In the course of 1996-97, the Flemish government connected its complete public library system to the internet. Although the main objective was of course to provide all citizens with an access to information worldwide, the underlying aim was to install a co-operative network among public library institutions that are basically solitary working bodies. Three steps have already been made:
The challenge for the future is to allow the infrastructure to evolve into the backbone of a genuine public libraries network, that strengthens the collaborative organisation and attitude of the networked individual public library.
This article deals with the situation in Flanders. (5.6 million inhabitants)
A crucial factor in the implementation of the library act, is the legally imposed responsibility for local authorities to organise a public library; only the private initiatives already operational before 1978 could continue to exist. The Flemish government has taken a bottom-up approach in stimulating the establisment of local public libraries that comply with the rules and regulations of the library act. The considerable financial effort of grants for staff (85% of wages) and, until 1995, 60% of investment costs resulted in 90% of the 308 communities having a public library, with over 90% of the population living in a library-equipped community. Six central public libraries, one for each province, fulfill a supporting function to the smaller local public libraries in their working area. The coping stone of the Flemish public library structure, a national support center, has not been established so far.
A tangible result from the library act, is the VLACC, the Flemish Automated Union Catalogue, that was initiated in 1987. The last four years, the impact of this networking initiative has increased markedly because of enhanced automation and networking technology. It is kept up to date through shared-cataloguing by the six central public libraries. It is the backbone of the national interlibrary loan-system and it offers single public libraries both input for acquisitions as the possibility to download records in their local databases.
Half of all public libraries regularly use VLACC-data for inhouse activities, but most of them use one of the batch products: a cd-rom or diskette format. Seven out of ten libraries have been automated or are in one or another preparatory phase. It is not self-evident that also the smaller public libraries will effectively get automated over the next few years.
After all, the majority of the local communities in Belgium have a very small population, the average being 20.000 inhabitants. This is too small a basis which hardly leaves any margin for major investments or innovative services.
The local authorities are autonomous bodies -every one has to cater independently for their citizen’s needs- and so there is no stimulus or tradition of co-operation. As mentioned before, the implementation of the library act resulted in a densely populated library landscape because most local authorities stood up to the challenge, but all of them seperately and with few means. Since grants are tied up to the number of population served, the other side of the coin of this dense public library landscape is that most libraries do not have any financial strength for whatever IT related inintiatives they might be interested in.
Moreover, on the local level, internal administrative rules are too rigid to allow for a flexible and autonomous policy. Since libraries are city depertments, they don’t dispose of a dedicated budget the librarian can spend as he sees fit. Every purchase has to be approved by the city council. This way of deciding and financing severely hampers the integration of new services.
In July 1996, the Flemish government decided to connect all public ibraries to the internet. Of course, the overriding objective of the government’s decision is to provide all citizens with an easily accessible -both in terms of money as in assistance offered- connection to information worldwide.
Before this aim can be accomplished, it is necessary a) to have an infrastructure in place, b) to make sure that librarians are able to work with it and c) to provide guidance and assistance for the non-professional user. These requirements correspond with the three main parts of the initiative:
All costs associated with this project are paid for by the Flemish government, except for the communication costs of individual libraries.
1.2.1. BIBNET as a communications channel
At the moment, three communication types are available:
Two communication types will be developed at a later stage:
1.2.2. Contents of BIBnet
BIBNET consists of two sections. The first one is intended for the library users. The second part is reserved for the librarians.
1. The section ‘library user’ of the site contains the following main headings:
A team of 12 librarians (called the WebWijzerWerkgroep) has developed a three stage model to identify, select and describe internet information sources that may be of interest to the Flemish user. One main criteria is of course the language. But apart from that, they mainly select on the basis of quality.This is what distinguishes them from search engines such as Alta Vista and Yahoo. The latter only produce list of hits, without any guarantee for relevance. Moreover, the selected sites are grouped in subject areas, which is another distinctive feature.
An abstract is made of each selected site, and it is classified and catalogued according to the VLACC-format, to allow for reference.
Via an option in BIBnet, every librarian coming across an interesting site, can inform the subject co-ordinator, who, screens the prososal, adds keywords and regularly checks if the site remains updated.
These files can be accessed in 2 ways:
Other information consists of HTML pages, hyperlinks to other existing sites, frequently asked questions and bestsellers lists.
All the pages are structured according to certain layout instructions and reflect a very high degree of user-friendliness.
2. The section ‘librarian’
This section comprises a public librarian’s entire working field.
The data behind this table of contents can be retrieved via the respective items, but also via a keyword.
An editorial group, which is responsible for updating the site, will ensure the contents of these headings and establish links with other sites.
Parts of this section are designed for interactive use (see: communication public libraries and government):
Other features are a manual of internet services, such as e-mail, discussion groups, mailing lists,...
The librarian also has all the options that are offered to the user.
In a second, parctical session, staff was trained in
The assignment of the Steering Group is:
With respect to the latter assignment, the following have been achieved so far:
2.2. Important areas of work to be accomplished in the near future are:
The BIBNET-website is expected to act as a catalyst to get more -if not all- Flemish public libraries on the internet. BIBNET will offer them a standard yet indivudualisable page on the Web.
Referring back to its rationale -to stimulate co-operation between public libraries- this initiative should exceed its features of worldwide information source and professional communications channel and evolve into the backbone of a public libraries network. The aim is to strengthen the collaborative organisation and attitude of the networked individual public library. Models for resource development and resource sharing will be drawn, subsequently tested and evaluated on their impact and cost-effectiveness.To learn as much as possible from co-operative experiences from other library systems, the Libraries Department has submitted a project proposal in response to the latest call for proposals from the European Commission. The consortium, consisting of the Greek Ministry of National Education, Probiblio (the largest regional service-providing organisation for rural public libraries in The Netherlands), the EARL-consortium of the UK and the Finnish Library Association, will develop different models, tools and applications for building and enhancing public library network infrastructures over the internet. Economic models will be applied and social and human aspects related with the shift to networking will be taken into account and the possibilities of cross-sectoral co-operation will be explored.