralized review before purchase. The goal is systems integration, which means considering the impact of each purchase on the whole library. Technology decision making had been decentralized until recently. A new office of systems integration should help not only with coordination but also with communication across departmental lines and buildings.

Library managers also note the need to think differently about hiring new staff. Although the MLS degree is still valued, the managers realize that many of the technical skills needed are more readily found in young technology enthusiasts. The decision to hire such individuals requires a different mindset among library managers. It also creates the need for in-house training that socializes the technical specialists into the profession of librarianship and makes librarians at home with the techies. Because the library director recognizes that the institution’s success will rely increasingly on external funding, he believes it will be essential to add staff people to do development and government relations work.

Technology training for staff is an ongoing concern. In 1996, in a little-used but centrally located branch, the library opened a computer technology center. The center, which includes classroom space and equipment, has been renovated for use in staff training. The library is using a commercial firm at first for standard office applications and plans eventually to develop in-house instructional expertise for library applications. Library management recognizes that this will almost certainly mean hiring another specialty into the ranks.

Already, the library realizes that technological change is forcing the institution to work differently. For example, government information, which has been a heavily used resource at Brooklyn Public, is now being published in electronic form. Consequently, the Government Printing Office (GPO) has been a catalyst for technology change. Government documents are now available on the Internet, as well as on CD-ROM. The staff, without significant training, cannot fully use or make them available. Brooklyn Public is anxious to keep its status as a depository library. Since some GPO resources are provided only online via the Internet, the library must determine how to make them available even though Internet access is not available in all branches. Social science reference librarians long for more mini-CD-ROM changers for viewing census data on stand-alone workstations so that the discs do not take up valuable space on the main library’s CD-ROM network. Eventually, the information will all be online, but this method of access requires an infrastructure not now available to the library system.