CLR Case Studies–Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County

The Library and the Community

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Today, the technology allows the library to reach out to the community in ways that it previously could not. Since underprivileged and under-represented populations often seek assistance, a number of workshops are geared to their needs. Partnerships with civic groups, such as the Men of Valor (an African-American group similar to the Big Brother program), have increased the library’s reach into the community. The Virtual Library, which enjoys heavy use by the public, places a great demand on the services of staff librarians. Even with its heavy use of volunteers for workshops and other training programs, the librarians have found that they are spending more one-on-one time with patrons in the Virtual Library than in other departments.

Charlotte’s Web also places an emphasis on people and their role in the community. Under the leadership of Charlotte’s Web staff, volunteers are retooling hundreds of donated PCs for distribution to citizens and community centers throughout the county, to provide network service, while other volunteers are developing training materials and leading workshops for community groups. Most recently, the library obtained funding for an eight-month period that enables 25 non-profits in the Charlotte area to develop homepages for the Web.

As envisioned by its director, Steve Snow, Charlotte’s Web is not about technology but about people. As the network developed over 18 months, Snow candidly admits that Charlotte’s Web changed his idea “of what a library is.” The library, he says, “has convened the community in a way that no other community institution could do.” The network “delivers information, creates information, and shares information.” In so doing, it emphasizes “the value that every person has in the community.” Charlotte’s Web is viewed by its founders as “a bastion of little ‘d’ democracy–intentional democracy,” and its continued development is driven by that principle. This philosophy and the technical capacity of the network have enabled the community to draw together and share ideas and information in new ways.

The network is becoming a regional community project, something its founders had not foreseen. Unlike PLCMC, where the director likes to keep things intentionally off balance to stimulate innovation and growth, Charlotte’s Web was designed to achieve a balance in the community. For example, the Web is working with nonprofit organizations to train employees about the uses of technology in their efforts to provide their own institutions with continuity and community support. The point of the network is to deliver services and information so that both individuals and institutions can profit from what’s available on Charlotte’s Web. Although it is not clear whether the intended balance has been achieved, it is evident that the community network already is helping the broader community.

Empowering Citizens

Users have found out that there is educational value to the Virtual Library and to other services offered in the library’s various branches. The Virtual Library and the other parts of the public library provide materials and individualized attention to public school students; they enhance the work of the schools, which often do not have resources to provide as much personal time as students would like to have from teachers. A greater variety of software at the library also enhances student familiarity with computers and their technological capabilities. The Virtual Library offers popular software applications such as desktop publishing, image scanning, and other audio-visual technology. But learners are not only young students. Many adults are discovering self-education through the use of Charlotte’s Web and the Virtual Library, especially in acquiring new job skills. Job seekers look to the library for information about entrepreneurship and small businesses, about developing resumés and job letters, and gaining experience in working with new software programs.

The library also teaches new residents about the community and Charlotte’s Web helps them develop networks for personal or job support and discover what is going on in the area. This means that the library’s new technology is helping old and new residents alike to become better informed citizens and to work together on issues of common interest. The library’s services, particularly Charlotte’s Web, help residents get information about public schools, youth groups, social action committees, and other civic activities. Long-term users become quite knowledgeable about political processes and personalities, and how they could affect support for the library. For example, patrons in the focus group ably articulate which City Council members favor library programs and how decisions are made about library resources. Online, virtual communities are developing around interests, such as public education, children’s rights, and genealogy.

New technologies–within the library buildings and in remote sites–are improving interactions among information “haves” and “have-nots.” Within the Virtual Library room, homeless and jobless persons, along with employed residents, share information and answer each others’ technical questions at groupings of carrels that promote interaction. Outside of the library, five terminals with text interface and e-mail have been placed in a men’s homeless shelter to provide information and job services to the displaced. A women’s and family shelter is also the home for a Charlotte’s Web terminal, which provides text and graphical interface. In the central bus terminal, one finds a Charlotte’s Web touch-screen terminal available to the general public.

There is also an emphasis on how the library can serve the business population of the area. The central location of the library in the uptown district has helped the library’s expansion and the development of new services. The International Business Library (IBL), which includes electronic and print reference resources, was created in 1994 with backing from area firms, including NationsBank. An outstanding business collection, described in a well-crafted section of the library’s Web page, draws researchers from businesses throughout the area. Because the library is located in the business district, it is able to serve its steadily growing clientele efficiently. The librarians and collections enable businesses to search resources themselves, whether from within their company or at the library. In establishing the IBL, the library looked to the local Chamber of Commerce, the local chapter of International House, and local international businesses to define what the IBL should be and what services it should offer. Business donors have continued to provide funding that sustains the operations.

In the branches, users rely on new technology and their electronic linkages to Charlotte’s Web and the World Wide Web, but they also perceive the branch locations as community centers. The placement and use of branches is another example of the “seamless” library in action. “Unity in essentials; diversity in community” is a guiding principle for the development of branches. It is a testament to the library’s role as a gathering place that bond issues continue to support upgrading and building of branches.

It is unclear exactly how this new information network is affecting the community. As yet, no user surveys have been undertaken to show how the citizens are responding to the services that PLCMC offers. Likewise, in these early months of development, there has been no scientific measurement of the potential or current user base of Charlotte’s Web and the Virtual Library. Although one can observe that the library is a vibrant, busy place and that access to online information is increasing, user surveys and studies will be needed to help forecast future development.