The Internet Public Library (IPL): An Exploratory Case Study on User Perceptions

Article excerpt

The Internet Public Library (IPL), now known as ipl2, was created in 1995 with the mission of serving the public by providing librarian-recommended Internet resources and reference help. We present an exploratory case study on public perceptions of an "Internet public library," based on qualitative analysis of interviews with ten college student participants: some current users and others unfamiliar with the IPL. The exploratory interviews revealed some confusion around the IPL's name and the types of resources and services that would be offered. Participants made many positive comments about the IPL's resource quality, credibility, and personal help.

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The Internet Public Library (IPL), now known as ipl2, is an online-based public service organization and a learning and teaching environment originally developed by the University of Michigan's School of Information and currently hosted by Drexel University's iSchool. The IPL was created in 1995 as a project in a graduate seminar; a diverse group of students worked to create an online space that would be both a library and an Internet institution, helping librarians and the public identify useful Internet resources and content collections. With a strong mission to serve and educate a varied community of users, the IPL sought to help the public navigate the increasingly complex Internet environment as well as advocate for the continuing relevance of librarians in a digital world. The resulting IPL provided online reference, content collections (such as ready reference and a full-text reading room), youth-oriented resources, and services for other librarians, all through its free, web-based presence. (1) Currently, the IPL consists of a publicly accessible website with several large content collections (such as "POTUS: Presidents of the United States"), sections targeted toward teens and children ("TeenSpace" and "KidSpace"), and a question and answer service where users can e-mail questions to be answered by volunteer librarians. (2)

There has been an enormous amount of change in the Internet and digital libraries since the IPUs inception in 1995. While web use statistics, user feedback, and incoming patron questions indicate that the IPL remains well-used and valued, there are many questions about its place in an increasingly information-rich online environment. Digital and physical holdings, academic and public libraries, free and subscription resources, Internet encyclopedias, and a multitude of other offerings form a complex (and often overwhelming) information-seeking environment. To move forward effectively and to best serve its existing and potential users, the IPL must pursue a path that is adapted to the present state of the Internet and that is user-informed and user-driven.

Recent large-scale studies, such as the 2005 OCLC reports on perceptions of libraries and information resources, have begun to explore user perceptions of libraries in the complex Internet environment. (3) These studies emphasize the importance of user perceptions of library use, questioning whether libraries still matter in the rapidly growing infosphere and what future use trends might be. In the Internet environment, user perceptions play a key role in use (or nonuse) of library resource and services as information-seekers are faced with myriad easily accessible electronic information sources. The IPUs name, for example, may or may not be perceived as initially helpful to users' information-seeking needs. Repeat use relates to such perceptions as well, in the amount of value users perceive in the library resources over the many other sources available. In beginning to explore such issues, there is a need for current research addressing user perceptions of an Internet public library: what the name implies to both existing and potential users as well as the associated functions and resources that should be offered.

In this study, we present an exploratory case study on public perceptions of the IPL. …