The University Record, April 12, 1999

Grant to SI will help libraries find best way to share community information

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Faculty and students at the School of Information (SI) have received a $189,026 grant to explore how people use networked community information and how public libraries can capitalize on this way of spreading information. The grant is one of 41 awarded nationwide by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) of Washington, D.C., to fund "Help-Seeking in an Electronic World."

Community networks typically include such services as dial-in access, e-mail, newsgroups, mailing lists and Web access, all designed to link residents with one another and allow them to share information. Public access to such networks often is available at local libraries and schools.

In their two-year study, Prof. Joan C. Durrance and research fellow Karen E. Pettigrew are investigating the role librarians play in helping users find community information over the Internet. Working with a team of graduate students, Durrance and Pettigrew are surveying U.S. public libraries on their involvement in community networks and the provision of community information through these networks. They also are conducting extensive case studies of public library and community networking systems in selected communities in Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

The research team is working closely with librarians to identify the best practices for providing networked community information. This project ultimately will result in a suite of tools that librarians can use to evaluate benefits from local community information services.

"In a world characterized by rapidly advancing technology, America's public libraries are championing the rights of the individual to equitable access to information over the Internet by providing public access," notes Interim Dean Gary M. Olson.

"We are excited by the opportunity to explore how citizens use networked community information and to identify how libraries can best use this powerful new tool. A challenge of our research is to learn how different people use community information as they interact online," Pettigrew adds.

The "Community Connector" (www.si.umich.edu/Community), an electronic gateway of digital information resources that showcases ways community networks serve and engage their communities, is based at the School. The Web site is a searchable library of useful information available to librarians, community networking developers and others who build and improve the quality of life within geographic communities. Considered by many to be the most comprehensive online resource to focus on community networking and community information systems, the Connector is developed and maintained by a team of graduate students, led by Durrance.