Networking for All Victorians: Public Librarians Are Driving the Highway

Christine Mackenzie <chrism@vicnet.net.au>
Manager, Library and Information Access Services
Mornington Peninsula Shire Council
Private Bag 1000
Rosebud, Victoria 3939, Australia
Tel.: + 61 59 860346
Fax: +61 59 812900

Abstract

Victoria is Australia's second most populous state and its most densely populated. Since March 1994, various public libraries in Victoria have been offering to their patrons free access to the Internet. The driving force for this public access has been VICNET, Victoria's community computing network.

VICNET is a joint initiative of the state Library of Victoria and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, mainly funded by the Victorian government. The Internet has great potential in community networking, communications, and information access for the people of Victoria. For it to reach its full potential, all members of the community must have access to it and have the ability to publish their own information on it. This is why public access to VICNET and the Internet is so important and is one of VICNET's main aims.

VICNET is working with public librarians in Victoria on an ambitious plan to provide free access to VICNET and the Internet in every public library in Victoria. This will be achieved through special grants and with a strategic alliance with a commercial Internet service provider, Access One. The proposal links public funding with the private sector and addresses one of the main issues of access--telecommunications charges. Expanding the public library's role so that it becomes a community access point for the information superhighway will achieve the Victorian government's aim of linking all Victorians to the information resources of the Internet--from home, school, business, or local library--and making Victorian-based information available to the world. Another aim of the project is to develop a communications infrastructure that will extend into rural areas so that country Victorians have access to educational, business, and recreational information at an affordable price. The third aim is to provide community benefit; models already exist to demonstrate the community benefit that can flow from such initiatives.

As part of the proposal, Access One will establish points of presence in public libraries so that 95 percent of Victorians will have access to the Internet for the price of a local call plus Internet service provider (ISP) charges. VICNET is also forming liaisons with the federal Department of Social Security to further develop their Community Information Network, which has been piloted in three states. Public librarians are preparing a strategic plan to best maximize the promised federal grants of $8,000 for each of Australia's 1,400 public libraries to provide access to the Internet.

VICNET is also encouraging regional hubs, and Mornington Peninsula Libraries received a state government grant to establish Nepean Net, the definitive site for the Mornington Peninsula Region of Victoria. The library service is working with the Peninsula Tourism Authority, the local small business network Southnet, the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons' Society, and other interested organizations to create a Web site for our area.

This paper explores the synergy between public and private enterprise and the benefits that cooperative schemes have brought to the Victorian community. It describes VICNET and Nepean Net. Also described are the reasons Victorian public librarians believe that it is so important that libraries are seen as key players in making the Internet accessible to all, not only financially but also by offering training and education so that we do not have a community of information-rich and information-poor.

Introduction

Victorian public librarians are enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by access to the new technologies. A proactive State Government, the establishment of a library-based community computing network, supportive local government and the drive and commitment of individuals has placed Victoria at the forefront in provision of public access to the Internet. Other initiatives and plans will ensure that by the end of the year, all Victorians will have access to the Internet from their local public library.

Victoria is Australia's second most populous state and its most densely populated, with 4.4 million people living in an area of 227,000 sq km, which is about the same size as Oregon in the United States. Since March 1995, various public libraries in Victoria have been offering free access to the Internet for their patrons. These include both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan library services. The driving force for this public access has been VICNET, Victoria's community computing network.

There are 42 public library services in Victoria, and as anywhere, there is a wide variation in the spread of services offered, funding levels, staff expertise and quality of service. Public libraries are funded jointly by state government and local government; there is no direct federal funding. The level of support by local government varies widely also, and combined state and local funding per capita ranges from $76.16 to $9.77 (1993/94).

However, there is little correlation between funding levels and which library services have been early adopters; modestly funded nonmetropolitan services are leading the way in provision and innovation.

VICNET

VICNET (www.vicnet.net.au) is a cooperative project of the State Library of Victoria and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and the set-up costs were mainly funded by the Victorian government's Community Support Fund in July 1994. The operations of VICNET are based at the State Library, the assets are owned by the State Library and VICNET forms part of the library. It is jointly managed by the State Librarian, the RMIT University Librarian and the State Library's Director, Collection Management. It is a nonprofit agency, comes within the community and public interest sector of the information industry and operates primarily to meet the goals of contemporary library services. Although it charges for some services, it follows industry and professional guidelines and policies in regard to the definitions of core and value-added services. A VICNET Advisory Board has been established comprising VICNET staff; representatives of Viclink, the peak public library body in Victoria; and the Office of Library Services, the State Government department that administers state funding and provides overall coordination for Victoria's public libraries.

VICNET's goals are to provide free access to VICNET and the Internet to all Victorians through the state network of 250 public library branches and other community outlets and to publish information about Victoria from individuals and organizations on the Internet. VICNET differs from commercial network access providers in a number of ways:

VICNET has two main areas of development--telecommunications and content, and at present it is doing both.

In the telecommunications area, staff are working to develop a statewide network, and VICNET is operating as a small Internet service provider with 96 modems. In three years' time it wants to be out of this business because the thinking is that economies of scale will make this role redundant and the focus will be on the core business, which is information.

The second and major area is content, and VICNET is an information-rich site. Staff concentrate their main efforts on helping community organizations and government to publish on the network, providing access to as much Victorian information as possible and making information easy to find. The VICNET site on the Internet is a busy one with over 260,000 accesses per week.

Access One

One of the most exciting aspects of what is happening in Victoria is the synergy between public and private enterprise. A mutually beneficial project between VICNET and a commercial service provider, Access One, has really progressed the project, and as is often the way, success attracts success. The Victorian state government is very entrepreneurial and commercially focused, and the ability of VICNET to negotiate this joint venture has enhanced its reputation in government circles, so that the government is willing to continue supporting it.

A major goal of the Victorian government is to spread Internet access throughout Victoria as quickly, widely and equitably as possible. VICNET originally planned to install its own Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connections to regional centers; this would have cost about $1.6 million. However, in late 1995 it was decided to seek a commercial partner to provide regional access, and in September 1995 the Victorian government issued a Request for Tender for the provision of regional access to VICNET through Victorian nonmetropolitan public library services. The proposals put by Access One were accepted and the main elements in the arrangement are the following:

Access One have shown themselves willing to negotiate with a view to providing further assistance to public libraries and also to community organizations, and there are currently discussions under way with them and the Victorian Association of Community Information Networks.

The connection to Access One is invisible to the user. It appears as a direct connection to VICNET, and the first point of contact is a VICNET screen or, if wished by the public library service, a local home page. An Access One connection can be linked to a dial-up router so that up to 10 PCs on a LAN can be connected and multiple e-mail accounts provided. It is also possible for a library to install its own file server and ISDN connection to the Access One router. This is what VICNET is actively encouraging and what we have done at Mornington Peninsula Libraries.

Nepean Net

The Mornington Peninsula is just over one hour's drive from the center of Melbourne. It is one of the most beautiful areas in Australia, and the 190-km coastal boundaries of Port Phillip Bay, Western Port Bay and Bass Strait give it a unique maritime flavor highlighted by many small commercial and recreational boating activities and the major training establishment of the Royal Australian Navy, HMAS Cerberus. Sea access explains the Peninsula's place in history as the first European settlement in Victoria in 1803. The Peninsula is a popular holiday destination and offers exciting conservation parks, including a National Park, coastal beaches and a host of activities based on its many seaside towns.

Mornington Peninsula Libraries has four branches and a mobile library service. The population is 113,000 and we are one of the aforementioned modestly funded libraries. We followed the early stages of VICNET with great interest and volunteered to be part of their pilot project early last year, with our Mornington branch being the first public library in Victoria to offer public access to the Internet.

The Nepean Net (www.mornpen.vic.gov.au) project aims to give our community affordable access to networked electronic information and services and to enable regional information providers to deliver information electronically to the region, the state and the world. It came out of a proposal from the Frankston/Peninsula Librarians' Networking Group, which provides a forum for librarians in the area to exchange information and discuss local issues. It is a cross-sectoral group, and members come from the two public library services, postsecondary libraries, special libraries and postprimary school libraries. A subcommittee was formed to develop a proposal for funds from the Victorian government's Ministry for the Arts Library Cooperation and Development Grants. This was a fairly intense process, with a number of meetings with the key players--Frankston City Library, Peninsula College of TAFE, John Paul College and Mornington Peninsula Libraries, with valuable input and advice from VICNET staff.

We were successful with our grant application, and in August last year received a check for $65,000 from the Minister for the Arts. Since then we have been working very hard to develop Nepean Net as the definitive site for the Mornington Peninsula. Because of great changes in local government in Victoria, the library service was totally restructured in July last year, and this enabled us to create a position of Information Services Librarian, with the main duties being responsibility for electronic provision of information. Alison Trembath was appointed to the position, and she has done an excellent job of gathering support, enthusing the wider community and getting the project off the ground. The main emphasis is to create a regional Web site of information about the Mornington Peninsula, and to start herself off, Alison went on a virtual visit around Victoria, Australia, and the world to see what others were doing. Some interesting Australian regional sites to visit are the following:

Alison has also been liaising heavily with local businesses, in particular as a board member of Southnet. This is a network of organizations and individuals created to foster economic, business and employment growth in the outer southern region of Victoria by developing strong linkages between industry, business, education, government and the community. It is a nonprofit organization and offers seminars, advice on setting up a small business and information on networking opportunities. Southnet readily agreed that they could benefit from both Internet access and an Internet presence, and they have their own home page now on Nepean Net.

Southnet commissioned the creation of a directory of all businesses within our region, and this directory is an ideal candidate for loading onto Nepean Net. The strategy is to offer a free Internet listing to all businesses with the value-added opportunity for the creation of their own home page at a reasonable charge to allow for a more complete marketing opportunity for individual businesses. Internet training is also being offered to Southnet members. Nepean Net offers an excellent vehicle for the promotion of local businesses within our region as well as statewide and throughout Australia.

Another major role of the site is to offer access to the large amount of information generated by the two councils in our region. We are currently loading on the council directory of services, and our next project is to mount a searchable community information database. We are negotiating to have council papers, agendas, minutes of meetings and interactive forms on the server.

Tourism is an important industry in our area, and we offer a specific regional focus of tourism opportunities on the Peninsula. We were pleased to receive mail from someone from California recently, who is planning to visit our area and came looking for information. Although all this is still in its infancy, the opportunities for promoting our flourishing wine industry, tourist attractions, bed-and-breakfast establishments and conference facilities are exciting.

We have been fortunate to engage the services of Ben Stewart, who has the flair and expertise to set up our Web site and to develop our house style. It's one thing to have vision--its another to be able to code in HTML!

Public libraries and community access

VICNET and Nepean Net are up and working, albeit the latter is still in the very early stages. Both have been driven by librarians because we see how important it is to maintain our role as information providers, and we also believe we have a vital role to play to ensure that the community is not divided into the information-rich and the information-poor.

At a conference I was at recently, one of the speakers described libraries as mechanisms not places.[1] Eric Wainwright, Deputy Director General, National Library of Australia, said that the function of a library is to link potential users with the information they need and that although some libraries, in particular government department and business libraries, are losing support and even being disbanded, there is real enthusiasm at the government level in Australia for public libraries as local access points to the information superhighway.

This enthusiasm has been translated into (almost) real dollars, with commitment from the previous federal government and endorsement by the present, recently elected one for $11 million

to form local access points to enable Australians to participate fully in open learning opportunities, government services, small business support, electronic communications, community networks and other opportunities for personal development. In particular, the 1,400 public library service points throughout Australia provide a major opportunity for linking communities to network services, such as those available through the Internet.[2]

In Victoria, similar support has been shown by the state government, with the promise of $4 million to give Internet access for all through public libraries. The election promise is that

all public libraries will be connected to VICNET, the government information network, which will link library users to the Internet. Each public library in Victoria will receive $2,000 for computer equipment. Community Communication Centres will be established throughout Victoria to enable all Victorians to access computer technology and multimedia.[3]

This includes guaranteed funding of $1.34 million from the Community Support Fund to ensure all public libraries are hooked up through ISDN lines by the end of 1996.

This notion of libraries as mechanisms and the transformation of libraries from book warehouses to the drivers of the mass use of electronic information requires a radical shift of the general public's (and I suspect more than a few public librarians') perceptions of the role of public libraries. However I believe it is essential for our survival; otherwise we will suffer the same fate as the Mechanics Institutes and six-penny subscription libraries of a couple of generations ago.

Our important and traditional role is to ensure access to information for all. Public libraries exist because the community believes information is important. Libraries are democratic places that make informational and recreational resources available by sharing. The delivery of information is changing fundamentally (and I promise not to mention Gutenberg), but just because it is available on your desk top doesn't in the end make it any easier to access, and plugging into the WWW is a bit like walking into the Library of Congress without access to the catalog. Systems need to be developed between information and what our users need or may need. It is a role we play with books--selecting, sorting, classifying, making available, and facilitating sharing. The basic skills of librarianship ensure that we are well placed to assume a key role in the information age.

Access and equity

State and federal governments in Australia have recognized public libraries as logical places to provide electronic information to the community. They have not come to this point of view by themselves or by serendipity. They have been convinced by people within the library industry who have done a lot of lobbying and put in a lot of hard work to ensure that community service obligations are honored and that the best use is made of existing infrastructure. Both levels of government are working with industry and professional organizations to make sure strategies are in place to get the most bang for the buck.

A significant boost to the expansion of provision of access in Victoria will be provided by the $1.34 million just promised from the state government. This money was obtained by a submission to the administrators of the Community Support Fund, and in the application prepared by Viclink, emphasis was placed on the community benefit that will flow from the grant. An example of what is already occurring was cited. There is a very active PC users group in a remote country town that formed a local committee comprising the local TAFE college, primary and secondary schools, the shire council and the local public library to develop a regional node. A member of the group reports that many advantages are already being felt, in particular the awareness that access to electronic information is not just something available in capital cities, but that it is also accessible from home and from the local library. In remote areas access to this information directly affects the family unit, as it allows students and children access to the same opportunities educationally and socially as their metropolitan counterparts.

Country Victorians are also currently disadvantaged by telecommunications costs. Dial-up access to VICNET and the Internet is typically on the order of $20 an hour for long-distance charges. Metropolitan residents are able to access the same service for an unlimited time for the cost of a local phone call.

By making the Internet available in public libraries, we are providing a valuable resource to anyone in the community who wishes to use it. We were able to argue that establishing ISDN links throughout the state has addressed important issues of access and equity.

Education

If we are to be effective mechanisms, we have a broader responsibility than simply making PCs loaded up with relevant software available and then saying we provide access to the Internet. I believe we also have an important educative role.

Public libraries are the ideal place for training people on how to use the Internet. As I said earlier, they are democratic places, and everyone has the right to enter a library because they are a shared community resource. Mostly they are nonthreatening, they have long opening hours and they are accessible.

At my library we have a two-tiered approach to training the public. Free, publicized demonstrations are held regularly to show people what it looks like and what sorts of things they can find, and we give people a brief individual demonstration if we have staff available. We are also running fee-paying courses as a franchisee of the Internet Training Institute.

The objectives of becoming involved in this venture were:

The Internet Training Institute (ITI)[4] is a joint venture between ITI and RMIT. It was established to provide librarians in public libraries with the tools to train Internet users on how to access and use the Internet most effectively. Libraries such as ourselves who become registered ITI training centers attend Train the Trainer programs, are given manuals to assist in the running of training sessions and are provided with an update on Internet resources and developments. They benefit from central marketing and promotional activities and have access to a Help Desk.

There are four key aspects to the financial side of the arrangement--the joining fee, the administration and marketing cost, royalty commissions and sales commissions. A one off joining fee is payable for becoming a registered ITI training center. All marketing costs including manuals and advertising are the responsibility of ITI. The library is responsible for the administration of fees and remitting ITI's commission to them monthly. The major capital equipment required is the PCs, and we are running with four. The training sessions are for two hours, and we charge $75 a session. Financial projections undertaken indicate it is a viable proposition, as well as fulfilling our important role as an educator.

Conclusion

Public librarians are indeed driving the highway in Victoria. By the end of this year, all library services will have public access terminals available to access the Internet. Almost all Victorians will have local-call access, instead of paying expensive telecommunications charges. Regional Web sites are being developed, where people have access to local government information, library catalogs, educational information, tourism information and small business information. These sites also offer a means of exchanging ideas and information electronically, through bulletin board services, news services, electronic discussion groups and e-mail.

VICNET is providing a valuable leadership role for public libraries and offers support and training. Encouraging regional Web sites is the most efficient and effective way of ensuring that the maximum amount of information about Victoria is available.

Public librarians want people to see that their local public library is a major player in the information age, that it is able to provide them with electronic information, that it can publish and help them publish, and that it can educate and inform them. We are pleased to be playing such an important role in transforming our society.

Christine Mackenzie, BA, Grad Dip Lib, Grad Dip Mgt, AALIA, is manager, Library and Information Access Services, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Victoria, Australia. She has held positions in the State Libraries of Victoria and Western Australia, and in various public libraries in Victoria. Christine is currently president of the Australian Library and Information Association's Public Libraries Section (Victorian Group), secretary of Viclink, a member of the Public Libraries Advisory Committee of the Libraries Board of Victoria, a member of the VICNET Advisory Board and a board member of the Australian Information Management Association.

Endnotes

[1] Eric Wainwright. "Library impacts of information mainstreaming: some Australian policy perspectives." Electronic dream? Virtual nightmare: the reality for libraries, 1996 VALA biennial conference, 1996.

[2] Creative Nation, Commonwealth Cultural Policy released October 1994.

[3] Election material from the Liberal Party, Victoria.

[4] For further information contact Richard Siegersma, rsiegers@ozemail.com.au