Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries: Lights Out and Silver Boots on

Sarah Ormes with her predictions for the future of Public Libraries and the Internet.

After five and a half years at UKOLN I’m leaving. I’m having a small career break and will be indulging myself in some lie-ins, a bit of travel and a chance to find out just who are all those people wandering around the shops between 9 am and 5.30 pm, Monday to Friday. This then is my final Ariadne column and it’s a good opportunity to review the last five years and look forward to what the next five will bring.

My first day at UKOLN was a very dark experience - not metaphorically but physically. A power failure had plunged the mainly windowless University Library, where UKOLN is based, into near darkness. A security guard with a torch had to physically lead me through the building to my new office which thankfully had a window. I couldn’t help feeling at the time that it was an omen - but what kind? Was this job a mistake? Was I entering a dark period of my life? Or was it a symbolic journey - the darkened stacks representing libraries’ paper based past and the bright UKOLN offices symbolising their electronic future? Or was it perhaps just a sign that the library refurbishment taking place wasn’t going very well?

At that time in 1995 public libraries were just beginning to explore what the Internet had to offer them. One of first pieces of work I did was a survey for the then newly created Library and Information Commission about the level of Internet connectivity in public libraries [1]. The survey revealed a depressing picture - less than 3% of public library service points had access to the Internet and less than 1% were providing public Internet access. Most public librarians didn’t have e-mail addresses (I was the main user of the office fax), had never used the Internet and if access was available it was via a slow dial-up connection on the system librarian’s PC. This picture of low connectivity was in stark contrast to the academic community where campuses had high-speed access via JANET, even students had e-mail addresses and academic libraries were merging with computer services so to be able provide more electronic services.

For many public librarians at this time developing Internet services seemed an impossible challenge. The early nineties had not been a good time for public libraries. There had been cuts, more cuts and yet more cuts. Services were struggling, book-funds had been slashed and staff were under-resourced. The sudden arrival of the information superhighway (as we quaintly called the Internet then) with its need for infrastructure investment, staff training and building remodelling seemed a challenge too far. How on earth could libraries afford to develop these new services when they were barely managing to deliver existing services? There was, however, a light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

Despite its failings the then Conservative Government recognised the importance of the role public libraries could have in making the Internet accessible to the public. The Library and Information Commission was asked to produce a vision of how the Internet could be integrated into public libraries. This report became New Library: the People’s Network (the report’s title indicating the change of Government that took place whilst it was being written) [2].

The New Library report was hugely important for the development of Internet services in public libraries. It provided a powerful vision of what libraries could become in the digital age. It didn’t look back to the golden days of the early 1970s and it didn’t bemoan funding cuts and the slow decline of libraries, it looked forward and highlighted the potential networking offered. It showed that libraries had an important role to play in the new government’s policies of education, education, education and social inclusion. This vision was so successfully sold to Government that in 2000 the Government committed millions of pounds to connecting all public libraries to the Internet by the year 2002 [3]. Lottery money was also made available for training every public librarian in IT skills [4] and £50 million was made available through the New Opportunities Fund to digitise public library content and services [5].

And so now five years after I started at UKOLN networked services are becoming commonplace. Already many staff have been trained to European Computer Driving License standard and public Internet access is a standard service. Admittedly there are still problems - there could be more money for infrastructure, many authorities are struggling to meet their share of the funding requirement. There could be more staff - existing staff are stretched in trying to support these new services in addition to the old ones. And there could be more money for digitisation - £50 million doesn’t go a long way when split between 200 library authorities and numerous museums and charities. But in general this is a positive time for libraries. It is a time of opportunity and change. Whereas the last five years have been about getting the technology into public libraries, libraries are now going to start exploiting it. The next five years won’t be about infrastructure but about content and online service delivery. Here then are my predictions about what’s going to happen to libraries in the next five years, bear in mind though that five years is a ridiculously long time to make any predictions connected to the Internet. If you’re reading this in 2006 I hope these predictions give you some entertainment even if they are completely wrong.

  1. Electronic Reference - in five years time all public library authorities will offer real time online electronic reference services. These services will give access to a reference librarian either in a real-time chat room or via some kind of video-conferencing. Fewer people will visit the library to have their reference query answered preferring the convenience of the online service Running such services will prove time-consuming and initially expensive and so authorities may work together to develop regional or even national online reference services. These services will be available if from early morning to late in the evening if not 24 hours a day. They will use databases, books and the Internet to answer queries. Some libraries may generate income by offering differing levels of service - for example a premium service available for a charge would guarantee a fuller answer delivered more quickly. Services of this type are already being developed by libraries in America [6] and by dot com enterprises [7].
  2. E-books - in five years time most libraries will circulate e-books. E-books are electronic texts which can be read either using a specific e-book reader, a handheld PC, laptop or desktop PC [8]. Library users won’t need to visit the library to borrow and return e-books but will simply download them from the online catalogue. E-books will not have challenged the predominant use of print text for fiction reading but will start to become commonplace for many reference, non-fiction and academic texts. By 2006 at least 10% of a library’s book budget will be spent on e-books. In additional libraries will also loan electronic talking books, music in Mp3 format and possibly even digital videos. These loans will be mediated by the online catalogue. Different charging models will be developed around the country with some authorities viewing all electronic media as a value added service and others seeing e-books at least as part of their free core services.
  3. Death of Community Information - in five years time most libraries will no longer have community information services. A large number of commercial companies are already providing in-depth community information which is in direct competition with library services. In Bath, for example, at least three Web sites provide information about the city, local clubs, events, doctors, businesses and so on. These kind of commercial sites are more visually attractive, more interactive and have a greater number of users than similar library services. They include information from local newspapers, job adverts, classified ads and house sales. As these services continue to expand it will become hard for libraries to compete with them and so user numbers of the library service will begin to fall. By 2006 many libraries will have redirected funding previously used for Community Information services into developing other online services.
  4. Reader Development - by 2006 libraries will be offering interactive reader development services. These will range from the relatively simple, for example book groups run via e-mail, to more complicated developments like enhanced catalogues. Enhanced catalogues will look similar to Amazon’s book catalogue [9] and allow users to comment on books they’ve borrowed, rate them and read reviews from publishers and journals. These catalogues will also build up profiles of the users and automatically recommend other books that they might enjoy. It will e-mail users (or even send text messages to mobile phones) overdue notices, information about new books which match their reading profile and information about library events and exhibitions. The catalogue will no longer be just a book location tool but will become an interactive book promoter. These kind of catalogues will roll out as libraries upgrade or replace their existing library management systems. By 2006 enhanced catalogues will be recognised as the ideal system to have but won’t yet be available in all libraries.
  5. Competition Between Libraries - in five years time all libraries will provide a range of interactive online services. The development of these services may cause libraries to start competing for users with each other. As a growing number of users choose to use online services only the location of the library service becomes immaterial to them. The online library services of an authority 200 miles away are just as technically accessible as those provided locally. Such virtual users may compare online library services and seek out the ones most suited to their needs. The question is how libraries will deal with such non-local use? Will they password control access to all their services so only local users (or in other words local Council Tax payers) have access to them or will non-local use be welcomed? One option may be to offer non-local users access to online services for a fee. Morton Grove Library [10] in America already provides this kind of service in limited form. It offers non-local users access to online databases for an annual fee of $25. I predict that by 2006 this model will be common in the UK and libraries will be selling online library memberships to non-local users. Fees will be on a sliding scale ranging from just having access to databases to having access to all online services - including borrowing e-books. This kind of charged for service may become very lucrative and an important income stream for libraries. It will mean that libraries will compete for customers and be in direct competition. It is likely that the larger and more effectively funded authorities will create the highest quality online services. Smaller authorities may find that their users start migrating to these services leading to a drop in user numbers.

The major development of the next five years will be the virtual branch of the public library. These virtual branches will consist of a collection of online services which replicate, extend and complement the services provided in library buildings. Their development will raise a number of challenging questions- who can use a library’s online services? will libraries start competing for customers? and what counts as a free core service in a digital environment? Different authorities are going to answer these questions in different ways and online services won’t develop uniformly - the virtual branch will look very different depending on which authority is providing it. Despite these rather uncomfortable challenges public libraries will be stronger than ever in 2006. People will continue to visit their local library building to browse and borrow books, study, use the Internet and research information. But in 2006 when this building is shut they’ll still have access to these services. The next five years will see the library moving out of its building and into even more people’s lives.

Oh yes, one final prediction:


[1] Library and Information Commission public library Internet survery
[2] New Library: The People’s Network
[3] People’s Network Infrastructure
[4] People’s Network Staff Training
[5] NOF Digitise
[6] Real Time Reference Services
[7] Web Help
[8] An E-book Primer
[9] Amazon Book Catalogue
[10] Morton Grove - BraryDog - Premium Membership

Author Details

Sarah Ormes
Public Libraries Focus
University of Bath

United Kingdom

Email: s.l.ormes@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: www.ukoln.ac.uk