Libraries of the Future: Virtual Library Offers the Latest in Information Technology

Article excerpt

If flexibility, creativity, and the ability to anticipate the changing needs of its area residents are hallmarks of the library of the future, then the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC), North Carolina, will forever remain on the cutting edge of library services. First, it won the 1995 Gale Research, Inc./Library Journal "Library of the Year" award, which included a $10,000 grant from Gale Research, Inc. Then PLCMC captured the 1996 American Library Association/Information Today, Inc. "Library of the Future" award for its Virtual Library--a place where area residents can use and evaluate a multitude of software packages, multimedia CD-ROMs, and electronic information resources. The "Library of the Future" award consists of a $2,500 cash prize and a plaque donated by Information Today, Inc. It is given to a library, consortium, group of librarians, or support organization for information technology in a library setting.

Birth of the Virtual Library

It was the demise of the library's collection of 16mm films and phonograph records that led to the birth of the Virtual Library, according to Lois Kilkka, PLCMC new technologies manager. "When the film and sound department was phased out," said Kilkka, "an attractive, glassed-in 1,000-square-foot space became available on the first floor of the main library."

Robert Cannon, PLCMC director, envisioned the space as a showcase for cutting-edge technology in a visually exciting community learning lab setting. Following the submission of a proposal by Pat Ryckman (a member of the PLCMC management team) in February 1994, the Virtual Library concept received the endorsement of the library's administration. An architectural firm was hired to draw up. plans, and staff began determining hardware and software requirements. One year later, the Virtual Library became a reality. After two months of intensive staff training on the lab's offerings, the Virtual Library formally opened its doors to the public in April of 1995.

And the doors to the Virtual Library seldom close. The facility is open seven days a week, Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m., for a total of 68 hours. The VL is closed on Friday mornings so that staff can receive training on new products and perform equipment maintenance. "It has been a valuable time for keeping VL staff up-to-date on new applications or further exploring existing ones," Kilkka explained.

The PLCMC Virtual Library is a showcase for emerging communication technologies and electronic information access that serves as a community computer-learning laboratory. The Virtual Library (VL) contains five pods, each with four Macintosh and IBM-compatible computers that access various types of information. Pod #1 features applications that allow patrons to explore computer drawing and animation capabilities including virtual reality, 3-D, and morphing. Pod #2 features desktop publishing and optical character recognition (OCR) scanning. Pod #3 is an imaging, color scanning, and multimedia production center. Pod #4 contains 100 of the most popular CD-ROM products from the library's collection of over 350 titles. Pod #5 contains a wide variety of new technologies, including geographic systems, advanced statistical mapping, computer music, keyboard software programs, and a computer-aided design (CAD) package. Pod #5 also allows users to explore the latest in software and hardware designed to assist those with vision or mobility impairments. Users at all pods may output to color or black-and-white printers. The first five black-and-white prints are free; after that they cost five cents each. Color prints cost $1 each. The VL also offers video-production capabilities.

Staffing the Virtual Library

Staffing the Virtual Library required some creativity and novel thinking on the part of PLCMC management. The library created a new employee classification called automation support coordinator--a person who will be half public-service and half technically oriented--to provide support to the Virtual Library and the PLCMC branches that have a significant number of personal computers on-site. …