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VITAL services? Evaluating IT access in Public Libraries

Project officer Juliet Eve discusses the value and impact of end-user IT services in public libraries.

Since the publication of the hugely influential New Library: the People’s Network, [1] and the follow-up document detailing the plans for rolling out the network, Building the New Library Network, [2] we have seen a whole range of government policy documents and initiatives stressing the importance of the role of the public library in the developing “information society” [3].

Public libraries are increasingly being recognised and heralded as ideal local delivery points for a range of national programmes addressing lifelong learning, access to IT skills and services and the delivery of government services. Libraries are also being championed as a means of tackling social exclusion, providing access to IT services for disadvantaged communities, and acting as “street corner universities”.

The government response to New Library itself has also been promising, with £70 million pledged over four years as a basis for the implementation of the network, which will be augmented by local authority and private sector investment [4]. This, combined with National Lottery funding, from which £20 million has been made available for basic training in IT skills for all public library staff, represents a significant commitment towards projects in public libraries which support these policies. The DCMS/Wolfson Public Libraries Challenge Fund, now in its third year, has also provided an unprecedented boost to the development of IT services in many public libraries around the country.

The library and information community itself has responded enthusiastically and imaginatively to the trend towards greater IT provision and rallied around the vision set out in New Library. Of course, many library authorities have been developing IT services for years, on their own, or, commonly, in partnership with other organisations or business, often local colleges, and sometimes with the support of other external funding sources such as Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) or European funding. Despite this, provision of IT services remains patchy, and the extent and quality of services varies enormously between authorities. Some, for example, are able to offer extensive access to PCs, CD-Rom networks and fast Internet access, and have begun to move towards the development of content and services, provided via the Internet. Several authorities, for example, provide access to library catalogues online (e.g. Cambridgeshire), whilst others enable users to have private e-mail addresses via the library server, and have also begun to offer access to community services in locations outside the library (e.g. Croydon). In other areas, users (and indeed staff) have access to a limited number of terminals, providing, for example, dial-up access to the Internet, or have no access to IT facilities at all.


Evaluation of library services in general has increased over the years, with mandatory exercises such as the Audit Commission, the preparation of statistics for annual library plans, and CIPFA (The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) returns, and some qualitative exercises addressing specific areas of library services by individual authorities. Chris Batt’s regular publication, Information Technology in Public Libraries [5] provides statistical information on IT services, and a certain amount of analysis of developments, but little qualitative work has been done on the benefits of access to IT facilities, for individuals or communities One-off projects, such as the Croydon Online Research Project, which investigated the value for the local community of Croydon Online, a community website run and based in the public library, indicate that evaluation is becoming an important issue. However, nationally, no programme for measuring the impact of services exists, and as yet, the CIPFA questionnaires do not contain questions about IT usage. As libraries increasingly move beyond just providing access to IT facilities and begin to develop their own content, measurement and value of electronic services will become increasingly important; as indicated by the Society of Chief Librarians, “their value and cost-effectiveness need to be demonstrated” [6].

The VITAL project

CERLIM, the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management, based at Manchester Metropolitan University, has won funding from the research department of the Library and Information Commission to carry out research in this area. The project is called VITAL (Value and Impact of IT Access in Libraries), and will run until September 2000.

The project is designed to develop and test measures of the value and impact of end-user IT services, and disseminate this knowledge to policy makers and others. These measures will be developed within the context of national and international work on performance measurement and service quality as well as the Audit Commission’s framework for public library performance indicators and the work of CIPFA. The aims of the project are:

The project will draw on a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Quantitative techniques will include transaction logging, to provide statistics on number of sessions etc., together with service type data, such as which application has been used. Management data will be collated to provide information on total usage, costs, market penetration etc.. One of the objectives of the project is to establish standard methodologies for wide use, to provide useful comparative data. Qualitative methods will include content analysis of documentary evidence for placing the research in its national and international context; the use of surveys and semi-structured interviews with both users and non-users, with an emphasis on exploring the issues of benefits of access to IT based services.

Phase one

The first stage of the project has developed a draft methodology “workbook”, which is now being implemented by the three library authorities project partners: Birmingham, Cheshire, and Cumbria. The workbook consists of basic introductory information about the research process, more detailed information about the approaches to be piloted, as well as prototype questionnaires and interview guidelines. Each library authority has recruited a part-time researcher for six months to pilot the methodology. The researchers are currently compiling a library profile, consisting of background information such as relevant policy documents relating to IT developments, number of service points, and statistical information on IT usage. They have also begun to survey non-users, and will be surveying existing library users during September 1999. Work has also begun on interviewing existing IT users, which will be the main focus of analysing the impact and benefits of library access to these services.

This pilot stage of the project will run until December 1999, after which the analysis of the findings will enable the refinement of the methodologies, which will then be used to carry out fieldwork across a wide range of public access points, including those public libraries who have developed services as a result of DCMS/Wolfson funding.

For those wishing to receive regular updates on the project, and contribute to discussion of issues relating to value and impact of IT services, a discussion list has been set up. To join this list, send a message to: majordomo@mmu.ac.uk, with with the following as the body of the message: “subscribe vital”.


[1]Library and Information Commission, (1997). New Library: The People’s Network.

Available from: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/lic/newlibrary [August 23rd 1999].

[2] Library and Information Commission, (1998). Building the New Library Network.
Available from: http://www.lic.gov.uk/publications/policyreports/building/index.html [August 23rd 1999].

[3] See, for example, the White Paper, The Learning Age : a new renaissance for a new Britain (Cm 3790) London: The Stationery Office, 1998, available from:
http://www.dfee.gov.uk/post16/index.htm [August 27th 1999]

Connecting the Learning Society: National Grid for Learning, Department for Education & Employment, 1997, available from: http://www.dfee.gov.uk/grid/challenge/index.htm [August 27th 1999]

[4] Department for Culture, Media & Sport (1998), “New Library: The People’s Network”: The Government’s Response (Cm 3887). London: The Stationery Office.
Available from: http://www.culture.gov.uk/NEW-LIBRARY.HTM [August 23rd 1999].

[5] Batt, C. (1998), Information Technology in Public Libraries. 6th ed. London: Library Association Publishing.

[6] Public Libraries Research Group of the Society of Chief Librarians (1998), “Public Libraries Strategic Research: Strategic Research Issues for Public Libraries – 1997”, Library & Information Research News, 22 (70), pp.14-22.

Author details

Juliet Eve
Research Fellow
CERLIM (The Centre for Research in Library and Information Management)
Manchester Metropolitan University
Rosamond Street West
off Oxford Road
Manchester M15 6LL
0161 247 6142


Article Title: “VITAL services? Evaluating IT access in public libraries”
Author: Juliet Eve
Publication Date: 23-Sep-1999
Publication: Ariadne Issue 21
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue21/public-libraries/