Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 1 • January 2001

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Turning a Dream into a Virtual Reality of Statewide Information Sharing
by Josie Morgan

Working together really can turn dreams into realities.
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." (

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 these benefits:

  • 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.
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 budget.

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 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 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 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.

We encouraged our advocates to look for opportunities within their own communities to advance the AVL.
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.

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 purple postcards!

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 concept stood out at the town hall meetings as a positive change for Alabama.
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 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 The AVL Web site is at

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