The University Record, July 9, 2001

Public libraries provide high-quality community services online

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Public libraries across America are distributing community information to the public online, and patrons believe they are getting high-quality data as a result, a joint study by the U-M and the University of Washington shows.

Library users increasingly rely on the online resources of public libraries for information about employment, volunteerism, the availability of social services, local history and genealogy, local news, and computer and technical information.

The findings are part of a study on “Help-Seeking in an Electronic World: The Role of the Public Library in Helping Citizens Obtain Community Information Over the Internet.” The Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., funded the study.

Joan C. Durrance, professor of information, and graduate student Karen Pettigrew distributed surveys and conducted case studies of public library-community networking systems in northeastern Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Portland, Ore., for the report.

The researchers also found that the Internet has not replaced the role of social ties in citizens’ information-gathering behavior but is instead supplementing it. People believe, the report noted, that they are accessing hard-to-get and higher-quality information more easily with less investment in time and money.

“Community networks have a multiplier effect—they provide benefits to community organizations, to individuals, to their families and their neighborhoods, as well as to the larger community,” Durrance notes. “Community networks overcome a variety of barriers—including those associated with geography and the digital divide—they mobilize community organizations as information providers, and they contribute to community building.”

Overall, this study shows that networked community information services are strengthening American communities and enhancing the roles of public libraries. The full report is available on the Web at www.si.umich.edu/libhelp.