CLR Case Studies–Cedar Falls Public Library

Technology

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Since October 1994, Cedar Falls Public Library has been in the midst of several technical projects to improve the ability of its users to find and retrieve information electronically. They include planning for a shared online catalog, helping to develop a community information network, implementing public access to the Internet and a library home page, and developing electronic information (for community use) in partnership with local government agencies. In the words of Carol Johnson, “these are exciting times” for a small library that to date has not had an online catalog of its holdings. Some of the ongoing projects were initiated by the library staff; others happened elsewhere, but enabled the library, with the public and private sector partners, to move ahead to build an information infrastructure for the entire community.

Municipal Fiber Optic System As background to these developments, in October 1994, city voters endorsed a $6 million bond issue to enable Cedar Falls Utilities, the municipally owned company that operates electric, natural gas, water, and communications services, to build for the city a fiber optic backbone, connected to a broadband network, that eventually will serve every residence in the city. The library has been on the backbone since mid-1996.

Voters endorsed the bond issue overwhelmingly despite vigorous advertising in opposition by a national cable television system. Although individuals may not have been aware of the technicalities of the proposal, the vote was based on the historical record of good service provided by the municipal utility. It also helped that a feasibility study was done by a citizens committee. “The public asked us to do this,” says Curtis S. Johnson, manager of electric and communications engineering of Cedar Falls Utilities. The intent of the new utility when fully operational is to provide “full-service” community access that is much broader than cable television. For instance, the system eventually will connect all schools in the city. Also since mid-1996, the city has provided telephone service through the fiber optic network.

The fiber optic system is designed with five primary and five secondary loops circling the city, instead of the central-hub-with-spokes layout of the commercial cable provider, and will provide complete redundancy in case of a system failure. “We’re building a system that’s world class and will be of interest to world class providers,” says Curtis Johnson. The mayor, Ed Stachovic, adds, “if and only if you have your own utilities can you do what we are doing here.”

The library is more than just a potential network user; it promotes intelligent use of the network. For instance, in June 1995, the library planned and moderated a presentation with the university and Cedar Falls Utilities on the basics of communications options for the city. More than 200 residents turned out for the symposium.

Shared Catalog The library, in conjunction with the University of Northern Iowa library, will use the new fiber optic system to implement a shared online catalog of the university, the Cedar Falls Public Library, and, eventually, Hawkeye Community College, opening up new sources of information to all library users. The discussion about Northern Iowa hosting the public library on its system began informally a few years ago between the Cedar Falls library director and university library technical personnel; after “taking it one step at a time,” the process is now at the stage of vendor contract negotiations. The plan is to automate the public library’s catalog by sharing the university’s Innopac system. If all works out as expected, the public library will leapfrog over a stand-alone system to a shared system at an affordable cost. Eventually, all patrons will have access to the catalogs of the three institutions plus a host of information that Northern Iowa makes available through its catalog, such as full-text databases. The online catalog also will be available through dial-in.

CedarNet The Cedar Falls Public Library joined with seven public libraries in Blackhawk County and other organizations, including hospitals, schools, and public and private sector organizations, to organize and develop a community information network, CedarNet, which became operational June 1, 1995 (http://www.cedarnet.org). Local residents may become CedarNet members at no charge. With membership, they receive access to the Internet through the World Wide Web, information about government and community agencies, and individual e-mail accounts. The network supports users with graphical browser software.

World Wide Web Site The library developed and mounted the first public library Web site in Iowa in January 1995 (http://www.iren.net/cfpl/). Since then, the site has been expanded to feature information about the library’s mission, services, collections, and facilities, a youth department, information about the Friends of the Library, a suggestion box, and the Ask-a-Librarian reference service. The site links to The New York Times Best Sellers List, information about other libraries, and selected resources on the Internet.

Internet Access The library opened a public access workstation to the Internet and CedarNet in September 1995. This Internet access is important to the community, which, when Council staff visited, had yet to receive fiber optic connections to all locations from the city’s utility company (although a commercial cable television provider is making private Internet connections available through its own fiber optic loop). The library’s public access workstation, which is connected to the Internet via the municipal utilities fiber optic network, is located behind the reference desk and defaults to the library’s Web site. Patrons may reserve time on the workstation, print on a laser printer (at ten cents a page), and purchase diskettes for downloading. The Kiwanis Club donated the equipment and the library board voted to use foundation funds to acquire direct access to the Internet through the Iowa Research and Education Network (IREN). According to the library director, IREN is unique in the nation as a nonprofit consortium representing collaborative efforts between librarians and computer professionals. Members include Iowa’s two- and four-year institutions of higher education, public libraries, and other educational organizations and community interests. IREN enables these organizations to develop and enhance communication on the Internet by providing training, conferences, a mail server, free World Wide Web space on the IREN server, and technical support services.

Community Information Provider The library has taken the initiative to both define its role in the community as an information provider and position itself as the “technology expert” by designing and mounting information on the World Wide Web about other city departments, the mayor’s office, and the City Council. Although the library does not provide e-mail accounts to the public (they may be obtained from CedarNet), it will provide e-mail accounts to city employees and train them in Internet use. To do so, it applied for and won a $30,000 grant from the American Library Association/MCI Telecommunications Corp. (the MCI Library LINK project). It was one of nine city libraries in the country to win an award.

The project began informally in 1994 at a mayor’s meeting where the library director, using a laptop computer, presented information about the possibilities of technology to heads of city departments. The director of the Department of Public Works, C. Budd Curttright, was impressed with the possibilities of electronic communication. He also wished to address complaints that the “government was doing things but the people didn’t know about them.” Hence, he thought that the department could convey to the public useful information about trash pickup schedules, snow removal, and other services via computer.

Public Works took the lead in the effort to add city information to the library’s Web site. Curttright, helped by library staff, even took classes to learn hypertext markup language (HTML). It took seven months to put up the first application, a demonstration of how to use a new kind of automated trash machine. Other information has been mounted, with the public works director instrumental in supporting the project, and acquainting other department heads with the Web site.

Technical Infrastructure

Within the library, six computer workstations (five PCs and one Macintosh) are available for use by the public in public service areas. The high-end workstations are Gateway Pentiums. Two of the library workstations offer Internet access with full graphical capabilities. A fiber optic cable connects the library to the Internet through the municipal Cedar Falls Utilities and IREN, which is the Internet provider.

The library maintains one local area network for circulation. The machine-readable version of the library’s catalog is maintained on OCLC. In the future, it will be made available through a union online public access catalog on an Innovative Interfaces system shared with the University of Northern Iowa. Indexing and full text of journals in electronic form are accessed online from First Search, the Iowa Locator (an Iowa database), and other resources on the Internet. Approximately six percent of the library’s expenditures for information resources are for products in electronic form (leased, licensed, or purchased).