Community networks (CNs) are electronic (or 'virtual') communities for sharing critical information, communication, and entertainment. Both public libraries and community networks have arisen from some of the noblest democratic, communitarian impulses: the urge to share information; the urge to engage every member of the community in decision-making; the urge to improve the condition of one's own life and the lives in one's community. Although both are community information systems, in many communities they have not realized they are in the same business.
There is a skills disparity between community network maintainers and traditional librarians. In the 1980s early CN approaches were foreign to librarians whose information technologies were in closed systems and who tended not to understand the software and the early telecommunications tools used by CN developers; at the same time CN creators were unfamiliar with theories and principles of information organization and retrieval. In many communities the first generation of community networks (mostly free-nets) did not benefit from a collaboration between professionals with complementary skills. Emerging community networks are beginning to fulfill their promise, but they are still in their infancy. Technical problems are generally thought of as less difficult than building the culture needed to involve citizens and overcoming the tendency among institutions to remain system and institution-centered. The new era will result from collaborative efforts where information professionals who possess complementary skills come together with citizens to form a new institution, the community network.
The Impetus for Community Information Activities
Librarians can bring to the table skills which will add value to community networks--the knowledge of approaches to identification, organization, storage, and retrieval of information. They also bring knowledge gained from two decades of developing community information services, including the ability to collaborate with others. In order to fully understand what librarians can bring to CNs, we need to look first at some of the actions that public librarians took following the failure of the urban public library to respond to its changing community in the 1960s.
Urban social unrest provided the backdrop for providing librarians with the approaches which resulted in the creation of early community information services. The riots of the late 1960s marked the beginning of change in the nation's urban libraries. The decay of the inner city had resulted in a mismatch between the services which urban libraries (and, of course, other agencies as well) offered in the mid 1960s and the needs of a changing population. Librarians had traditionally used library circulation figures to determine their effectiveness in the community. As traditional users left the nation's major cities, the statistics kept by the major libraries reflected a drastic drop in the number of books being checked out. These major institutions began in the early 1970s to respond to urban decay.
Public library community information services arose in direct response to white flight to suburbia, the decay of the inner city, and the urban riots which occurred in the late 1960s. Librarians discovered during that painful period that the citizens in their inner cities were not waiting for best-sellers or books on how to plan a neighborhood barbecue. These citizens needed to survive. Researchers found during this period that, "citizens are uninformed about public and private resources, facilities, rights, and programs . . . and frustrated in their attempts to get information required for everyday problem solving." (Kochen & Donohue p. 20). One of the earliest responses came from a library in a city hard hit by these urban changes. In 1973 Detroit Public Library created its TIP Service (the acronym for The Information Place). (Berry, 1975; Jones, 1976). In explaining the development of this service at DPL, its director wrote:
The development of information and referral (I & R) centers, as early community information services were called in most public libraries, were considered initially to be radical departures from other public library services; their formation resulted in a flurry of creative activity by involved librarians. By the late 1970s a number of articles and several texts had been written and a Community Information Section was formed within the Public Library Association which had developed by 1978 PLA's first set of guidelines for establishing public library information & referral (I &R) services.
The creation of public library I & R services resulted from the desire to respond to community needs and to work collaboratively with other agencies. I & R services were developed with the aim of facilitating the link between a person with a need and the resources in the community, but outside the library which would meet that need. To carry out I & R goals, library staff, of necessity, needed to create community information files and provide information based on those files, as well as engage in active question negotiation to determine the actual need. I & R also carried with it the promise of actively helping clients make contact with a resource (referral), working with the client to overcome obstacles (advocacy), and assuring that clients actually reached the appropriate resources (follow-up); (this latter set of activities, by and large failed to become incorporated into I & R practice.)
Practices associated the development of community information services have strengthened the abilities of librarians to make solid contributions to community networks. Community information librarians have learned how to identify organize, and manage large files of data about their communities, exploited the value of the public library as place, become more effective intermediaries, used training to enhance use of resources, developed services designed to meet every-day information needs, experimented with emerging information technologies, and, finally, have learned to collaborate effectively with other community agencies.
Information Identification & File Development
Community information specialists (CIS) broke out of the narrow library paradigm to develop approaches to identify community information resources needed by citizens. They did this primarily by getting out of the library and into the community--a move viewed suspiciously by many librarians when the practice first began. CIS staff learned in the process that community resources were far more difficult to obtain than books. They worked with other agencies in the community who were concerned with the same problems. Community information specialists showed that librarians could provide access to community information just as they had organized books and other resources earlier.
In order to maintain control of the hundreds or thousands of records associated with the community information resource file which was the underlying basis for the services, librarians applied their organizational skills to the problem of organizing diverse community resources. In the 1970s (a decade ahead of the free-net movement), the personal computing revolution had not yet arrived and public libraries did not have the computing power to deal with the complex files needed by information & referral services. Data elements for such files have, since their inception, included the following kinds of categories: organization name(s), address(es), travel information, handicap accessibility, telephone number(s), and such other non-bibliographic information as operating schedule, staff, licensing/accrediting bodies, types of services offered, eligibility requirements, nature of service provided, application procedures, geographic area served, fees, etc.
Lack of adequate computing power and software programs during the early years limited the effectiveness of public library I & R experiments in the 1970s. Most of the early I & R files were manual. No single software solution came to dominate community information providers in libraries. These files differed markedly from the bibliographic files which were being converted to computerized cataloging through the use the standardized MARC record. As library OPACs developed vendors and librarians tried to shoehorn community information records into OPACs. This was a step backward. It served to slow libraries in their journey into toward community networks since it committed them to proprietary, book and library-centered databases.
However serious public library I & R providers, such as the Detroit Public Library's TIP Service, prefer to maintain separate I & R databases (most of which were developed during the 1980s) in conjunction with taxonomies of human services such as INFO LINE Taxonomy of Human Services. (Sales) Librarians and other community network developers need to work together to maximize the effectiveness and use of these complex information files and to develop skill in applying web tools to effectively exploit them without losing their effectiveness as a tool of the information intermediary.
Public library commitment to the complex files needed to support community information services spawned interest in other local information and some libraries began to index local newspapers which are key components of community memory. If the contents of the local newspaper are not accessible, much valuable information is out of reach. A number of home grown approaches to newspaper indexing developed during the 1970s and 80s, most of which involved using off-the-shelf database software. Most of these files, however, are only searchable within the library and not on the Internet. These files and later community information files, due to their complexity, have been used by librarians in their intermediary role.
As a result of these projects, librarians started with old skills in identifying, organizing and retrieving information and crafted them so that they were able to be used to create, manage, and use complex files of community data. These skills can be adapted to the community networking environment. The challenge of community networking is to work with agencies, organizations, citizen groups, and individuals so that they will be able develop and maintain their own community information content. This is a concept which has in the past been foreign to librarians who preferred to maintain control of the bibliographic record (and thus assure its quality).
Other approaches used in community information services are outlined below:
Adding Value to Community Information
Community information services brought order out of chaos for community information. Telephone and in-person services helped people get the everyday community information they needed from whether a neighbor can put a satellite dish in the yard to how to get meals on wheels. Resources in all formats were fair game--the files that CIS staff created were the basis for adding value to the information, but it was not uncommon for library staff, based on the information in the files, to make calls to social service agencies or experts of one sort or another on behalf of the caller. Librarians in the '70s and '80s began to get feedback from citizens that they had not been aware that they could actually get answers to these kinds of questions at the library. Because many people are confused by "raw" information, adding value to information both through bringing the information together whether that is through the older files such as those created by librarians in the 1970s, through free-net or other CNs, needs to be complemented by personal assistance in making sense of it (to be discussed more below under mediation).
Building on the Library as Place
The public library is one of a few institutions in every community which welcomes all citizens. Churches, schools, social clubs, beauty shops, social service agencies, are all valued institutions in the community, but each has a restriction on those who may use their facilities. Community Information Service providers took advantage of the fact the public library had long been a 'free space' or a neutral place in the community which welcomed citizens. Telephone services (allowing people to access 'the place' from home) were greatly increased and telephone numbers widely advertised by early I & R service providers who encouraged people to seek answers to questions important to the quality of their lives. Developers of job centers created spaces where those who were using the library to find out more about their skills through career advising or to get information in order to 'retool' themselves could discuss sensitive matters without calling attention to themselves. Modifications in library job centers included making a place where both the job seeker and the staff member could sit facing each other for extended discussions. Job centers also created spaces which were amenable to training, since folks who used them regularly needed a variety of training programs. Developers of public policy services in Detroit used the neutrality of the public library to bring citizens of opposing views (and often different social status in the community) to the library to discuss issues on equal footing.
Seeking to Meet Needs
From their inception in the mid 1970s developers of public library community information services focused energies on meeting everyday information needs. Initially the focus was on social services, such as where to find housing, food, or care-givers for seriously ill family members. Later many community information services added focused services such as job and/or economic development centers which were poised to meet more effectively the specific needs in these areas.
Practitioners in specialized community information services such as job and career centers have seen themselves as facilitators at least as much as question answerers. Job and career center staff try to determine the nature of the problem before providing answers. Determining needs has been a primary focus of working with job seekers. Needs vary considerably and people who ask, "Where is your career information?" will need a wide variety of answers because their needs are different. They may need to assess their skills and options, to make a job change, assistance in resume writing, to understand the career decision making process, interviewing skills, etc. Therefore, library staff have developed a variety of strategies designed to get to the problem which is hidden in the question asked initially. They may help their clientele use assessment software, provide instruction, use a helping interview, and/or provide advice or career counseling, depending on the need. Understanding the broader range of needs associated with those who need also to gain access to networked information is no less important.
Community information services have spawned several types of mediation, including the question answering reference interaction and the problem-solving interview. (Durrance 1994) By the mid 1970s I & R librarians had made alterations in the typical reference interview by adapting aspects of the helping interview used by other social services professionals.(Maas 1994) Detroit Public Library's TIP service provided training for its TIP staff in active listening and crisis intervention in the 1970s and 80s. (Maas, 1994) The logic for this adaptation was that the reference interview as practiced by most librarians was question-centered and as such did not adequately determine the needs of those who seek assistance. Librarians who seek to identify the need behind the question have changed their approach to responding to questions and as a result have developed approaches which result in the ability to assist client in the problem solving process. Enormous strides have been made in the understanding of professional mediation since the advent of library information & referral services and the approaches they engender. (Durrance 1995; Ross and Dewdney).
The coming era of advanced information technologies brings with it the danger of disintermediation, "the removing of a skilled person from a process because his knowledge or craft is thought to be replaceable by a machine or automation program" (an issue discussed in a forthcoming article by Steve Cisler).(Cisler, 1996) Future community network developers need to have the foresight (and the technical skill) to incorporate the mediation skills of information specialists who can help people who are unable to get the information they need or who may be stuck in the problem-solving process.
Training is an essential component of focused community information services. As librarians develop need-centered services, they often develop targeted training for the people who use the services. For example, job and career center librarians develop programs to help people do something they haven't done before (such as writing a resume or researching an employer); or learn how to do something better (such as interviewing). Computer literacy workshops, which are often offered first by need-sensitive staff in job centers who know that if a person has no computer skills they have a serious liability in seeking many jobs. have been offered
Training in such community information services as literacy has often focused on volunteers. Staffing patterns for literacy programs in libraries typically include training library staff who in turn do not administer training, but who train volunteer trainers (Zweizig et al., 1990). Unlike some traditional library volunteer programs, which focus on training volunteers to perform a handful of deskilled routines such as shelf-reading (which are also the skills most likely to be automated and/or informated), training volunteer instructors is itself a type of literacy instruction, in which the "language" is comprised of the instructor's educational skills. Combined with other approaches to providing community information, training literacy volunteers widens, formalizes and makes visible library involvement in community activities, and democratizes the literacy efforts by encouraging all community members to be accountable for one another's welfare.
Training volunteer instructors for literacy education is a harbinger of the current meaningful training and use of volunteers in such community networks as Charlotte's Web, where community members are taught to contribute to the development of their own community network.
Use of Information Technologies
While early community information services were limited in their use of technology, by the mid 1980s libraries with job centers were experimenting with the use of such interactive career assessment software as SIGI PLUS and Discover. This software developed to help people understand the intersect between themselves and potential careers is available at many library job and career centers. This software goes beyond simply providing information. It helps people make informed decisions because they find out more about themselves. The results of the assessment are most likely discussed by the client and the librarian and used as the basis for recommended action. The software provides a vehicle for clients to begin the process of understanding and internalizing the knowledge they are seeking. Follow-up discussions with staff members help to move the job seeker on to the next phase of problem-solving. Thus this use of technology increases the effectiveness of the mediation function.
Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) became a component of literacy instruction in the late 1980s, and was integrated into some flagship library literacy programs (Eiselstein, p.28). A recent example of this is the literacy program at the Brooklyn Public Library, where the use of productivity software (such as word processing) "in the context of real and meaningful projects" teaches both reading literacy and what Odasz calls "teleliteracy" (Guerra, 1995; Odasz,1995).
The success of CAI has helped stretch the concepts of literacy and literacy instruction, encouraging librarians to re-vision library services in which a "full-service library" would include public-access computers for a wide variety of uses beyond literacy instruction--like community networking (see especially Eiselstein). In other words, the medium carries a strong message, one that in practice stimulates broader notions of information services, particularly in the area of the community. A growing number of libraries have elected the responsibility of computer instruction as their roles in community networks--essential 'literacy training' to ensure patrons can access networked information services, such as community networks.
The challenge facing CNs is to use the information technologies effectively to increase the quality of life in the community, to foster discussion of community issues, to share knowledge, information and the opinions of citizens. This must be done in collaboration with other information providers as well as citizens. Because the public library has incredible value to the community as a place, public library forays into community discussions have been by bringing people to the library as a neutral place. The most successful, as discussed below, have been collaborative in nature.
Linking, Referral, and Collaboration
Collaboration is essential to the development of an effective community network. Collaboration's most basic form, linking and referring, is a cornerstone of information and referral services in public libraries. Information and referral services which arose in the 1970s required collaboration with other agencies in order to be effective. The referral component of I & R builds on the understanding that librarians have of the functions of other agencies and is the basis for later collaborative efforts. An article by Maas and DeSantis shows how libraries and community-based agencies can form partnerships. (Maas & DeSantis) Building on the neutrality of the public library and its ability to form partnerships with other institutions, Detroit Public Library's TIP service in the 1980s developed partnerships with non-profit organizations and formed the Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC) project. NRC brought together citizens and businesses to discuss and begin to develop solutions to redlining, disinvestment, and other potentially volatile issues. The lectures and workshops, held in the library included speakers who hold opposing views on the issue. These programs, held in a neutral setting, brought together groups which had in the past had not communicated. Community networks require collaboration and partnership development.
Community-centered, collaborative services tend to provide both increased visibility and credibility in the community. Newspapers and local media can readily understand community information services and thus regularly write features about them. Often library directors say that need-based, community-centered services have enhanced the credibility of public libraries in their communities and brought a great deal of unsolicited feed-back. Directors report that people send them letters and speak to them about the value of these services to their own lives or the lives of relatives, friends, or constituents.
This credibility which builds on collaborative services which have a strong needs base, effectively use volunteers, include a strong training component, and effectively use emerging technologies helps to prepare librarians to participate fully as partners in community networks. As we approach the end of the 1990s there is a great deal of evidence that public libraries have benefited from the experiments of the 1970s and 80s and have brought that experience to community networks.
Several years ago, Helen Moeller, Director of the LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library, had no problem committing the library when she was asked to help form the Tallahassee Free-Net. "I immediately loved the idea of a community network and the moment I was approached I knew this was for us. I had been waiting for this," she said in an interview with Durrance in 1995. "I knew that the community network had the potential to build on and strengthen the library's existing I&R program--and the agencies, this time around, would participate in putting up their own information."
Collaboration is critical to community networking. Without it, CNs will fail to reach their full potential. Often those who have created CNs have not understood information storage and retrieval issues, while public librarians have been too focused on their own systems. Success in collaboration can bring to community networks the information needed to more effectively address and solve community problems and improve the quality of citizens' lives.