Rural Public Libraries and the Internet: A Study of Library Personnel and Technological Change
Al Bakri Mohammad
Statement of the Problem: Studies of the effects and changes brought by Internet access in public libraries are relatively recent, since the widespread public use of the Internet itself is a new phenomenon. What research has been conducted on libraries has taken place primarily in urban rather than rural areas, and has largely focused on library patrons rather than staff, or on the costs of equipment and connection. The purpose of this proposed research is to provide a preliminary study and possible theory as to possible effects of Internet provision in rural public libraries, and the response of rural library staff to the introduction of Internet technology. As an instrument of information dissemination, the various components of the Internet have the potential to allow rapid global communication between individuals and between groups. The Internet, as a communications medium, allows the transmission of text, images, and sounds from any compatible computer to another, in almost any language and at almost the speed of light. This unprecedented method of communication has the potential to allow Internet users around the world to exchange ideas and to gain access to extensive databases of information on an almost unlimited number of subjects, without regard to geographic location. This communication, however, is dependent on access to Internet-compatible computer equipment, which may be beyond the economic abilities of many individuals. This potential inequity of access has been the subject of debate both in and outside the United States. Discussion in the U.S. has included not only what information should be available via the Internet, but also what social agencies should be assigned to provide access to the public at large. Public schools and libraries have been identified as logical providers, with legislation currently under consideration which would subsidize the cost of Internet provision by these institutions (Merrill, 1998). While this legislation is controversial and unlikely to be enacted without extensive revision (Ferranti, 1998), there is a strong likelihood that federal subsidies will become available for Internet provision in public libraries in the near future. This will reduce the cost of connection to Internet service providers, significantly decreasing the expense of providing public Internet access. With funding of less importance than previously, there should be a corresponding increase in research centering on use of the technology rather than its cost. Purpose of the Study:
In 1997 it was estimated that 72.3% of public libraries in the United States had Internet connectivity at some level (Bertot and McClure, 1998, p 176). Studies focusing on the implications of this new technology have primarily been directed at metropolitan libraries rather than small libraries serving rural populations. Of those studies evaluating Internet access in rural libraries, most have focused on cost and funding rather than assessing the usefulness of the Internet to library staff, either in their professional lives or in their ability to perform their jobs. The purpose of this proposed research is to determine what impact, if any, Internet provision has on the professional lives and activities of the library staff. Specifically, this study hopes to create a representation of how rural librarians see the new technology, and what changes, if any, it brings to their professional development and performance of library services. Questions: Introducing technological innovation can have a variety of effects on the function of an organization. The possible impact of Internet provision in public libraries is unpredictable, so for the purpose of this study, a list of possible questions which address specific library services and possible professional activities have been identified. While the librarians will be encouraged to add any observations or insights they feel are relevant, the following questions address some basic library functions and behavior of the librarians which may be affected by the introduction of the Internet.
• • • • •
Does the staff feel that Internet provision by the library has an effect on the efficiency of library services, such as interlibrary loan or reference? Does access to the Internet provide any new opportunities or difficulties for the library staff themselves? If so, what and how? Is the technology felt to be helpful, a hindrance, or largely insignificant? If helpful or a nuisance, why? Has there been any change in the communication and interactivity with local educators and school programs? Does Internet access assist them in performing their jobs? If so, how?
Additionally, in the initial interviews with library staff, the researcher will inquire what expectations or attitudes they may have towards the Internet itself, and how they predict it may assist or hinder them in performance of their duties. These questions will be open-ended and the interviewer will encourage respondents to expand upon their answers as they see fit. Some of these questions will include:
• • • •
What is your general impression of the Internet? What information do you believe it contains or does not contain? Are you aware of any professional services which would be available to you via the Internet? If so, can you elaborate? Do you feel that Internet provision will cause any problems for you, other than those related to funding? Do you expect that access to the Internet will be personally beneficial to you? To the library as a whole? Why, or why not?
At the conclusion of the study, these initial expectations will be revisited and compared with the impressions of the staff after several months of actual experience with Internet computers in their library, in hopes of allowing comparison of these questions to serve as "bookends" for the final report. Definitions: For the purpose of this study, librarians and library staff may be used interchangeably, although the head librarian is degreed and her volunteer support staff is not. Internet will refer to specified electronic services; namely, Web pages and Websites, the World Wide Web, search engines, Electronic mail (e-mail), electronic discussion groups (listservs), and USENET. As defined by Microsoft Press� Computer Dictionary (1997), these are:
Webpage simply refers to "a document on the World Wide Web" (Computer Dictionary, 506). Several related Webpages create a Website. A Website is "a group of related...documents and associated files, scripts and databases" (Ibid, 506). These are generally on related subject matter, but may cover any variety of topics. Most sites are navigated from a starting, or "home" page, which is linked to other pages within the Website. Other links may lead to related Websites on the World Wide Web. Websites may include text, images, sounds, or other applications, and may cover any variety of subjects. As its name implies, the World Wide Web refers to the collection of Websites which originate from individual computers around the world. Components of the World Wide Web include all applications associated with individual Websites, such as images, sounds and text. Topics are virtually unlimited, although the ease and speed of creating new Websites ensures that the content of the World Wide Web changes on a daily basis. A search engine is a type of Internet application, accessed from a Website, which allows computer users to search for information on specific subjects by searching "for key words in documents or in a database" (Ibid, 424). Search engines are used to research specific topics by matching words or phrases to titles or content within Websites, USENET or listservs. Electronic mail (e-mail) is "the exchange of text messages and computer files over a communications network" (Ibid, 173). These exchanges are direct communication between computer users, generally from one individual to another, but may also be messages directed from one user to a group or from a group to a single user, as in the case of listservs. A listserv or electronic mailing list refers to an e-mail discussion group, wherein a group of subscribers may communicate via e-mail on a specific topic. This is accomplished by specific software, which allows a user to send a message "to the machine where the mailing list resides, and that machine automatically sends the message to all the addresses on the list" (Ibid, 296). Listservs are generally smaller and more focused than USENET newsgroups, and can facilitate prompt communication between members. Listserv topics are widely varied, with a large number available in areas specific to library work such as interlibrary loan or reference. USENET is "a worldwide network...composed of thousands of newsgroups, each devoted to a particular topic. Users can post messages and read messages from others in these
newsgroups..." (Ibid, 488). There are over 50,000 newsgroups currently available, dedicated to a wide range of topics. Some are professionally oriented, others academic, scientific, or devoted to entertainment. Limitations of the Study: Since this proposed study will focus on one geographically isolated public library in a relatively unpopulated area, the ability to apply its findings across a broad spectrum of rural libraries across the United States will be limited. Rural libraries in the United States possess many common characteristics, but differences in ethnic composition, climate or proximity to large cities and educational centers make each area unique. The study will also not be completely applicable to rural libraries in countries outside the United States, where differing political regimes or legal information policies will affect the provision of information by public agencies. Significance of the Study: Rural public libraries possess unique problems regarding Internet access. Geographic isolation has historically presented difficulties in rural telecommunications; distance creates greater expense in construction of basic telecommunications infrastructure than in more densely populated areas. Installing telephone lines proved cost-prohibitive earlier in this century and required government subsidy to allow basic telephony in rural areas. These costs remain a factor in providing Internet access to rural areas, especially when addressing the installation of fiberoptic cables rather than telephone wires. Rural areas also face the problem of turning to Internet service providers outside of their community, since most small towns do not have the number of providers available in larger areas. When this is the situation, connection to the Internet may involve long-distance telephone charges; a condition which is generally not a problem in urban areas. Of the percentage of unconnected libraries in the United States, the majority are small and rural (Schneider, 1998, p 96). These libraries face problems of obtaining funding for computers and connectivity, when budgets are often already strained. When attempting to justify the expenditure for computers and Internet provision, library personnel may be faced with questions of why Internet access is important to library function. Previous studies have primarily concentrated on equipment and connection costs, filtering and other policy issues, and patterns of patron usage. This study hopes to investigate what changes, if any, in traditional library services and professional development of the staff result from the implementation of public Internet access and how rural librarians view these changes. Literature Review: While Internet access through public libraries has become an increasing topic of study worldwide, relatively little research has centered exclusively on rural librarians. There have, however, been several research projects that included an evaluation of Internet access in rural settings.
In 1995 New York State provided funds to facilitate Internet access to three rural libraries (Garofalo, 1995). This project concentrated on long-distance costs, and presented a "Users Group" method of improving search strategies to minimize time spent online. The report concluded that library users were generally pleased with access, but the report did not specifically address the concerns of the librarians themselves. A similar project in Oregon also focused on cost and equipment issues, but did include the library staff in its assessment (Middleton and Cross, 1998). Among their findings was the statement that "Library staff who were once isolated by geographical distances are now just nanoseconds away from each other via the Internet" (Middleton and Cross, 1998, p 61). The ability to communicate quickly across long distance is a significant issue for rural librarians, since their physical isolation is often a limiting factor in most traditional forms of communications. As with other studies, however, this point was less emphasized than were telecommunications and equipment costs. A similar study of Internet connectivity in Kalona, Iowa also emphasized costs and potential funding sources, with little attention given to the role of electronic information to library services. (Nelson, 1998). While this research is vitally important in assessing the potential costs of providing Internet connectivity to geographically isolated libraries, cost is only one aspect of Internet access. In late 1998, with computer equipment prices dropping and proposed legislation to subsidize long distance costs for public schools and libraries, concerns about cost may be of less importance than when these studies were conducted. A comprehensive study of the Pennsylvania Public Library System in 1996-97 included a large number of rural libraries, as well as those in the larger cities. Acknowledging that rural libraries enjoyed a significantly lower percentage of connectivity nationwide, the OnLine at PA Libraries project sought to connect a majority of Pennsylvania libraries to the Internet, and to evaluate the effects of public access (Bertot and McClure, 1997). This project emphasized usage by library patrons more than staff, but included some analysis of staff reaction to the technology. This project, as well as those cited elsewhere, indicates a relatively high rate of patron satisfaction with information gained through Internet activity, but does not give specific information on how the librarians utilized the technology. A study of Internet provision conducted in Scotland in the Fall of 1996 included a number of rural libraries. While this study, again, focused primarily on library patrons rather than staff, the librarians were surveyed as to what aspects of Internet access were of greatest use to them. Most reported reference as their most common application (Newton, MacLennan and Clark, 1998), but the responses of rural and urban librarians were not distinguished from one another. Instead, this was a broad study of how the Internet is used in public libraries across Scotland, with emphasis on patrons rather than staff. The 1994 Project GAIN (Global Access Information Network) is among the most ambitious studies of rural Internet access. Funds were obtained to purchase computer equipment and to provide connectivity for five rural libraries and one Reservation school library in New York State for a limited period of time. GAIN researchers gathered information on library patrons, cost effectiveness, benefits to the business community and to educational facilities. Among the project�s goals were to ascertain the value of networked information to rural libraries, and to identify factors necessary to maintaining a library network. Professional development of the participating librarians was addressed, and findings indicated that the librarians improved their
success rate in answering reference questions, and decreased the number of referrals to larger libraries (McClure, Babcock, Nelson, Polly and Kankus, 1994). This information is significant inasmuch as most rural libraries lack the resources of their urban counterparts; a basic assumption in advocating Internet connections for rural branches is that it will facilitate access to a wider information base. This review is not a comprehensive account of all the studies which have been conducted on the subject of Internet service in public libraries. It is, however, an indication of how little research has focused exclusively on rural libraries serving small populations, and how few studies have been centered on patterns of Internet use by the library staff themselves. Procedures for the Study: This study will incorporate both qualitative and quantitative methods. The primary technique will be Case Study, with an emphasis on the personal observations of the head librarian and her staff, and will include some measurement and statistical analysis of reference and interlibrary loan services. The focus will be on interviews with and reports by the library staff several months before and several months after Internet-ready computers are installed in the library, and their impressions of their usefulness to the library staff. Case Study: (Hypothetical) A small library in West Texas, near the Texas-Mexico border, was chosen as the subject for this study. It is not yet connected to the Internet, but has received a grant from the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board (TIF), a Texas state agency which, among its other goals, is dedicated to facilitating Internet access in rural schools and libraries. This grant will allow the purchase of computer equipment and telephone connectivity for the library beginning next year. The library serves a community of approximately 5,000, most of whom live outside the township. The area is geographically relatively isolated, with the next town almost 40 miles away, and is approximately 180 miles from El Paso, the largest city in proximity. The primary economic activity is cattle ranching, and the area has a relatively low percentage of private Internet access. The library itself is administered by one full-time MLS librarian with a support staff of four part-time volunteers. This site has been selected since it serves as the primary information resource for its community, and is the most likely source of public Internet access. The study will ideally begin several months before the library acquires Internet-ready computers and connectivity. A contract will be negotiated with all members of the staff, which will expressly stipulate that the final written report of the study must be approved by all involved parties prior to publication of this research. This contract will ensure that the report will not reflect unfavorably on the library or its community, and aims to facilitate an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the researcher and library staff from the outset of the study. The library staff will be asked to provide initial observations on their own familiarity with the Internet and its components, and any training that is provided to them. Reports will be requested
concerning what programs, if any, are implemented to increase community awareness of the library�s Internet access. If any formal training sessions are scheduled to assist patrons in gaining familiarity with the equipment and its use, outlines of the curriculum and frequency of such sessions will be requested. In addition to gathering information about the library staff and their familiarity with the Internet, the researcher will also gather information about the town and its surrounding area. This will include demographic information about the citizens, the history of the area, and any other data which will assist in constructing a holistic "portrait" of the library and the community it serves. This information may be gained from print sources, interviews with local citizens and educational personnel, local archives, or other sources which may prove useful. In the four to six months following the library�s connection to the Internet, the study will focus on its usefulness to library staff. The librarians will be asked to report on their involvement with Internet applications. Most questions will be open-ended, and are designed to allow narrative, naturalistic responses rather than yes or no answers. Specific questions addressing use by the library staff will include:
• • •
Does the staff subscribe to or make use of any library-oriented listservs or USENET newsgroups such as those specifically relating to reference or interlibrary loan? If so, does the staff feel that these groups are generally useful? In what way? Is communication to other libraries and services, such as booksellers, via e-mail felt to be more or less efficient than via telephone or mail? Why? Does the staff feel that Internet connection allows them greater participation in workshops, discussions, or other aspects of the Library Science field which might otherwise be limited by geographic isolation or budget limitations? Is any form of information sharing, such as access to online databases at the University of Texas, available to the library via the Internet? If so, does the staff find this useful? What, if any, plans do the librarians have to create a Website for their library or their community? If a Website is planned or under construction, how do the librarians envision it? Will it focus primarily on the library itself, or include information about the community as well? If "acceptable use" policies or filtering used by the library, does enforcement present any significant problem to the staff? Does the staff notice any pattern of Internet use by specific patron groups, such as young adults? What is the staff�s overall impression of community attitude toward the library�s provision of Internet access?
These questions do not comprehensively address all aspects of library function; they are intended to touch on various services and possible professional uses for Internet access by the librarians. The library staff will be encouraged to add to this list, and contribute any observations they feel are important, and elaborate on any specific questions or points they may feel are important. At the conclusion of the study, the researcher will conduct final interviews with each staff member. The librarians will be asked to assess their overall impressions of how Internet
provision has been integrated with the functions of the library, and whether they feel that the technology has been of use to them. As the data is analyzed and distilled into the final stages of this research, the library staff will be given access to all reports. Publication will not take place without the written approval of all study participants, per the contract negotiated at the outset of the research. Quantitative methods: In the three or four months prior to the installation of Internet equipment, the library staff will be asked to keep records of specific library services. These will include: the number of reference questions answered weekly and the nature of these questions, the number and type of interlibrary loan materials (e.g. books, journals), and circulation of reference materials. Additional information concerning the length of time to send or receive loan materials and to research reference questions will also be requested. Since most of this information is already being gathered for use by the Texas State Library, it is hoped that no additional burden will be imposed on the library staff. The staff will be asked to continue maintaining these records following the installation of Internet-ready computers and software. In addition, they will be asked to provide information specific to the Internet. Questions will include:
• • • • • • •
What number of reference questions were answered by the staff using the World Wide Web, USENET, listservs or e-mail as primary research sources? Has there been an increase or decrease in the number of research questions asked of the staff? Has there been a change in the number of research questions which are referred to other agencies for answer, or which may be answered by the staff? Has there been any change in the speed of interlibrary loans? Has there been an increase or decrease in the number of items requested through interlibrary loan? Has there been an increase or decrease in the number of items provided to other libraries via loan? Has there been an increase or decrease in the number of items in the general collection being circulated which may not be attributable to seasonal influences such as school assignments? Approximately how much time per week (hours) is spent in assisting or instructing patrons with use of Internet equipment? How often, if at all, is maintenance or repair required for the physical equipment? Is equipment unavailable for periods of time exceeding 24 hours? What is the approximate length of time from reporting an equipment problem to time of repair?
It is hoped that data concerning reference and interlibrary loan will be available from the previous year, to allow comparison not only before and after installation of Internet-ready computers, but to also allow for other factors affecting library services. These include time of year, proximity to state or national elections, and whether area schools are in session or approaching final examinations.
Role of Researcher: The role of the researcher in this study is to collect and evaluate data provided by the library staff. The purpose of the study is to determine what effects, positive or negative, Internet provision has on the efficiency of the library�s services. The researcher will analyze and prepare statistical data on services such as numbers of research questions answered via electronic means. The primary focus of the report, however, will be on allowing the reports of the library staff to describe the effects of Internet access. Analysis of their observations will form the majority of the final report. The researcher will maintain contact with participants throughout the study, but will not be physically present for most of the duration of the study. Data Collection and Analysis: This study is constructed to offer a minimal burden to the participants. Most information will be collected in the form of personal interviews with library staff. These will be conducted at regular intervals over six to eight months, before and after Internet access is established. Additionally, brief reports from the library staff will be kept in journal form, and forwarded to the researcher at approximately one-month intervals. These journal entries will not be confined to any particular subject; rather, they are intended to allow the study participants to note any impressions, problems, unexpected situations or other observations regarding their experiences with the Internet. If possible, interviews with area teachers will also be conducted to gain their observations on whether Internet provision in the library has been beneficial to the schools. Where applicable, statistical analysis of changes in services such as reference and interlibrary loans will be conducted with appropriate software, and integrated into the final report. In a study of this type, analysis of the collected data is necessarily subjective. The aim of the research is to allow the reports of the study participants to construct the final report, subject to interpretation by the researcher. Analysis of interviews and journal entries will therefore focus on searching for weighted words which imply judgment on the part of the participants. These may include terms such as "helpful," "problem," "useful" or "not useful," "discover," or similar phrases which might indicate feelings or emotions connected with Internet use. In addition, the interview transcripts and journals will be searched for specific instances where the librarians may have found Internet applications of personal use. These might include participation in listservs or USENET discussion groups, communications with colleagues via e-mail, or access to professional conferences via Internet-based programs. Since these situations are unique to Internet use they would be of particular interest, as this research includes the professional development of library staff. After analyzing the reports and identifying "loaded" words, a simple matrix will be constructed for each of the study participants. Words and phrases will be classified as "positive," "negative," or "indifferent" and entered accordingly. These matrices will be included in preliminary reports for each staff member, and will be correlated with transcripts of noteworthy experiences, problems or accounts. While a report of this kind will not be limited to classifying staff experience with the Internet as exclusively "good" or "bad," the coding will assist in creating an overall impression of how Internet provision has affected the staff. Additionally, statistical analyses of measured changes in some library services such as reference or interlibrary loan will
be incorporated into the report and matched with staff reports concerning these services. These analyses will be compared with staff impressions, to examine whether there is any significant difference between them. At the conclusion of the report, the first and last staff interviews will be compared, contrasting their initial expectations of the Internet with their actual experiences and feelings after several months of connectivity. This section will, as with the majority of the report, be primarily narrative in form and include transcripts of actual quotes by staff members. Comparisons will be made of their initial expectations, actual experiences, and concluding remarks as to the usefulness of the service to fulfillment of library duties, occurrence of problems, and applications to personal and professional development. Combined with analyses of the staff�s ongoing impressions of the Internet and its applications and the statistical data concerning specific services, it is hoped that this report will create a potential theory of what effects, if any, the introduction of Internet provision may have on libraries of this type. As agreed in the initial contract between the researcher and the library, the final report will be forwarded to the staff for their approval prior to publication, both to fulfill the terms of the contract and to minimize the possibility of bias in analysis and reporting by the researcher. Contribution to the Field: The Internet is a potentially valuable, if currently chaotic, tool for organizing and providing information to a global audience. Its inclusion in library services is increasing, especially in previously unconnected rural areas. To date, studies in both the United States and Europe which attempt to evaluate the impact of Internet provision in the public library setting have not addressed issues exclusive to rural or geographically isolated libraries, or the concerns of the staff of these libraries. The emphasis of most research has also largely centered on evaluation of patrons� use and satisfaction, with less attention given to the effects of Internet provision on librarians and library staff. This study aims to provide a preliminary understanding of how connection to an International medium may affect the ability of small community libraries to provide improved service to their patrons, and to aid in the professional development of the library staff themselves. Works Cited
Bertot, John Carlo and McClure, Charles R. (1997, December). Impacts of public access to the Internet through Pennsylvania Public Libraries. Information Technology & Libraries, 16(4), 151164. Bertot, John Carlo and McClure, Charles R. (1998, May/June). Measuring electronic services in public libraries: Issues and recommendations. Public Libraries, 37(3), 176-80.
Ferranti, Marc. (1998, June 22). FCC decides to scale back funding for �e-rate� telecom initiative. Infoworld, 20(25), 50. Garofalo, Denise A. (1995, March). Rural public libraries� use of the Internet: assistance or aggravation? Computers in Libraries, 15(3), 61-4. McClure, Charles R., Babcock, Waldo C., Nelson, Karen A., Polly, Jean Armour, and Kankus, Stephen R. (1994). The Project GAIN Report: Connecting rural libraries to the Internet. [Online]. Available: gopher://nysernet.org; Special Collections: Libraries; Project GAIN: Rural Libraries Computer Dictionary (Third Edition). (1997). Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press. Merrill, Kevin. (1998, May 18). Computer Reseller News, 789, 113-4. Middleton, Cheryl, and Cross, Judy. Connecting rural Oregon libraries to the Internet; or, "Will it fit in my car?" (1998, January/February). Public Libraries, 37(1), 58-61. Nelson, Kristina L. A challenge: technology and the Kalona Public Library. (1998). Rural Libraries, 18(1), 7-22. Newton, Robert, MacLennan, Alan and Clark, J.D. Public libraries on the Internet. (1998, January/February). Public Library Journal, 13(1), 2-7. Schneider, Karen G. (1998, May). Internet Librarian: Notes from a Forty-Percenter, American Libraries, 96. Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board [On-line]. Available: http://www.tifb.state.tx.us/masterplan/masterpln-table.htm