Public libraries tap Web applications to open a new chapter
- By Trudy Walsh
- Feb 29, 2008
Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, was flying home to Austin, Texas, from a conference in Philadelphia in January. During the flight she heard that familiar ping, and an announcer said, 'Turn off your electronic equipment.'
Then she heard another sound: a loud rustle as people pulled out their paper books to read.
'Nothing replaces books,' she said.
Even in the age of the Internet, libraries still remain a vital place, Roy said. According to an annual study by Florida State University, 'Public Libraries and the Internet 2007' (GCN.com/956), library use continues to increase.
But they're not the same as they used to be. Information technology has infiltrated the quietest book nook in the humblest U.S. public library. In addition to the Internet, libraries now offer computer games, digitized books and online help-desk chats with librarians.
'The library is a trusted place,' Roy said, 'a trusted place where you don't have to pay hundreds of dollars to get Internet assistance.'
More than 99 percent of U.S. public libraries offer public access to computers. The FSU study pointed to two main challenges public libraries face: refreshing the equipment and meeting the demand.
Officials from every library surveyed in the FSU study said there was at least one time during the day when they couldn't meet the demand for Internet use, and people had to wait.
'If people don't have the Internet at home, work or school, the library fills in that gap, leveling the digital divide,' Roy said. Government service
The public library also is a bridge to e-government, Roy said. 'Go to a library in April and see the line of people waiting to print out tax forms,' she said.
One of a public library's main purposes is to create a safe, supportive environment for young readers. Today's libraries will not shun one of young people's favorite activities: computer games. The Austin Public Library, for example, holds regular Wii tournaments. A recent ALA study on libraries and gaming showed that if someone comes to the library to use computer game services, there's a 75 percent chance the person will return to the library for other services.
Once only an idea talked about, digitized books are a reality. NetLibrary, for example, offers more than 160,000 titles electronically to public and academic libraries. It's a division of the Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit organization with the goal of furthering access to the world's information and reducing costs. More than 60,000 libraries in 112 countries use OCLC.
The New York Public Library is working with Google to digitize its collection of more than 50.6 million items using Google Book Search (books.google.com). The library began working with Google to scan its collection in 2005, said Jodi Healy, library partner manager at Google Book Search, and is still working on 'digitizing their books at a steady pace.'
Users can use Google Book Search to search for books from all of Google's partner libraries, which include libraries at Oxford, Stanford, Columbia and Cornell universities.
If the book is out of copyright, Google Book Search allows access to the whole book. If the book still has a copyright, then the user sees basic background data, such as title and author, two or three short quotations of text and which library it is in. The site also offers links to online bookstores that carry the book. Reeling it in
A search in Google Book Search for 'Moby Dick' retrieved the whole book, including pictures, available for free download. The original was scanned from the New York Public Library Jan. 3, 2007. It also lists popular passages and a map that shows locations mentioned in the book, which span the globe from Massachusetts to Perth, Australia.
Google Book Search also offers free limited views, which show about 20 percent of a book.
Users can click through to the publisher's Web site or a bookseller to buy it, or they can find it in a library, Healy said.
But paper books aren't going away. Roy, who teaches graduate classes at the University of Texas at Austin, said that even though the textbooks she assigned were available electronically, her students still wanted paper copies.
Michelle Boule, former social sciences librar-ian at the University of Houston, is a proponent of what could best be described as Library 2.0 ' using instant messaging, chat software, blogs and other new technologies to bring the library closer to patrons. Boule, whose title is 'geek librarian' on her business cards, runs a blog on library and technology issues. The Houston university offers a live chat window for patrons through a Web-based tool called Meebo, a third-party instantmessaging client that lets users sign in to MSN Messenger, Yahoo, AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk all at the same time.
The benefit for libraries is that no matter what kind of instant-messaging service library patrons have, they will have an option to communicate with the library, Boule said. And because Meebo is Web-based, there's no download required, which is useful for people who access the site from places that have strict computer policies or firewalls.
The university also uses Meebo Me, a widget that creates a chat box that can be embedded on any Web page. It shows when the library staff is signed in and ready to answer a user's question, and it indicates when staff members are off-line.
'Librarians are in the business of helping people find things,' Boule said. 'The Internet makes this job both harder and easier.' The Internet makes searching for information so much easier 'than in the past when you had to hunt down huge indexes of information in print,' she said.
But searching is also harder because the amount of information is overwhelming. What's not on the Net
'People often think that everything they need to know is on the Internet, and so they are slow to ask for help from libraries and librarians,' Boule said. 'Unfortunately, everything is not on the Internet.' Libraries offer thousands of subscription services with content that's not available on the Internet, a wealth of information to which librarians can guide people. 'All they have to do is ask,' she said.
The Internet has made library officials rethink their services and priorities, said Joe Swatski, reference librarian at Purchase College, State University of New York. 'We, for example, have made concentrated efforts to be better trained with our students' online habits of communication and research,' he said. The school library now has a presence on Facebook and MySpace.
Purchase uses Docutek VRLplus for its Ask a Librarian service. The Web-based tool lets reference librarians chat with patrons online and guide them through Web sites and online resources. Docutek VRLplus features cobrowsing, which enables the librarian and patron to share the same Web pages, including online databases and sites that require authentication. The librarian can save transcripts of the chat and send them to the library patron. VRLplus also can be hosted on one of Docutek's secure servers located in Silicon Valley.
'Our electronic resources are everywhere,' Swatski said. 'You don't need the building.'
Ohio's Cuyahoga County Public Library still has brick-and-mortar buildings in 28 branches, but it is streamlining its operations. The library has three computer technicians for a staff of 1,000 employees. 'It was a lot of ground to cover,' said Mark Dober, the library's IT director.
The library adopted Citrix Presentation Server so library staff could access desktop applications from any browser-equipped computer.
'Staff [members] didn't have to carry their laptop [PCs] around with them but they still have access to their files,' Dober said. 'If we found a problem with a PC, we could swap it out easily. It enabled us to maintain a very lean staff.'
Dober didn't offer exact figures but said the Citrix tools had saved the county tens of thousands of dollars.
The Ohio county library is also testing wireless e-book readers, including Kindle from Amazon and the Sony Reader, which Dober liked. But 'none of them are perfect,' he said.
Regardless of any technology breakthrough ahead, Boule said libraries will continue to do what they have always done best: 'Connect people with the information they need, in the format that suits them best, whether it's a good book in print or an eBook for your iPod.'