NorthStarNet: A Model for Community Information

Mick O'Leary

ONLINE, July 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


All libraries face a great challenge in the age of the Web: how do you respond when you've lost your monopoly? The Web now does very well many of the things that libraries once did alone. How do you justify yourself when millions of people have turned to the Web for information they once obtained only from you? What can you do that the Web can't do?

It's become a platitude that you apply technology and develop new services. This is easier for some than for others. Special and academic libraries, generally, have easier paths to their futures. They may have stronger funding. They often have access to technology support within their organizations. They have relatively homogeneous customer groups, for whom it's easier to target new services.

But what about the public libraries? Many of the principal subjects for which people have long turned to them--medicine and health, personal finance and investing, news and current events, consumer guidance, travel, personal betterment, and hobbies--are found in greater depth on the Web. Very many of these libraries are small, without funds for expensive technology infrastructures and information purchases. Their resources are dispersed among an array of programs for their diverse clientele. How do they redefine themselves?


A visionary survival plan for a public library might have several themes:

When you do this, on a large and ambitious scale, you have NorthStarNet. NorthStarNet (www. northstarnet.org) is a large public library consortium serving the suburban regions north and west of Chicago. It involves regional library systems, dozens of medium and small local public libraries, and hundreds of local community organizations and businesses. All this is integrated into a three part structure:


NorthStarNet (NSN) has taken shape to serve the distinctive geographic and demographic character of its dense suburban region.
Public library online services and Web sites have been around for years. Often known as "freenets," they typically are based in a single system that serves a large city or some smaller municipality. NorthStarNet (NSN) has taken shape to serve the distinctive geographic and demographic character of its dense suburban region.

It encompasses six counties lying to the north of Chicago. The region has 1.6 million people, living in dozens of medium and small communities. Because of suburban sprawl and today's lifestyles, the differences among these communities are blurred. People often live in one town, work in another, and pursue leisure in still others. Thus, as people think of themselves as residents of some larger quasi-community, their local public libraries are still bound to an older, separate-municipality model.

The solution was the vision of Sarah Long, Director of the North Suburban Library System (NSLS), and President of the American Library Association. She recalls that the notion came out of a personal concern, "One of the difficulties of living in a suburban region is that you couldn't find any information about the area." She developed a model in which local libraries would pool their own electronic resources, under the technical and administrative umbrella of NSLS. This model transforms the local library into a regional information resource. Melissa Henderson, NSN Coordinator, explains, "This is the whole point of NorthStarNet. People live and function in several communities, but there was no central point for information covering all of these communities. This reaffirms the role of the library as the resource for gathering and distributing local information." NSN began operations in 1995 with four participating local libraries.


NSN is the agent for a few programs that have to be carried out centrally. Chief among these is a consortium subscription to the Electric Library...
NSN is operated by NSLS, one of twelve regional library service agencies in Illinois. These agencies are chartered and funded by the Illinois State Library to support the local systems in their areas. NSLS provides approximately $300,000 annually for NSN. The NSLS board is also the governing body for NSN. Additional governance for NSN is provided by two advisory boards, both with memberships comprised of directors and technology managers from several member libraries. One advisory board deals with operations, and the other with policy issues. NSN is also partnering with NSLS' neighbor system, the Suburban Library System, which serves counties to the West of Chicago. NSN has a staff of four, headed by Melissa Henderson.

NSN itself provides the technical infrastructure for the local library Web activities. Its staff members carry out system maintenance, and provide technical support for local library staff. It also conducts several training programs each year for local library Web managers, covering site development, design, maintenance, etc.

NSN is the agent for a few programs that have to be carried out centrally. Chief among these is a consortium subscription to the Electric Library, Infonautics' full-text reference and research service (www.infonautics.com.) The Electric Library contains full-text magazines, newspapers, broadcast programming, reference books, and graphic collections such as maps. It has an appealing interface and powerful search features. Library users are authenticated by telephone number and ZIP Code.


NSN governance and oversight are minimal, giving local libraries a great deal of latitude to develop their own content.
With NSN providing the infrastructure, the local libraries are free to concentrate the actual building of Web resources. They are filling an unexploited Web niche, while carrying out a classic public library function: local information. Gathering and distributing information about local organizations, events, and activities is a widespread, important, and time-honored public library activity, as Henderson notes, "In reality, libraries have been collecting community information for many years. They used to put it on index cards and then used this information to answer reference questions. Now they're publishing it on the Web, and the more exciting thing is that they're giving community members the opportunity to publish their own information also." Through NSN, the libraries have a means both for putting their information on the Web and making it readily available, at any time, throughout the larger suburban community. Henderson adds, "More and more, people want resources in their lives to be available 24/7. They want the information when they want it. The library is the virtual aggregator for community information, this is one way to do it."

Sixty-three public libraries participate in NSN, from small-city systems like Skokie and Evanston, to those in the smallest towns. Each typically provides a suite of local information, including:

NSN governance and oversight are minimal, giving local libraries a great deal of latitude to develop their own content. They also follow their own local policies. As a result, there is great variety in design and look and feel among the local sites. There is also a wide range in level of activity; some libraries have numerous services, while others have a minimal presence.

Creation, design, and maintenance of local content is the sole responsibility of each local library. Each has a designated Library Coordinator, who manages relationships with NSN, and with the local information providers. Otherwise, there are numerous individual patterns for operation of the local site. Librarians involved in adult services, community programs, and technology support may participate. Some libraries have divided content development and site maintenance among different positions. As a rule, however, most libraries have grafted these responsibilities upon existing positions, rather than creating entirely new ones.

Long and Henderson both point out that the local libraries have been eager to participate, despite the administrative, technical, and service burdens that accompany NSN membership. Their attitude is summarized by Steve Moskal, Director of the LaGrange Public Library, which serves a small town of 15,000, "We had to do this. We very much had to get out in front." Nor does Moskal, who does double duty as Library Coordinator, have second thoughts, "I don't have a shadow of a doubt that it is important because people rely upon it. It extends the library beyond its walls 24 hours a day." If traffic is any indicator, Moskal is correct because the NSN server gets one million hits per month.


Local information may be a venerable public library tradition, but local Web site hosting is a whole new service role. NSN's local libraries also provide hosting services for over 1,000 local organizations in the NSLS and SLS regions. The relationship between library and local "information providers" as they are known, resembles that between NSN and the library. The information provider (IP) actually develops and maintains its own content, while the library provides support and acts as a broker with NSN. The local Library Coordinator manages relationships with the IPs. NSN's IPs come from all sectors of the community, including local government, park districts, civic organizations, clubs, and small businesses.

Conflict can arise when public agencies provide free services that overlap with those provided for cost by private business, but this has not been an issue with NSN. Commercial ISPs in the NSLS region seem to be content to leave the smaller clients to NSN, as Henderson says, "We're not competing because our mission, our services, and our niches are quite different." Most of the IPs are, in fact, small organizations that find it difficult or impossible to pay for Web hosting. These include small businesses, which make up approximately 25% of the IPs. Extending free Web hosting service to for-profit businesses may seem particularly subject to conflict of interest claims, but Henderson points out that small businesses are also public library customers. Another factor is that NSN does not offer the complete range of Web features that large companies or serious ecommerce businesses require. In particular, NSN does not support online retailing, except for government agencies.

Long comments that this proactive partnering in the community has raised the libraries' stock, "People now realize that we are always early adapters to new technology, and we really do know what we're talking about with regard to technology." For Steve Moskal, hosting for his 15 IPs has been a great step into an entirely new and important form of library service, "It's invaluable. It's given us a chance to say to local organizations, 'We are the ones who will give you an account on the Web. If you've always wanted to have a Web site, you can now, and it won't cost you anything.'"


The loads carried by the local libraries are ultimately the distinction and the strength of NSN. With dozens of separate organizations participating in governance and, particularly, operations, NSN is flexible and adaptable. Henderson refers to NSN as a "distributed" model, in which the key work of resource building is carried out by dozens of separate libraries, acting independently, "The distributed model is very strong. One part can flounder while the rest of the network stays strong."

Meanwhile, the work continues, as Long says, "I would like NorthStarNet to be indispensable, and we're not there yet." NSN now includes 37 of the 50 libraries in the NSLS region. (The rest in the NSN total come from the Suburban Library System.) Henderson says that she expects all of them to participate eventually. She adds that another important management task is to develop a comprehensive evaluation program. NSN now measures itself by anecdotal feedback, and both Henderson and Long see the need for a formal method. At the same time, everyone is eyeing new content and services. Henderson places great importance upon creating a comprehensive database of social service agencies throughout the region. Long would like to see 24/7 reference service, and is considering a pilot project. Moskal's pet project is to digitize rare local history materials. These and similar plans are evolving all throughout NSN. It is a new public library definition of collection development, in which the age-old notion of the library as a comprehensive repository of knowledge takes on a shiny new form. As envisioned by Sarah Long, "The ultimate aim, then and now, is to create a complete and content-rich resource about groups, organizations, businesses, events--everything in the service area.

MickO'Leary (71735.2401@compuserve.com) is Library Director at Frederick Community College in Myersville, MD.

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