Volume 28, Number 3, Fall 2006

Becoming Successfully Networked Public Libraries

As part of the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study conducted by Florida State University’s Information Use Management and Policy Institute and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the ALA Office of Information Technology Policy, researchers visited public libraries in five states in an effort to identify the attributes of Successfully Networked Public Libraries (SNPLs) and the issues they face. Networked services were defined broadly to include: public access computing; Internet; networks; telecommunications; integrated library systems; and other related electronic resources, services, and support. This effort suggests a roadmap for public libraries to use when assessing their networked services and planning for the future.

What Is an SNPL?

In 2006, an SNPL provides high quality library services as well as networked services. Library managers may find it helpful to focus on three network service areas: networked services offered within the library; the library’s virtual branch, meaning Web-based external services; and the infrastructure needed to support both. In brief, factors describing SNPLs in 2006 include:
  • Networked services within the library
    • SNPLs offer public access copiers, fax machines, printers, scanners, public access computing workstations, and may lend a variety of equipment including digital cameras, GPS equipment, iPods, MP3 players, and even telescopes. Often, SNPLs provide the first introduction to new information technology (IT) and serve as the access point of first and last resort for their communities and visitors.
    • SNPLs offer an integrated library system (ILS) including an online public access catalog (OPAC) of library materials.
  • Library’s virtual branch
    • SNPLs view their website as an additional branch, or a virtual branch.
    • They seek to offer the same or equivalent services to those offered within the library in addition to those only available virtually.
    • Provision of virtual branch management, staff, resources, and budget equivalent to a traditional branch may not yet be in place.
    • Virtual branch evaluation is done, but data are not integrated with physical branch results.
  • Network infrastructure
    • SNPLs have addressed the IT staff issue -- having dedicated IT staff may make certain types of networked library services possible and can save the library money. But for some, like moving from dial-up to broadband, the difference must be experienced before being believed.
    • They conduct extensive, continuous, formal and informal network service planning.
    • SNPLs have enough bandwidth and offer or plan to offer wireless connectivity, but anticipate future need for additional bandwidth as video, music, and large file transfers become more common.
    • They have enough public workstations but know they cannot meet peak demand.
    • They provide enough IT (including software) and training so that all staff members are proficient at their jobs.
    • SNPLs have built or are considering building facilities better tailored to the networked environment.
    • SNPLs recognize and capitalize on the potential of the Internet as a shared information infrastructure where hardware, software, resources, and services and staff expertise may be shared.
SNPLs engage in a wide range of advocacy strategies for continued public library and networked services support. The following is a summary of SNPL advocacy efforts:
  • Proactive. A distinguishing characteristic of all the SNPLs visited when compared to other public libraries is their proactive approach. SNPLs proactively partner with local and state governments and non-profits for mutual benefit. SNPLs actively look for opportunities to show what the library is already doing to address local, state, and regional issues, and actively seek partners and funding to address these issues. SNPLS do not wait to be invited to the table.
  • Opportunistic. SNPL managers are masters at perceiving an opportunity to make the library’s worth visible to others and to obtain funding or support, particularly when the source doesn’t mention libraries but doesn’t exclude them either. SNPL managers all recognize that financial support is only one of many types of support that successful libraries need.
  • Prepared. SNPLs are often, but not always, better prepared than peer government agencies to make their potential contribution known and to make their funding case. Part of the preparation includes assembling relevant evidence and arguments based on the evidence.
  • Relationships. SNPL managers have a year-round positive relationship with elected and appointed officials and government agency and non-profit leaders as well as community opinion makers. SNPL managers are not meeting strangers when they go to the annual library budget hearing.

In Search of Sustainable Support

What types of support do SNPLs need? Have public libraries found ways to generate new, sustaining revenue due to their success in providing networked services to their communities? The research revealed several interesting approaches to obtain sustainable support:
  • Stable funding is key. Stability is a prerequisite to becoming an SNPL because it enables realistic multi-year planning.
  • SNPLs conduct continuous, semi-systematic environmental scans seeking to match need, information technology, and funding opportunity.
  • Most SNPLs are transitioning to increased local support of networked services.
  • Support for networked services is not limited to money — shared hardware, resources, staff and staff training, and other benefits are equally important.
H3>Next Steps SNPLs recognize and celebrate the significant achievement of connecting most public libraries in the United States to the Internet. Many SNPLs believe it is now time to focus attention on two areas:
  • Network public library brand. Develop a convenient, easy-to-use collection of content, resources, and services that the public highly values, that most every public library offers, and that the public recognizes as coming from public libraries. One element of such a public library brand now in place is that the public knows to look for a public library if Internet access is needed. One element not in place is convenient, easy-to-access public library content. Existing potential elements of public library branded content such as OPACS and subscription databases and too cumbersome and time consuming when compared to free, commercial equivalents such as Google.
  • Network efficiencies. SNPLs recognize the potential to improve public library efficiency using a network and extending a range of public access computing services; for example, the rapid development of virtual reference services. But the use of networks is still new with many unanswered questions. Will local public library users access remotely delivered services? How will content, resources, and services be jointly developed, coordinated, funded, and evaluated?
The complete study, Becoming Successfully Networked Public Libraries: A Qualitative Report , detailing findings and issues, will be available in August 2006.