Just 2 years ago, the Alabama
Virtual Library was a dream that some doubted could come true. Today, it's
a $3 million cooperative effort that brings an extensive collection of
online resources to Alabama's schools, colleges, universities, and public
libraries. And in fact, our program was recently recognized by SOLINET
as an Outstanding Library Program in the multi-type library cooperation
category, an award that recognizes "library accomplishments that illustrate
the benefits of library collaboration, serve as models of effectiveness,
or advance the development of innovative programs." (http://www.solinet.net/members/SOLPA.htm)
|Working together really
can turn dreams into realities.
Representatives from five
state agencies have developed the Alabama Virtual Library (AVL), one of
the most outstanding programs to come from the state in decades. The effort
was initiated by the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (a part of the
Alabama Commission on Higher Education) and includes the Alabama Department
of Education, the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, the Alabama
Public Library Service, and the Alabama Supercomputer Authority. Together,
these agencies worked through policy issues to implement a program that
does not fall within narrow "agency" boundaries, creating a true statewide
project with incredible support—from the public, the legislature, and our
own constituencies. This article provides an overview of the path we took
to make this project a reality for Alabama, and spotlights the significant
collaboration that was involved.
The Dream Starts Slowly
The AVL was dreamed up
by the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL), a consortium for graduate-level
academic institutions. NAAL members have worked since 1984 to support resource
sharing among universities by providing professional development opportunities
and by coordinating a statewide program to strengthen library collection
development. One of the strongest benefits that NAAL brings to universities
is the cooperative negotiation for online databases. By aggregating the
demand for information databases, NAAL has successfully negotiated with
online content providers for significant discounts for members.
In the early 1990s, NAAL
proposed extending this negotiation to a statewide program that would help
public K-12 schools, 2-year colleges, and public libraries. Unfortunately,
this was a period in which the interests of K-12 schools were pitted against
those of higher education in an annual battle for legislative funding.
Ideas for cooperative ventures carved out of our limited education trust
fund—no matter how worthy—were treated with skepticism.
However, by 1998, several
shifts had occurred that made it possible to try a cooperative program.
A dialogue opened with the leadership of key education agencies, and each
committed to support funding for a statewide virtual library. We started
with a steering committee of interested volunteers from state agencies
and associations, and we welcomed those who heard about the AVL vision
and wanted to work toward that shared goal.
Focus on a Common Vision
NAAL and the Alabama Public
Library Service were able to secure small planning grants that were used
to print brochures explaining the AVL concept and benefits. Then, working
with an in-state publishing company, the steering committee developed a
5-minute video that could be shared with legislators and community groups.
It explained concisely what Alabama stood to gain if the Alabama Virtual
Library was in every classroom and available to every citizen.
To win funding and legislative
support, we knew we needed to develop an aggressive strategy to promote
the AVL. Generally, librarians and educators are not at the top of the
list when people make a "Who's Who" list of the politically savvy. So three
members of our steering committee attended an American Library Association
advocacy training program. Then these team members and the Alabama Library
Association sponsored workshops around the state, presenting an overview
of the AVL proposal and coaching teachers, librarians, and others in the
finer points of self-promotion.
We encouraged our advocates
to look for opportunities within their own communities to advance the AVL.
The local Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, Association of University Women
chapters, and Chambers of Commerce were targeted for their influential
memberships. By reaching out to those outside the traditional library community,
we managed to meet with local school boards, economic development groups,
and other leaders in the business community who donate to campaigns and
who work with elected representatives on an ongoing basis.
To keep our message on target,
our brochures and video hammered home three key points. We said that, by
funding the AVL, our state's students, teachers, and citizens would receive
A 1998 survey by the Alabama
State Department of Education found that our schools averaged 11 print
magazine subscriptions per site, and that the average age of science books
in our school libraries was 19 years. As you might expect, the quality
of resources varied greatly across our school systems. Those schools with
strong local funding had more resources and more current holdings for their
students. Those schools in our poorer or more rural districts struggle
with money for daily operations, repairs, and faculty; adding more books
to the schools' libraries, while valued, has a lower priority in the operational
Excellence: Users would have
appropriate, accurate, relevant, scholarly, and up-to-date information.
Equity: Every citizen, student,
and teacher would have online access to a core of current information.
Economy: By signing statewide
licenses, Alabama would achieve significant savings.
Happily, now the AVL provides
teachers, students, and other participants with accurate, up-to-date information
regardless of location. A number of our schools with strong local funding
had already licensed one or more of the more popular online databases.
But with the AVL, teachers and libraries in even the poorest communities
now have access to the same information as others elsewhere in the state.
Since the common core of AVL content is delivered to every school campus,
some of the inequity in local funding has been alleviated.
Building Community Support
We were able to capitalize
on a unique opportunity to reach a broader audience through the Alabama
Coalition for Tomorrow (ACT). This group, representing the Alabama Business
Council, the Chambers of Commerce, and the Economic Development Council
of Alabama, sponsored 35 town meetings across the state to ask citizens
about their concerns. ACT planned to use this feedback as a basis for developing
a progressive legislative agenda.
Our committee arranged to have
an AVL supporter at each of those meetings. While most of the attending
citizens addressed local problems, our representatives offered a statewide
solution. The AVL concept stood out at the town hall meetings as a positive
change for Alabama. It was a program that offered a relatively low start-up
cost and immediate statewide impact, and it had a core group of people
willing to follow through on implementation. As a result, the AVL became
one of the top priorities in ACT's legislative platform. With some of the
state's best professional lobbyists promoting the ACT agenda, the AVL had
an entree into the political arena.
|Our steering committee
developed a 5-minute video that explained concisely what Alabama stood
to gain if the Alabama Virtual Library was in every classroom and available
to every citizen.
Our steering committee expanded
a "legislative tree" that was used by the Alabama Public Library Service
to ensure that the AVL was presented to each legislative delegation by
a personal contact. A coordinator in each district was responsible for
finding local residents who would agree to have an in-person meeting with
their elected officials. The contact list quickly branched out as we worked
to discover supporters who had personal relationships or previous working
relationships with their legislators.
The bulk of coordination
of the legislative tree fell to one individual. The first draft of the
list matched a contact to each district for the House of Representatives,
which, in Alabama, can tie together adjacent counties or follow meandering
district lines that carve small segments from distant geographic locations.
This list was revised until we had a spokesperson in each county, and the
initial list of public library representatives was broadened to include
K-12 media specialists and staff members from the academic libraries. Thelocal
contacts kept in touch with the coordinator through e-mail, although very
little follow-up was needed because everyone knew going in how important
their role was in securing support for the AVL. A simple checklist indicated
those who had reported successful contacts, and for the few areas where
the local advocate fell through, another contact was quickly recruited
to fill the gap.
Since we did not want our
promotional material to end up on a dusty shelf in the corner of an office,
every legislator was contacted in his home district by a local voter, briefed
on the AVL concept, and asked for a commitment of support before the legislative
session convened. Although our videos ended up arriving after the session
opened, this worked to our advantage by creating an opportunity for a second
visit. The local advocates also followed up throughout the legislative
session to answer any questions that might arise. This legislative tree
turned out to be our second-greatest marketing tool.
Despite the impact of our
local contacts, we still got word from several legislators that they were
not hearing from their local constituents. So our well-organized effort
had to expand even more to include the voting public at large.
The Massive Purple Wave
Our small planning grant
was almost tapped out after we produced the video and the brochure. On
the suggestion of an inspired genius, the remaining funds were used to
print coordinating postcards with the AVL logo. The postcards were pre-addressed
to the Alabama statehouse, with a message of support and a few blank lines
for a personal note to the sender's elected official. For less than the
cost of a daily newspaper, a citizen could contact both the local senator
and representative to request support for the Alabama Virtual Library.
Our meetings in local communities
continued. Now, however, in addition to a brochure that spelled out the
benefits of the AVL, each attendee also received two postcards. Public
libraries gave postcards to their patrons, and college campuses and K-12
schools distributed them to students, faculty, and staff. Local and statewide
PTA groups joined the effort as well, and the postcard effort began to
have an impact.
|We encouraged our advocates
to look for opportunities within their own communities to advance the AVL.
Our distinctive purple postcards
poured into the statehouse. Each day a new batch arrived, and legislators
noted the names of those who took the time to write personal notes. More
than 80,000 postcards were delivered to our legislature in a 3-month period.
We knew this was a successful program when one legislator indicated he
would support the AVL if we would please stem the flow of those bright
Now We Have the Money: Where
Do We Go from Here?
During the legislative
session, the key contacts at each agency spent a lot of time answering
questions about implementation issues. The legislators came to understand
our vision, and, to their credit, they did two great things. They not only
gave us $3 million in funding, but they also did not mandate an organizational
structure for the AVL. Seeing our already-successful working relationships,
they allowed us to build the AVL using a cooperative governance. Consequently,
our democratic council has equal representation from each of the five state-level
education agencies and their constituencies. We took special care to ensure
a balance among the participating agencies, building protections into the
by-laws for the AVL Council.
Here's how we set up our
cooperative AVL governance: The head of each of the five agencies is responsible
for appointing three representatives to the council. Each appointment is
made for a 3-year term, although several agencies chose to assign shorter
terms of service to their initial appointments, thereby allowing a staggered
rotation for replacing the council members. Each agency has appointed an
administrative employee as one of the delegated seats, and the remaining
representatives are those in the field—academic librarians, school media
specialists, and public library representatives—each with day-to-day responsibilities
involving AVL implementation in his or her native environment.
This council has met monthly
throughout the first year of operation. While each of the participating
agencies agreed to be responsible for coordinating AVL set-up within their
own constituencies, we quickly woke up and realized that numbers alone
would require us to stay involved across agency boundaries.
Access for the colleges
and universities was relatively easy to arrange, because most already had
high-speed network connections and prior experience with group-licensed
databases. However, arranging the inventory and access for our 250 public
library service outlets and 1,200-plus public schools required a higher
level of coordination. The Alabama Supercomputer Authority collected data
for the State Department of Education, setting up a Web-based form to gather
IP information, while the Alabama Public Library Service worked with its
members to collect information through e-mail and phone contacts. Initially,
we assumed that sites would fit into one of two access categories: direct
IP authentication or dial-up access requiring passwords. We quickly learned
just how many different ways there could be to configure Internet access!
Only close cooperation between the agencies, participating database providers,
and site coordinators prevented the data collection and site access from
dissolving into a nightmare of early failure.
The Alabama Supercomputer
Authority (ASA) played a key role in implementing the AVL by serving as
the sole technology partner. The AVL contracted with ASA to provide a help
desk to coordinate access problems and to offer support to all AVL participants.
To foster communication, ASA expanded the AVL Web site and established
listservs for AVL discussion and announcements.
After the initial rollout
to schools, campuses, and libraries was complete, AVL tackled the problem
of providing expanded access for all citizens by developing the AVL home
access card. This Web-based system provides remote access to AVL resources
by using a customized system developed by ASA and policies developed by
the Alabama Public Library Service and Alabama's public libraries. Since
our libraries use a number of proprietary databases to manage local patron
information, we started from scratch with the AVL system, deciding on the
minimum information needed to verify that an individual qualified for AVL
access. ASA created
a secure system that public
library staff members use to enter the patron information needed to generate
a user ID and password, and developed the user interface that provides
access to the AVL resources. In yet another example of collaboration, the
public libraries agreed to be the beta testers and to work through implementation
issues before the program was available for statewide access, and to serve
as the central coordination point for registering home access users.
|During the legislative
session, the key contacts at each agency spent a lot of time answering
questions about implementation issues.
Field of Dreams: Build It
and They Will Come
From the beginning, we
knew that providing quality content through the AVL would not be enough.
Extensive, ambitious programs would be needed to reach all pockets of the
state and provide critical training that would enable teachers, students,
and librarians to use the resources we'd place on their desktops. During
the first year, we relied on our database vendors to present intensive
day-long workshops on their products' features in an effort to build a
"train the trainer" program. Today, we have an online directory of volunteers
available to provide in-service training in each of Alabama's 67 counties
on an as-needed basis.
In the second year of operation,
we are currently working with individual school systems to make sure that
they have the resources needed to get the full benefit of the AVL. Our
continuing challenge is to get training out to the end-users, and we are
evaluating our publicity and promotion efforts to this end. Our initial
efforts to outsource professional development of training materials were
turned back, but we remain optimistic that we will have these resources
by the end of this year. Our users have freely shared tutorials, handouts,
and lesson plans that have been developed for their local audiences; our
Web site features a growing clearinghouse for just this collaborative information.
The AVL Council has been entrusted
with this $3 million gift from the state, and we take seriously our obligation
to spend this money wisely. There is a rigorous system in place to critically
evaluate all databases with an in-depth review process, and we have a negotiation
committee that's determined to ensure that every dollar spent returns the
best value of available content. Each decision is balanced against the
needs of all AVL participants—from K-12 schools, to postsecondary and graduate
education, to the needs of the greater Alabama population.
|The AVL concept stood
out at the town hall meetings as a positive change for Alabama.
The Alabama Virtual Library
currently includes license agreements with 11 premier database providers
for 53 distinct databases. Every school, public library, and 2- and 4-year
college and university has onsite access to the AVL resources. With an
AVL card, Alabama citizens can access content from their homes, offices
or other locations.
All We Ever Dreamed Of
We recently celebrated
our 1-year anniversary. After spending the second half of this year reviewing
usage data and making critical decisions about which resources contribute
to the overall goals of the Alabama Virtual Library, we will gear up for
another cycle of advocacy before our legislature.
This year, our postcards
will be blue.
|Factors in Our Success
Our partnership spans the
education spectrum in our state. Our 2-year colleges have a strong presence
in the Alabama legislature, while the Alabama Education Association, an
organization for employees of the public schools, is among the state's
most powerful lobbying groups. The Network of Alabama Academic Libraries
has extensive experience in using and administering online databases in
higher education. The Alabama Research and Education Network, coordinated
by the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, provides a much-needed infrastructure
by connecting all of the state's public 2- and 4-year colleges and universities,
more than 46 K-12 school systems, and a significant number of public libraries,
while the State Department of Education's 1,200 schools touch every community
in our state.
We benefitted from several
external funding sources. The Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA)
and its predecessor, the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA),
provided the initial connectivity for approximately 70 percent of our public
libraries. Later, Alabama was chosen as the pilot program for the U.S.
Library Program administered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
This initiative provides technology training, ongoing technical assistance,
and computer resources to selected libraries. The federal Goals 2000 program
and the Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries brought much-needed
grant money to public K-12 schools and helped push network services and
classroom computers as a first priority for technology expenditures. As
the AVL delivered content to our participating sites, funding fell in place
to support many of the local infrastructure needs.
Our database providers worked
closely with us to ensure a smooth rollout. Although funding was not available
until the start of the fiscal year in October, the companies participating
in the AVL worked to help assure that AVL access would be widely available
with the start of the school year in August. A primary contact within each
company has been assigned to the AVL help desk to expedite resolution of
any access problems or special requests.
Our promotion plan relied
on broad support from distinct communities. Our self-taught advocates were
outstanding promoters of the Alabama Virtual Library. We watched as artificial
boundaries were set aside as we all worked together to make the dream of
an Alabama Virtual Library become shared reality.
Josie Morgan is a coordinator
at the Alabama Supercomputer Authority in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds
a B.A. in communication from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Her primary responsibility is coordinating the help desk and online support
for the Alabama Virtual Library, and she is a member of the AVL Council.
Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
The AVL Web site is at http://www.avl.lib.al.us.