When I proposed in 1993 to the then National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) a national survey of public library use and access to the Internet, there was some skepticism that public librarians and policy makers needed such a study – despite an earlier 5-6 years of work on libraries and the Internet we had done before 1993. When the data from this first survey were released in 1994 there was considerable interest in its findings – especially data related to the percentage of public libraries (20.9% as reported in 1994) that provided public access to the Internet.
Since that first national survey, sponsorship changed a number of times to different units of the American Library Association, NCLIS, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The national survey evolved into a much larger effort and became the Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS) of which the most recent is the 2011-2012 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study.
The purpose of this blog is NOT to make statistical comparisons related to public library use and access to the Internet between then and now. But rather, it is to offer a couple of perspectives on public libraries and the Internet in terms of past and future themes.
Some perspectives from many years of being involved in the survey and the earlier development of Internet use and access by public librarians include:
• Public libraries may have been slow initially to connect to and use the Internet, but adopt they did. And as they increased their use of the Internet and applications related to it, many innovative services and uses – shared catalogs and resources, interactive video, social media, etc. – have been discovered and implemented which have revolutionized public library “services” and “access” to information.
• This revolution, however, is a continuous tsunami that will require ongoing innovations as broadband, networking, digital services/resources, cloud computing, etc. continues to explode. To some extent these developments appear to be much more challenging and possibly more expensive to implement than those in the early 1990s, when the objective as to simply “get connected” to the Internet.
• The extent to which public librarians have received adequate education in the broad areas of information technology deployment, management, and assessment continues to be problematic. And the extent to which library staff regularly update their knowledge to stay abreast of information technology developments will only become more challenging. Better use of online education, webinars, etc. may help deal with this challenge.
• The degree to which public libraries can continue a balancing act between providing “traditional” library services and digital services is unclear. As a result of the economic stress that began in 2008, the “new normal” of public library funding may require considerably different models in the provision of services and access to resources that are likely to be network-based.
• Public library apps (see August 8 blog post) and the use of social media to support public library services and access to digital information are only in their infancy. As the population grows more familiar with apps and social media (and the demography is in the favor of much more user adoption and use in these areas), public libraries will need to exploit these applications and social media to support library services. Such may be the next BIG challenge for public librarians… but there always will be the next challenge.
Many of the current public library service and information access/delivery issues are quite similar to those in the early 1990s and are likely to continue to be important in the future: literacy, funding, advocacy, etc. But exploiting broadband and the digital environment for the benefit of public library users will be a critical success factor that simply cannot be ignored by any public library.
Planning now, strategically, for exploiting information access/delivery/services with the various information technologies available now and in the future is a given … and one that cannot be ignored by public libraries. Luck and serendipity will have little impact on whether libraries are able to exploit information technologies successfully in the future. Vision, leadership, innovativeness, and planning are more likely the necessary ingredients to move public libraries into the next era of digital services and information access.
Dr. McClure is the President of Information Management Consultant Services, LLC, firstname.lastname@example.org