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The Pathway to Information: The Illinois Library Telecommunications Network

Alice Calabrese

An Illinois statewide library telecommunications system should be developed that interconnects to existing and proposed networks throughout Illinois and used the several technologies and services available.

There should be at least one switching node in every library system to link libraries of all types within those geographical areas.

Interconnection to the proposed Central Management Services network should be investigated.

The recommendations cited above were included in a functional plan for an Illinois library telecommunications network. NILRC: a consortium of Midwest community colleges, colleges and universities was awarded two LSCA Title III grants in FY88 and FY89 to research the requirements for a statewide library telecommunications network and recommend the most cost-effective and efficient way to implement such a network. A needs assessment was completed through the use of focus groups, telephone and personal interviews, advisory committees and other relevant contacts.

Integrated voice, data and video networks outside Illinois were identified and studied. Existing library and education telecommunications networks within Illinois were identified and inventoried. Information about the project was provided through promotional materials and presentations made at Illinois library meetings and conferences. Functional design requirements of the network were developed from the results of the needs assessment.

The benefits described at the time included;

Enhancing cooperative resource sharing

Reducing delivery time of information to patrons

Expanding library service to those in unserved or underserved areas

Increasing continuing education opportunities

Providing pipeline for interfacing various computer systems

Providing more cost-effective alternatives to commercial communication lines

The major component of this study was assessing the need for a statewide library telecommunications network in Illinois. There were two basic questions asked:

"Was there an interest in the library community for a telecommunications network?" and "What were the future service needs such a network would address?"

The answers to these questions were sought through the use of focus group brainstorming sessions attended by library visionaries throughout the state.

In response to the first question, the answer was a resounding, "YES!" The primary reason echoed in all the focus group sessions was to provide a cost-effective means of expanding services through shared arrangements using telecommunications. If such a network would not reduce costs, then it should at least allow for expansion without parallel cost increases.

Some concerns raised were that small libraries not be left out of the network, that statewide coordination take place, that user support services be provided, standards be developed, that access be defined, that the management and governance of the network be cooperative, and that participation be voluntary.

In response to the second question, many service needs that could be addressed by the network were identified. Overall, the participants wanted a comprehensive system that satisfied multiple needs for voice, video and data applications. It was recognized that many of the service needs were interrelated, but for discussion purposes, the responses were grouped into eight large categories: linkages, access, shared resources, databases, planning and development, in-service training and professional development, distance learning and document delivery.

One of the goals of this project was to identify and inventory existing library and education networks in Illinois. Over the course of the study, interviews were conducted with key persons in those existing and proposed networks. It was discovered that there were already a substantial number of library and educational

*Alice Calabrese, Executive Director, Chicago Library System.


networks in Illinois using telecommunications that are potential users of a statewide library telecommunications network. The technologies used by the networks varied widely from leased phone and data lines to microwave and Instructional Television Fixed Service (known ad ITFS) to cable to satellite uplinks and downlinks. Another goal was to identify statewide or regional integrated networks that might serve as a model or offer guidance for the Illinois project. Such networks were identified through surveys from the literature and from the advisory committees.

The integrated voice, video and data networks outside Illinois that were studied could all be described as successfully meeting the telecommunications needs of their constituents. They used various technologies in various combinations, but each was appropriate for the needs addressed. Each network was careful to involve their constituents in the planning process, provide the necessary user support services, and continually monitor for changing needs and technological solutions. Each network had an easily identified organizational structure involving a central operating site and user group participation.

Funding for these networks came primarily from the state with user fees, where they existed, being assessed on a charge-back basis.

Each of the networks stressed the importance of involving people in the process. As one person said "If you take care of the people issues, the technological issues will almost take care of themselves."

One of the planned outcomes of this study was a set of functional design statements:

The network must be a flexible system that allows for the expansion and implementation of new technologies as they develop.

The network should provide easy access to different databases, both statewide and nationally, through transparent interconnections (gateways) between networks.

The network should interface with existing common carriers in such ways as to permit the home connection by library patrons using many different devices, including telephone, television and personal computers.

The network should include the capability of expansion to include the cost-effective development of professional staff and inservice training distance learning, teleconferencing and continuing education.

Access to the network should allow for improved resource sharing between and among users.

The network should be cost-effective for all users.

The availability of a library telecommunications network should encourage cooperative collection management between and among libraries.

The availability of a library telecommunications network should enhance communications among institutions throughout the state.

Eight years later, Illinois educational institutions continue to work toward the initial goals of the project. Eleven distance learning consortia were established covering the state. Members of these consortia, including associate members, total close to 200 institutions. The 12 library systems in 1998 were awarded a grant to establish an interactive voice, video and data network to conduct training statewide. At this time, Illinois community colleges continue to be a catalyst in many of these initiatives. Recently, an LSTA grant was awarded to the Chicago Library System and the College of DuPage to plan and implement a full Library Technical Assistant (LTA) degree over the library system network.

Initially, we were told it would take at least 10 years to see the completion of what at that time was considered a "visionary dream." In 1998, the Higher Education Technology Task Force to the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board issued a report on "THE ILLINOIS CENTURY NETWORK."

The report proposes that the state of Illinois initiate the Illinois Century Network as a program of network services at sufficient scale to provide its citizens with essentially universal access to education and information resources at reasonable cost. It proposes connection of every higher education institution in Illinois to a very high bandwidth network. Partners also can include elementary and secondary school networks, the Illinois State Library linking learners with libraries in Illinois and community networks around the state. If funded, the "Illinois Century Network" will provide citizens with essentially universal access to education and access to information resources at a reasonable cost.

Ten years have passed. The original goals of two LSCA Title III grants have been achieved. "The Illinois Century Network" will take the original vision beyond the original expectation.


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