Information Technology In Maine Libraries
(from Maine Townsman, April 1997)
By Elizabeth "Betsy" Long, Libriarian, Lithgow Public Library, Augusta

In Maine and throughout the nation, libraries are attracting attention for their innovative leadership in the uses of information technology. Rather than leading to the "death" of the public library, technology has yielded many new tools that are sparking a renaissance in this most democratic of institutions. Nowhere is this more true than in Maine, where a combination of visionary leadership, existing technological infrastructure and publicly supported initiatives are placing libraries at the forefront of the information revolution.

How did this happen? Maine ranks near the bottom nationally with regard to state aid to public libraries, and some rural buildings have no phone, much less a computer. Compared with other states, Maine has lagged behind in some aspects of library automation. But quiet efforts over the last 10 years laid the groundwork for major strides in this area. With several projects now underway, Maine libraries will soon be able to deliver services that other states can only dream about.

Use of computer technology in libraries is not a new phenomenon. Software to control circulation transactions and build catalogs of library holdings have been in use for over 20 years. About 10 years ago, the University of Maine developed URSUS, a union catalog of the University library collections. Later joined by the Maine State Library, the State Law Library and the Bangor and Portland Public Libraries, URSUS facilitated both resource-sharing between campuses and citizen access. MaineCat, a CD-ROM catalog of about 350 participating libraries, functions primarily as a tool for interlibrary loan services. Two major state efforts, the Maine School and Library Network and Infonet, are now building on the foundation of URSUS and MaineCat.

MSLN Provides The Access

The Maine School and Library Network (MSLN) had its origins in a national trend toward more flexible regulation of telecommunications, and the library community’s interest in universal access to technology. The Public Utilities Commission, in its examination of rates charged by NYNEX, determined that the utility had overcharged for regular phone rates. The PUC charged NYNEX with developing a plan to repay the ratepayers in an equitable fashion that would address the issues of public and educational access to telecommunications. Librarians and the state Department of Education took the opportunity to enter the case as intervenors. This status gave them the ability to express their concerns formally before the Commission. Librarians made the case that all citizens and students needed access to the Internet and related services, particularly because Maine is such a rural state. Public libraries were the natural place to provide such access due to their ubiquitous presence and existing mission of lifelong learning for all people.

Of the resulting $14 million settlement, $4.5 million was targeted for free high-speed Internet connections plus training for all Maine schools and libraries meeting required criteria. Other funds were available in the form of grants for those institutions with no phone or no computer equipment. Although the connection is free through May 2000, each local institution is responsible for equipment, wiring and associated labor costs within its building’s walls.

For a project of such scope, and with the amount of collaboration required, the definition of what constitutes a public school or library was critical. The PUC charged the State Department of Education to provide the names of state-sanctioned public schools, while the Maine State Library needed to certify those institutions qualifying as public libraries. During the process, the project advisory board and PUC widened the definition of public library to include all those libraries with unique collections that are made available to the public for free. With that, some health science and other specialized libraries and their clients could also receive the benefits of MSLN.

The PUC narrowly defined the types of training to be provided by MSLN. Due to varying skill levels and needs, a diversity of approaches to training are supplementing the training provided through the project. Those efforts, financed by other entities, are ongoing, even as the MSLN training begins to wind down. The PUC and the Advisory Board will receive additional proposals for training elements as the results of follow-up surveys become known. Most groups and individuals involved in MSLN would agree that training, both for library staff and customers, provides an enormous challenge, given the pace of technological change and the diversity of needs throughout Maine.

Infonet Provides The Product

While MSLN has certainly provided the connections and technical infrastructure to support a range of applications, Maine Infonet will give the public quality products and information channels. Infonet initially appeared as a piece of legislation. Although lawmakers were favorably inclined as to its intent, the political climate at the time would not support the appropriation of funds necessary. The legislature sent it out to the public as a bond issue, rather than pass it as a new budget program. In June 1996, the state voters approved Infonet with a $4.9 million price tag.

The most notable feature of Infonet will be a real-time online catalog of libraries statewide that will speed interlibrary loan services and facilitate all types of resource-sharing. For the public, this means quicker and more efficient responses to requests for information and materials, requests that are now handled almost exclusively by mail. Another component of Infonet, the Gateway, would allow interested libraries (as a group) to mount commercial databases, indexes and software for a cost significantly less than any single library would pay. The Gateway may also include various finding tools in support of public information access, and Maine-related sites and subjects. So while MSLN gives libraries the connections, Infonet will provide the content and access. Infonet task forces are currently working on specifications for the different aspects of the system. An RFP is tentatively scheduled to be issued during the summer of 1997, with the project being timed to take full advantage of emerging information technology.

What does this all mean to the municipalities supporting public libraries, and what does the future hold? Internet public access is a new service for most libraries, and although the MSLN connection is free until the year 2000, costs associated with the project will put pressure on library budgets. The need for additional workstations, furniture to support them, security and anti-virus software, and staff training are all factors for governing bodies to consider. Yet, through the public library, the benefits of information technology will reach the widest possible range of Maine’s citizens. The combination of MSLN and Infonet provides a tremendous opportunity for collaborative projects within and among municipalities. City and town governments, school systems, social services agencies and other entities are looking at innovative approaches to communication, distribution of public information and on-going training. In many cases, the public library will be the hub for these activities. Even with some additional funding, public libraries will remain one of the taxpayers’ best bargains, comprising an average of only 1-2% of most municipal budgets.

The challenges that lie ahead revolve around use policies, content issues, training, and long term funding for public telecommunications. The Internet and other electronic resources do not replace the library; online information can be fleeting and of questionable quality. Books will still be the medium of choice for much of a library’s reference work. Yet, online resources can supplement print materials so that even the smallest rural library can have the benefits of an expanded reference collection. The best libraries will strike a balance between traditional services and emerging technology for the maximum benefit of their communities.

With 730 school and public library sites connected to MSLN through March 1997, and with Infonet in development, Maine is in a unique position with regard to information technology. These state initiatives are more remarkable for their breadth, rather than their depth, but they provide Maine and its municipalities with a foundation for exciting approaches to learning, economic development and citizen participation in government. Just as they did a century ago, Maine’s public libraries will play a critical role in providing the tools for all of its people to succeed in a complex and ever-changing world of information.

Resources

Maine Infonet – contact Karl Beiser, Maine State Library, PO Box 2145, Bangor, Maine, 04402. Email: beiser@saturn.caps.maine.edu

Edna Comstock, Maine State Library, State House Station #64, Augusta, Maine, 04333.

MSLN – contact John Pierce, Maine Internet Education Consortium Project Director, Maine Science and Technology Foundation, Augusta, Maine 04330. Email jpierce@mstf.org