Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries and Community Networks: Linking Futures Together?

Malabika Das argues public libraries and community networks have a future together.

Public libraries serve their communities by fulfilling seven basic roles, including knowledge archival, the preservation and maintenance of culture, knowledge dissemination, knowledge sharing, information retrieval, education, and social interaction [1]. Each of these roles offers the general public the opportunity to recognize and view libraries as an integral part of a democratic society where access to free information has been (and still is) both expected and demanded. By comparison, community networks also have similar ideals for serving the public. They focus on providing an open place for communication, interaction, and the exchange of information and ideas. Thus together, both public libraries and community networks ultimately strive to serve the needs of the public. This article will examine the relationship between public libraries and community networks and why their futures are potentially linked into becoming one.

The Role of Public Libraries

In the past, public libraries placed a heavy emphasis on providing their clientele with print-based materials. Access to electronic information was limited because it was costly and because libraries did not have the physical equipment to be able to access this information. The growth of the Internet, however, has changed common opinions of how information should be provided to the public. Many governments, educational institutions, an assorted array of non-profit agencies, commercial organizations and numerous others recognize the Internet’s potential for broadcasting information to the masses. Consequently, this has led to many of them quickly 'jumping on the bandwagon' to get their messages across to the public. Such a situation has led to a flood of information being available electronically and has also led to a confusing proliferation of various software tools or programs that allow access to this information.

For the general public, this growth poses a problem. Where do they get the information and, more importantly, how do they get it? In the past, the likelihood was that most people did not have modems and computers to access this information [2]. Now, a greater number of users have direct access to the Internet either from home, school, or from work [3, 4] and are likely to try finding information for themselves [5]. Are these users successfully finding relevant, accurate resources? What types of search strategies are they using and what types of tools are being used to retrieve information? Public libraries are ideally placed to provide guidance on such issues. They can provide their services and their physical locations to facilitate access to the Internet.

Specifically, public libraries can have several roles:

Of course, certain problems exist and must be addressed before public libraries can fully provide a complete offering of electronic services including:

The above discussion describes only some issues that public libraries will have to address as our society continues to integrate technology into our lives, relying more on electronic means to access information.

The Development of Community Networks

Community networks are based on the premise that access to information via electronic means should be a fundamental public right. Traditionally, computer networks have been an elitist enterprise - for researchers, for organisations, and for anyone else who had money. Computer technology was perceived to be expensive and information on networks was thought to be exclusive - meant only for those who had access and reason to view the information. Community networks strive to change this perception. Their goal is to promote literacy in computer technologies and to provide free or low-cost access to this 'exclusive' electronic information. The Morino Institute, for example, has called this phenomenon public access computing while a more descriptive term for community networks is alternatively 'public-access networks.'

The major focus of these community networks is to provide local or community-based information [10, 11]. Most community networks also offer the public the opportunity to explore other features such as electronic mail, discussion groups, public forums or electronic conferences, and access to social service agencies and professionals (e.g., post a question and receive an answer or find a service by looking it up on an electronic directory). Access to the Internet is often an integral part of these networks.

Forging a New Relationship - Libraries and Community Networks

In an attempt to avoid the 'elitist' image and to provide access to those who do not have the necessary equipment, community networks often use public libraries as venues to place terminals. Many of these libraries are already actively involved in providing support to these community networks by answering telephone and e-mail queries. Some libraries are so involved that they are actually responsible for the community network itself by housing the equipment on-site and by providing staff to operate and administer the network.

Tom Grundner, founder of the Free-Net system, has also offered an analogy that links public libraries to the function of community computer networks in the future:

Simply stated, we find ourselves unable to imagine a 21st century in which we do not have community computing systems, just as this century had the free public library. Moreover, we believe that the community computer, as a resource, will have at least as much impact on the next century as the public library had on ours. [12, p.46]

Given that there is already a strong trend for libraries to support community networks, it is only logical to recognize that their futures are potentially linked - especially since some libraries are already offering connection services like traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs), access to electronic mail and online discussion forums (see Appendix). The term 'digital library' also promotes the idea that libraries should be more focused on electronic media than traditional printed materials.

Community networks, by comparison, may also be viewed as information providers; however, their focus emphasizes the electronic delivery of community-specific materials and not worldwide resources. Information delivery is based on the assumption that a local information provider knows what materials his or her users need, creates particular documents and then uses the established community network structure (e.g., document centers or menu headings) to distribute these documents. In some ways, this general description is similar to how public libraries serve their patrons - they know what their users need, create a collection to service their needs, and then place these materials in a structure that is readily accessible to all people.


In summary, community networks and public libraries should examine their similarities and differences and consider the potential for linking their futures together. Why? For the following reasons:

Ultimately, the merging of established ideals for both community networks and public libraries in the realm of electronic information will allow all individuals to be empowered (hopefully) by letting them readily and freely access computer networks and public information resources.


  1. Barker, P. 1994. Electronic libraries - Visions of the future. The Electronic Library, 12 (4), 221-229.
  2. McClure, C. R. 1995. Public access to the Information Superhighway through the nation’s libraries. Public Libraries, 34 (2), 80-84.
  3. The Nua Internet Surveys (1999) estimating how many people are online worldwide are at: http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/index.html
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. 1999. Access Denied. Changes in Computer Ownership and Use: 1984-1997. This report is located at: http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/computer/confpap99.pdf
  5. Lipow, A.G. 1999. "In your face" reference service. Library Journal, 124 (13), p50.
  6. Jordan, J., & Brintle, L. 1993. Coalition for communication: Developing a public communication system. Computers in Libraries, 13 (2), 29-32.
  7. Watkins, C. 1999. Opening the Gates. (grants to public libraries) American Libraries, 30 (9), 11.
  8. Whitlatch, J.B. 1999. Enhancing the Quality of Reference Services for the 21st Century: Part 3. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 38 (3), 233.
  9. Lago, K.N. 1993. The Internet and the public library: Practical and political realities. Computers in Libraries, 13 (9), 65-70.
  10. Schuler, D. 1994. Community networks: Building a new participatory medium. Communication of the ACM, 37 (1), 39-51.
  11. The Community Networking Movement web site is at: http://www.scn.org/ip/commnet/ and additional information about community networks is at: http://www.scn.org/ip/commnet/info.html
  12. Mattison, D. 1994. Librarians and the Free-Net Movement. Computers in Libraries, 14 (5), 46-50.
  13. Walsh, R.T. 1994. The national information infrastructure and the recommendations of the 1991 White House Conference on library and information services. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science


Author Details

 Malabika Das
Supervisor of Online Services
Queens Borough Public Library
Queens, NY

Email: mdas@queenslibrary.org
Web site: www.queenslibrary.org