U.K. Library Gamble Pays Off

The U.K. library system has undertaken an ambitious project to connect more than 4,000 libraries to the Internet by the end of the year and to complete further content creation and Web sites by 2004. The project, called the People's Network, is funded in large part by £100 million of national lottery money from the New Opportunities Fund. Co-managed by the New Opportunities Fund and Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, the People's Network hopes to benefit the U.K. general public with Internet access and free technological resources.

David Potts, senior network advisor for Resource, says, "The PN program came about as a result of extensive research undertaken by the (then) Library and Information Commission in producing the two reports—"New Library: The People's Network" (1997) and the follow up "Building the New Library Network" (1998). This identified the challenges and opportunities presented to public library services by developments in ICT [Information and Communication Technology] and proposed a three-strand approach to implementation: funding and development of infrastructure, staff training, and econtent. The £100m PN program represents the infrastructure element of this and in addition, the Fund is delivering a £20m program to fund ICT training for public library staff and £50m for public econtent."

According to Chris Batt, acting chief executive of Resource, the People's Network, "represents a major step forward in creating content that will support learning for life. It will tie in with Culture Online, the online curriculum, will support UK online, and will form a key component of the emerging common information environment."

The Network is in its first year of content creation and expects Web sites to appear between now and the end of the year for approximately 150 projects, 400 organizations, one million digital objects, and over 100 learning journeys. Each project has the opportunity to choose its own content management system, provided it conforms to the technical standards laid out by the People's Network.

As for the filtering problems that plague America's library Internet services, the U.K.'s system has been controversy-free. Since they operate without a right to free-speech, filtering decisions have been left up to local authorities. Batt has recently been quoted as saying, "Filtering decisions have to be made at the local level. We would obviously prefer if information was as widely and freely available as possible, but that's a decision library authorities have to make for themselves. Some are filtering and some are not, and some filter only if they have a children's library."

Thus far, Batt says that, "the biggest challenge is the scale­-this is content creation on an industrial scale. With 400 organizations doing it mainly for the first time, we had to give both project management and technical training before they could actually start the digitization of resources."

Currently, library offerings vary depending on the demand for access, the number of computer terminals available, and the expertise of the staff. As the project progresses, service is expected to expand from just computer terminals to include training, email, real-time library catalogs, and lending services. Other possible future offerings include smartcards, virtual learning environments, video conferencing facilities, and library services to young people via text-messaging.

Potts says, "The trend in the U.K. will be for virtual library services to compliment traditional services and not to replace them. Public libraries provide an important point of entry to ICT to reflect the program's emphasis on social inclusion, and reinforce the concept of community space in physical and electronic terms. The People's Network project itself is already having a significant impact on the development of electronic public library services."

(www.cultureonline.gov.uk; www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk)