By O Leary, Mick
Information Today , Vol. 12, No. 1
Throughout much of the online age, the landscape has been dominated by the founding participants. On the producer side, it has been companies like Dialog, Mead, and Dow Jones that pioneered commercial online information and created today's marvelous research databanks. On the consumer side, it has been the academic and special libraries, which have been able to afford the data, since online information--now as in the past--is expensive.
This has left some very large groups out of the loop. Public libraries have for the most part been unable to afford online information. The general public, too, has in effect been priced out of the market. Unless you have been fortunate enough to be supported by a library that is wealthy enough to provide online searching, you have had very little opportunity to benefit from it.
There has been a decade-long drive by the industry to develop so-called "end user" markets. This has succeeded... somewhat. The numbers of end users are indeed growing, though perhaps more slowly than the industry would like. Moreover, they are largely the same people who previously were served by intermediaries, in other words, members of the universities and corporations served by the academic and special libraries. A genuine mass market has not evolved.
The general public of course has been assiduously courted by the consumer services. CompuServe and its successors--DELPHI, GEnie, America Online, and Prodigy--have been much more successful in reaching new markets, but they still are used by only a fraction of computer owners. The public resists even their very low rates, and uses them primarily for communications services like e-mail and discussion groups, which are generally cheaper than informational databases.
The Have-Nots Go Online
These longstanding patterns, however, are part of online's past. In online's future, the have-nots are going online--and doing so on their own terms. The public libraries and their clients are at the forefront of precedent-shattering trends that are creating whole new types of online services and online users. The most ambitious public programs, such as Maryland's Internet-based SAILOR, are developing "mass-market" online services to a degree only imagined before.
At least for now, projects like SAILOR are not competing with the commercial online services; they are settling territory that their for-profit counterparts have been unable to occupy. Nevertheless, once they become established, they very well may begin to encroach on the turf now held exclusively by the commercial services.
The state-wide SAILOR program is perhaps the most extensive public information network, but it is not the first. They have been emerging for several years at city, regional, and state levels and have been made possible by the convergence of several information and technical trends:
* A technical infrastructure that includes high-capacity communication networks and a large installed base of computers in public libraries and homes
* A large body of public domain electronic information, including data produced by federal and state agencies, and online library catalogs
* A dissatisfaction with pricing levels and practices of commercial online services, both professional and consumer
* A rapidly growing awareness of the power of electronic information on the part of the (one-time) have-nots
SAILOR Puts It All Together
All of these trends come together in SAILOR. SAILOR puts masses of Maryland state and county information on the Internet, builds links to other Internet resources, and provides pathways to it all from throughout the entire state. SAILOR is a joint effort by the Division of Library Development & Services of the Maryland State Department of Education, and the state's public and academic libraries. It has been a multi-year project with the dual goal of organizing an extensive set of data resources, and constructing a telecommunications network that reaches all of Maryland's homes and libraries. …