The Library and the Community
The Charlottesville community was ripe for network development. Since the early 1980s, local schools had been talking to each other on the VA-PEN network, developed at the University of Virginia, linking 2,000 schools across the state. Two network executive committee members attended a community networking conference in 1995. They heard community networking advocates agree that libraries have to be involved in the community in projects like this “or they will die.” Previously, to draw the library and community together, the library’s Board of Trustees asked, and Selle agreed, to concentrate on the community rather than become involved in library professional associations. Since then, the library has focused on local community service through the development of networked information resources, and especially the Monticello Avenue network. In the library’s 1995-96 budget, ten percent of the director’s time is identified as an expense of the Monticello Avenue information network. Meanwhile, she had become actively involved in the community–for example, joining the Chamber of Commerce and serving on the United Way Board of Directors and as president of a 3,000-member service club, the Senior Center, which was responsible for 60,000 hours of volunteer community service in 1995.
Taking a leadership role in local library automation and encouraging school/public library technical cooperation, Selle has invited school librarians to attend meetings and participate in the public library’s process of finding a next-generation online system vendor. She also served on the planning committee for the building of a new regional high school that considered the feasibility of building a library that can be used outside of school hours, in effect, like a branch public library.
Selle describes the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s relationship with the University of Virginia Libraries as an unusual partnership from which the public library benefits. The university library, although open to the general public, is not easily accessible because of parking constraints. The public library has a daily courier service, and the university library provides materials on interlibrary loan and does online database searching for the public library. The university library and the public library have cooperated in the development of book and serial collections and now maintain a dialogue to keep each other informed of electronic resources acquired.
It was important to center the Monticello Avenue network at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. Community leaders describe the library as the physical heart and central focus of the community. The executive committee chose to house the network (i.e., the network server and community network coordinator) in the public library because it is a neutral place and because the library was already regional in mission. Further, these leaders say that without the library, the network may not have happened. Executive committee members expressed the view that it is important to continue the network as configured now with a library center. If the library’s support were discontinued for some reason the private sector would pick it up, but perhaps with a different agenda and set of priorities.
The Monticello Avenue network was built by taking advantage of opportunities. The executive committee focused on what it wanted to do, rather than waiting for the money–a strategic choice. The mayor of the city of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County executive are supportive of the library and its management and have cooperated well on development of the network. Sprint Centel was interested in using the area as a pilot project.
Building for tomorrow while keeping today’s library going requires making difficult choices. At the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library some things may be delayed, such as performance evaluations or the director’s routine visits to the branch libraries. Selle expressed hope that these types of delays would be temporary. She notes also that expenditures for electronic periodicals and other online resources have increased significantly, affecting the amount spent on non-fiction and reference book collections. Of the library’s 1995-96 collection development budget, the library spent 91.75 percent on print or other traditional resources, and 8.25 percent on electronic resources (on lease, purchase, or contract). Although a $40,000 donation from the Friends of the Library for the purchase of CD-ROMs will change that ratio dramatically in 1996-97, Selle expects expenditures for electronic information to level off at around 10 percent in subsequent years.
The Monticello Avenue network executive committee looked at other community networks and decided that they would not provide personal Internet accounts or e-mail capability, but, rather, would cooperate to enable local commercial Internet providers to do so. This decision helped to ensure that the scale of the project was appropriate to the community. In contrast, community networks in cities such as Charlotte, NC; Broward County, FL; and Pittsburgh, PA, provide e-mail services. With the laying of fiber optic cable in Charlottesville, six private-sector companies have begun to provide Internet access and services to the local area. In an effort to assist private-sector development, Selle even went to a local bank to support a company’s loan application by pledging that the library had no intention to compete by providing e-mail service.
The network executive committee decided not to place the University of Virginia at the center of network development, either functionally or financially. This was a conscious choice aimed at ensuring sustainability of the network by the community at large. The library and executive committee chose to let the community decide the direction that Monticello Avenue would take. Across the community, the principals in the network development express the belief that community members needed to buy in to the network, and to feel “ownership,” if the network was to succeed. This high level of neighborhood and community involvement is central to successful networks, as seen in Charlotte, Broward County, and other communities as well.
To involve the community, Monticello Avenue invited each agency in the community design and create its own Web page to serve the needs of its own constituency. Bringing in a professional Web page designer might have resulted in a faster or prettier job, but the community would have had less ownership of the project. A committee took nine months to develop the network’s main menu, and “graphic designers hate it.” But the icons for civic buildings on the opening screen are significant and come out of community roots. Asking “who is the network for?” elicits different answers from different groups, and different answers suggest different design approaches. There is no scientific way to design for the Web using grass roots methods, but principal players in the development of this network feel it is worth doing for the level of community ownership and support it builds.
Content guidelines for the network stipulate that only eligible organizations, not individuals, may mount information. These include local government, educational and regional entities, state agencies with a local presence, non-profit agencies, and neighborhood associations. In addition to the content provided by non-profit organizations, the Market Square section of the network provides pointers to the Web pages of local businesses and to commercially maintained information services, both local and national.
A number of graduate students in information technology at the university’s Curry School of Education are assigned to work with community organizations in preparing content for Monticello Avenue. Each student helps with the design of World Wide Web pages and teaches the organization how to maintain the pages. The students get academic credit, the organizations get free training, the university gets publicity, and the network grows. The students are supervised by the university. Identification of the community organizations is coordinated by the community network coordinator at the library.
The information technology coordinator for the local Charlottesville schools (and a member of the Information Providers Advisory Council), described Monticello Avenue’s three-phased approach to providing information about the community: 1) make information organized and available on the network, 2) establish the computer laboratory (and soon branch libraries too) as a hub and access point, and 3) encourage direct interaction between the community and agencies. Three months after the network and computer lab were opened to the public, the Monticello Avenue project was at the end of stage two.
Providing access to information on the Internet is not enough. Officials from both county government and the university echoed the opinion that the public wants and needs information from “trusted sources.” The library is a trusted source. Ideally, community information would come through the trusted source as intermediary. In this way, the library adds value to the information by helping people sort through masses of information.
Shumaker, the library’s community network coordinator, pointed out that content alone is not enough. There must be an audience for the network content. Since Monticello Avenue has been accessible to the public only since November 1995, the audience and full impact are not known at this point. Over time, it is local content that can pull the community together. By actively encouraging new content providers to come forward with proposals for information resources, the library continues to increase its connection to the community and the potential for use.
The network provides a new means for communication on civic issues. The school administration, the community government, and the library reference department are receiving questions and comments through Monticello Avenue’s World Wide Web page mail response capabilities. The issues communicated are very practical. For example, schools communicate to parents about school closings in a more timely fashion, parents send comments to school administrators about school programs, and citizens communicate directly with city hall about potholes.
Neighborhoods and communities have been drawn together through the Monticello Avenue network. A new regional tourism council was formed to produce content for the network. The network was the basis for initiating cooperation. Charlottesville’s Federation of Neighborhood Associations became the conduit for identifying and encouraging neighborhood projects with a network component and further helped to form a network community. As an example, the friends of a local park not only held a festival with local school children to raise awareness and money for park renovation, they also documented the day in text and color photos on a World Wide Web page.
Oral history projects involving school children interviewing senior citizens in their own neighborhoods have been initiated in conjunction with Monticello Avenue in the neighborhoods of Kelleytown and Belmont. Oral histories in text or sound with accompanying photographs are published on the community network. The process builds community in many ways. These oral history projects can have a wider impact when the products are preserved and distributed electronically than in the printed book or audio tape formats that often have been available only in limited editions. Projects are considered as consequential educational activities, not just refrigerator art. Through oral history projects, economically disadvantaged children from these neighborhoods can use life experiences in their own neighborhoods as a basis for broader conceptual learning.
Monticello Avenue gets information to people who can’t attend meetings for self-help or caregivers. One of the most extensive resources within this network is the resource guide for home health care providers, a gem that other health-related networks should cite. The page grew out of the experience of a former home health care provider who had used the library to find information herself 15 years ago and now (as a University of Virginia Medical Center employee) has made sure that the resources are easily accessible for today’s home health care providers.
Introductory Internet workshops are central to the network’s mission. Comments from these public Internet training classes in the library’s computer lab are positive and show the wide range of motivation across the community for taking classes. Participants have included retirees, job seekers, grandparents with grandchildren, and home schoolers.
In describing the impact of the opening of the Monticello Avenue network and computer lab to the public, Selle noted the lack of effective ways to measure impact of these library efforts but cited some of the usual library measures:
- Reference requests have increased 12-15 percent each month (when compared to the same month in the previous year) since Internet access was made available to the public. (A physical move of the reference desk may also be influencing the increase.)
- Local content has grown rapidly on the Monticello Avenue network, from ten to fifty organizations in six months.
- The computer lab registers an average of 1,000 visits each month.
- Many people have signed up for training sessions and there are long waiting lists.
- The need for staff training has increased tenfold.
Selle also reports a major shift in the nature of the work that reference librarians do. While on public reference duty, librarians are spending more time helping people find information on the Internet. The reference librarians’ time away from the public reference desk, previously spent on traditional collection development and preparation of bibliographies, is focused now on mining the Internet for information to suit local needs and building pointers to it on the community network. In fact, reference librarians are using new methods to add value to the information by selecting it, based on quality and community need, and organizing it.