Technology and Public Service

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The library staff makes sure that the library’s electronic services align in some way with traditional library services. This is partly because the community is aging, and many older voters do not see the necessity for new machines or electronic resources. Because a few library board members share these concerns, the library workstation that provides access to the Internet was procured with private funding from the Kiwanis Club.

The director has a well-defined philosophy of librarianship that guides the way in which the library makes electronic resources available to the public. She believes that “users depend on librarians to identify and collect sources of information that are accurate, valid, and credible,” and that much of the value added by librarians to raw sources of information lies in this “authentication” function. She adds that while librarians have well-defined collection development procedures in place for evaluating traditional materials, there are no similar systems for evaluating electronic resources, except for an occasional article in a professional journal. “It is an awesome task,” she says. The library’s staff spends time, therefore, in evaluating online sources of information and creating pointers to them from the library’s home page. It checks information for accuracy, and credibility, and user friendliness, and tests all links periodically to make sure they work. In addition, just as the library acts on suggestions to purchase specific titles if they are within budget and the library’s collecting policy, the library has added an interactive link that allows users to suggest URLs for the library’s Web site. These are forwarded to the reference staff, who make the final decision.

The director and others are concerned about the survival of the library in the information age. A long-time older library user says, “People are used to going to the library to get information. Now that we can pick up information on the Internet, I think perhaps the library is not as busy.” Some patrons with Internet access at home still use the library workstation. One says “while we subscribe to [an online service], using the facilities at the library allows us to save money as well as having access to the library’s staff when questions arise.” However, Aleta Anderson, the public services librarian, says that, after installing the workstation with Internet access, “I don’t think we have the enormous numbers that we predicted. Some use the workstation as a testing ground prior to getting their own e-mail accounts.”

One reason for this may be that Cedar Falls has a relatively affluent, educated population, and the proportion of households that own their own computers is likely to be greater than average. While the Software Publishers Association reports that 34 percent of American households owned some kind of computer in 1995, an informal survey done four years ago in Cedar Falls showed that about one-third of households already owned computers, and the percentage is undoubtedly higher now. The director fears that the library may become no more than “an expensive reading room,” if it does not provide electronic information in addition to its traditional collections. The choice of electronic information is important, and here the library should embrace its potential for adding value to the information through selection. The Cedar Falls Library’s electronic interface with the community is designed with “quality” links; the user wastes no time “surfing the net” but can go straight from the home page to information of value. As the library continues to find ways to add value to electronic information and thereby increase its usefulness to the community, it will increase its capacity to be the community’s information hub.

The library has developed its electronic resources with an eye toward serving the whole community, including those who might not come in the door or telephone the library. Since visits to the library by young people have declined recently, the library advertises that “you can visit the Youth Department of the Cedar Falls Public Library without ever leaving your home,” by choosing the library’s home page on the World Wide Web. The Youth Department points to information about other Internet sites for young people, but also, importantly, lists books that the library owns on various topics of interest to young people and gives a schedule of upcoming library programs. Drawing young people via electronic media into the library, where they will find traditional resources and perhaps become lifelong users, might be one way to ensure that users will continue to physically patronize the library, even as the library’s electronic interface with the community becomes more useful and attractive. The premise of the Cedar Falls Public Library is that there is more than one way to serve that audience and, in fact, more than one way to serve the entire community.

Through the development of its Web site, the library has gone beyond serving the local community. The library’s Web site is so graphically appealing that it is frequently rated one of the nation’s top ten library sites on the Web. Its designer says with quite a bit of pride that “people don’t know how small we are.” This may lead to a conundrum: the site may promise more than it will be able to continue to deliver.

The library’s service orientation is demonstrated on the Web site. One prominent feature is the “Ask A Librarian” section, where anyone may ask a reference question. No local affiliation is needed to use the service; the reference librarian answers questions from all over the country and even abroad. She does not know how much longer she can continue to do this, but for the moment the volume of questions seems not to be a problem. Library staff believe that Internet use has spawned an increase in interlibrary loan requests from its patrons. The reference librarian says, “If people really learn how to do this, interlibrary loan will skyrocket.”