Public Libraries in Virginia in the Age of Click and Brick
by Ann M. Friedman
The public, librarians included, are very comfortable with the historic role of public libraries in this country-and that role is still vital. Gary Strong, Director of Queens Borough Public Library, could have been speaking of all public libraries when he said, "The Queens Library represents a fundamental public good in our democracy. It assures the right, the privilege and the ability of individuals to choose and pursue any direction of thought, study or action they wish. The Library provides the capital necessary for us to understand the past and plan for the future."1
Combine this lofty purpose with a sense of place and personal service and we would all recognize the public library that James Billington praised at the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congress: "The public library system of America is one of the wonders of our country."2 Few librarians in the year 2000, however, would be content to allow this description to stand as the singular definition of public libraries. With the coming of the World Wide Web, the norm for public libraries and the public's expectation of public libraries have changed forever.
Citizens have increasingly experienced Amazon.com and other e-businesses. Amazon claims to be the earth's largest bookstore with a stock of three million titles. This .com has integrated what it owns (300,000 titles in stock which can be shipped in 24 hours), what is available at its supplier (420,000 titles which can be shipped in 24 to 48 hours), and what is available at the publisher (shipped in four to six weeks) to create their three million title collection. The only differentiation they make is the time it takes to deliver the materials.3
Customers can visit this library/bookstore 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Amazon calls you by name on return visits, lets you browse in broad subject areas, provides reviews, notifies you when similar books are published, and suggests titles you might like. Jack Miller of KPMG put it succinctly: "In essence, citizens have assimilated the private sector benchmarks of quality, speed and responsiveness and now demand the same from their government."4 We could easily be more particular-"from their public library."
The Amazon.com phenomenon frequently combines with the common perception of the information available on the World Wide Web's fourteen million web sites: everything you need to know is out there a click away; it is available when you want it; it's published so it must be true.
Engulfed by the extraordinary customer service and scope of Amazon and the public's perception about information on the Web, public libraries concede that they face enormous challenges, but I hear no library director saying, "If we just wait it will (or even should) go away." Access is the first step. As of this spring all 350 public library buildings in Virginia are connected to the Internet for public access. Many public libraries continue to upgrade PCs and networks to meet new demands. This growing access has been brought about by local funds, state aid, federal funding (LSTA, the Library Services and Technology Act), Infopowering (a Library of Virginia technology plan for public libraries funded by the legislature), and the efforts of friends groups.
By bringing the World Wide Web into our libraries and making this information available to our public, we have the capacity in the smallest library in the smallest community to make available what we could never own. April is Shakespeare's birth month. Arlington celebrated by making available a selection of web sites on the Bard. One of the sites (http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/) was a fascinating look at play sets and placement of actors with comments by the director on his choices.
The challenge for public libraries will be finding the staff time and expertise to locate and make available that which is truly wonderful on the Web. This selection of information, combined with coaching and guidance, is the value we add that our public has always come to us for-help in finding information and evaluating that information for their need. However, we have always been the experts on information-and we liked being the experts. Now we find ourselves learning too. This is a difficult role for many librarians. Perhaps we are at a point in our history as a profession where being a knowledgeable student, not the expert, is our most comfortable and important role with our customers.
The search for authoritative WWW information need not be the solitary activity of a single library. In fact, time and limited expertise will demand that it become a shared responsibility of all public libraries in Virginia. The fifteen sites on Shakespeare discovered by Arlington can be seamlessly shared and need not be rediscovered in Roanoke. Partnerships and collaboration continue to be key.
And as Amazon only differentiates their catalog by how long it takes to get the material, public libraries through the WWW can make available access to other library collections which can be borrowed. However, we are a long way from making this borrowing seamless and easy. Seamless and easy access to information and materials 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from any PC with an Internet connection is a must. And of course, the public still wants to be able to ask questions. Electronic reference again need not be only a local concern. As with selecting important sites, the WWW knows no location and collaborative efforts should work well.
Within the next three years a handheld device with a wireless Internet connection will be on sale in the United States for use in areas with antennas and will sell for about $200. Lost? It will give you a map. Need show times? All local theaters will list show times. Waiting for an e-mail message? Check it out while you walk. Feel a need for Shakespeare? No problem. It will always be on. The Internet and the WWW will become ubiquitous, a virtual utility.
The challenges for public libraries will continue whether in these urban areas or in rural areas. Multimedia (voice, data, video) will require extensive bandwidth which will not be available easily or economically in some areas. Learning labs where the public can learn how to find and use electronic information will become common in public libraries. E-books are here, and they are not just Stephen King novels. Libraries will need to define their role in providing them.
Public libraries in the era of click and brick must continue to take on global issues. The Internet and the WWW demand literacy-we must continue to help our children grow into readers. There have been many divides in our history, but the digital divide may be the most difficult to overcome. It involves technical literacy, information literacy, basic literacy, and access issues. However, we cannot stop trying. Eighty percent of all new jobs demand information and technical literacy.
Libraries have reinvented themselves more than once. The library of the future will more than likely be a hybrid of electronic information and books, of an "always on" world and the bricks of our local public buildings where good customer service and high touch (high tech help with a personal touch) have always been our specialty. Our true challenge is to maintain our commitment to global issues of literacy and access while riding and capturing the truly extraordinary wave of information that is encompassing us and inviting us to become the "world's greatest library" in every community.
- Strong, Gary. "Library Service for the New Millennium." (paper presented at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI. September 1999). Available at http://www.queenslibrary.org/~gstrong/UofMich.html.
- "Remarks by James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, National Press Club, Washington D.C., April 14, 2000." News from the Library of Congress. Available at http://www.loc.gov/today/transcripts/000414-npc.html.
- Coffman, Steve. "Building Earth's Largest Library: Driving into the Future." Searcher 7, no. 3 (1999). Available at http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/mar99/coffman.htm.
- Miller, Jack. "Technology, Digital Citizens and e-Government: the Ôe-Invention' Revolution." (paper presented at the World Competitive Cities Congress, Washington DC. May 2000). In World Urban Economic Development in 2000: The Official Business and Technology Briefing for the World Competitive Cities Congress 17-19 May 2000, Washington D.C., ed. Elizabeth Cooper, 22-25.