County library's open-door ethic thrives on Web

County library's open-door ethic thrives on Web

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

FYI, a division of the Los Angeles County Public Library, is following the library's ethic in providing information: It gives most research services to government agencies for free, although it does charge a fee to business customers.


The Los Angeles County Public Library's FYI program offers free research services to government users.


FYI's staff provides research and information services to 57 city governments in the county. Services range from finding an absentee landlord's property records in West Covina to doing an information search on a criminal suspect for police in Commerce, a town of about 12,400.

Since July, the service has been operating through its Web site, at fyi.co.la.ca.us, using Lotus Domino R5; routers and firewalls from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.; the skills of professional librarians and researchers in the county library system; and a network of researchers that includes the universities of Washington, Illinois and Michigan.

FYI has been in business since 1989, said Steve Coffman, director of the program. It started as a simple research and document delivery service.

'But then we found out there were a lot of common questions. People kept asking for the same kind of information over and over again,' he said. So they found a way to streamline these queries into prepackaged products, such as property records or demographic information documents.

The early days

During the Web's Mesozoic era, around 1995 or so, Coffman and his team put up a site that listed available products and services. The site generated about 10 to 15 inquiries a day, 'which was a lot back then,' he said.

Now FYI has a full-featured Web site built on Lotus' Domino R5 platform. Business users can submit credit-card information to the site, which uses the Secure Sockets Layer protocol. The site's content comes from 50 to 60 data providers, including Reed-Elsevier's Lexis-Nexis.

Coffman gave an example of how to use the FYI service.

Say a small company was researching the dog food market. The company would initiate an inquiry at the site by filling out a form and describing itself to the FYI staff. FYI then would assign the research order to one of its research partners, in this case the University of Washington.

University researchers would contact the client and begin the research. When finished, they would ship the order to the client and inform FYI, which then would charge the fee to the client's credit card.

FYI is planning to add more self-help features, Coffman said. 'We'd like to get the customers to do some of the research themselves.'

Agile data

Most of the information is delivered in Adobe Acrobat format, said James Hersey, account manager for Cisco Systems.

To ensure security, the site uses a redundant configuration of Cisco's PIX network firewalls, which can support 64,000 simultaneous connections.'The site's security architecture also includes Cisco Secure Servers for authenticating users, and Cisco routers.

This was the county's first fee-for-service site, Hersey said. FYI wanted to provide a secure connection that still offered easily accessible information, he said.

From hindsight

The FYI team achieved its goal of developing a platform that would move its business process to the Web, Coffman said. But he said that if he had it to do over, he would do some things differently.

The FYI site has the basic functionality it needs, Coffman said, but it's lacking a few elements.

For example, FYI doesn't have a customer database. 'It's not like Amazon.com, where they know all about you when you log on,' he said.

Coffman's advice to other organizations trying to set up a similar site is to test some of the off-the-shelf products available before deciding on the custom-designed route.

'You can get some good off-the-shelf stuff instead of having to reinvent the wheel,' he said.

Coffman said the driving force behind FYI's enterprise site was to move the public library's free access to information onto the Internet.

'There's tons of business information sites out there, but the motive for all those sites is to generate a profit,' he said.

'But if I can give information to somebody for free, I will,' Coffman said. 'If I can't give it to them for free, I'll give them the best quality at the least expensive prices I can get.'

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