Toward Context-Centered Methods for Evaluating Public Library Networked Community Information Initiatives
First Monday

Toward Context-Centered Methods for Evaluating Public Library Networked Community Information Initiatives by Joan C. Durrance and Karen E. Pettigrew

The Internet provides new ways for citizens to access information about the community, which has often been difficult to obtain in the past. To gain a better understanding of how public libraries and their partner organizations are poised to provide such community information (CI) in the next decade we have conducted a major study of the provision of CI and its use. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) "Help-Seeking in an Electronic World: The Impact of Electronic Access to Community Information on Citizens' Information Behavior and Public Libraries" ( is a multi-stage research project consisting of a two-stage national survey of the provision of CI in the digital age and case studies of public library community networking partnerships, which were designed to provide in-depth knowledge of community networking approaches. We identified a wide range of impacts of digital CI services and systems on citizens, organizations, and communities. The examples we discuss are indicative of the ways that CI librarians and those who are building community networks contribute to the social fabric of their communities. In this article we present 1) an introduction to public library involvement in CI provision; 2) examples of digital best practices and community networking activities; 3) a discussion of benefits of networked CI and community networks from the perspective of users; and, 4) implications for evaluation since current tools cannot determine the impact of digital CI initiatives.


National Study of Networked Community Information
Determining the Benefits of Access to Networked Community Information
Digital CI Best Practice Examples
Benefits of Networked Community Information
Best Practice Public Library Community Networking Initiatives
Benefits of Community Networks
Implications for Evaluation




Numerous studies show that all citizens - despite their occupation, education, financial status, or social ties - encounter situations where they experience great difficulties in recognizing, expressing and meeting their needs for information (Bishop et al., 1999, Chatman, 1996, 1999; Chen & Hernon, 1982; Dervin et al., 1976; Durrance, 1984; Harris & Dewdney, 1994; King Research, 1979; Childers, 1975, Pettigrew, 1999, 2000; Warner et al., 1973). Physical and geographic barriers also may prohibit citizens from successfully obtaining information. As a result, many citizens cannot obtain important information, access needed services, or participate as full-fledged members in their community's daily life. To respond to these needs, public libraries have facilitated citizen access to CI since the early 1970s by providing information and referral (I&R) services, and through organizing and supporting community-wide information initiatives with local service providers (Baker & Ruey, 1988; Childers, 1984). In addition to providing individuals with information about local services that can assist them with problems of daily living, community information services connect people and groups, and facilitate civic life.



National Study of Networked Community Information

The Internet along with high-speed personal computers, modems, and graphical interfaces provide new ways for public libraries and other like-minded organizations such as community networks to facilitate citizens' information needs. To gain a better understanding of how public libraries are poised to provide CI in the next decade we were awarded funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to conduct a major study of the provision of CI and its use. "Help-Seeking in an Electronic World: The Impact of Electronic Access to Community Information on Citizens' Information Behavior and Public Libraries," is a multi-stage research project, consisting of a two-stage national survey to gain a breadth of knowledge of the provision of CI in the digital age, examination of best practice through library Web presence, and case studies of community networks in three communities designed to provide us with rich in-depth knowledge about the approaches librarians use to create and nurture best practice community networks (Durrance & Pettigrew, 2000; Pettigrew & Durrance, 2000).



Determining the Benefits of Access to Networked Community Information

Throughout this article we discuss benefits from the perspective of users of CI information and the systems through which they found it. We framed our study from the perspective of the user in order to obtain instances of how CI helps from a variety of context-centered perspectives. Examples are drawn both from the national survey of CI librarians, examination of public library Web sites, and from surveys and interviews of citizens, representatives of local organizations, and public library staff in selected communities in the course of our public library-community network system case studies.

In the case study communities we sought to determine the impacts of digital community information on citizens, organizations and groups (including service providers who participate in community networks), as well as its impact in the community. Both the user survey and follow-up interviews were based on Dervin's sense-making theory (c.f., Dervin, 1992; Savolainen, 1993), a set of user-centered assumptions and methods for studying the uses individuals make of information systems. This theory asserts that people encounter gaps in their knowledge that they can only bridge by making new sense of their situations. Thus they use varied strategies to seek and construct information from different resources or ideas as they cope with different barriers. Sense-making facilitates the study of different aspects of information behavior. Our research included two aspects: (1) users' assessments of the helpfulness of digital CI, and (2) users' and service providers' constructions or images of these systems. An examination of helpfulness yields an array of responses that identify benefits.

Data collection methods at each site included (a) an online survey and follow-up telephone interviews with adult community network users who access "tagged" CI Web pages, along with (b) in-depth interviews, field observation and focus groups with public library-community network staff, local human service providers, and members of non-profit organizations. The survey was posted (during different time periods) on the main CI page of each network. The steps we took to address methodological considerations when conducting online surveys (see Witte et al., (2000) and Zhang (2000)) are discussed in Pettigrew & Durrance (2000).

The multiple approaches we used to collect data result in an analysis of many of the ways that CI librarians and those who are building community networks contribute to the social fabric of their communities. In the remainder of this article we discuss examples of digital best practices that represent some CI activities currently undertaken in public libraries; benefits of networked CI identified by librarians but seen from the perspective of the community; examples of best practice public library community networking activities and their benefits both from the perspective of those who contribute to them and those who use these CNs. We close with a discussion of implications for evaluation for these services whose benefits are not fully realized by librarians and decision-makers.



Digital CI Best Practice Service Examples

Through our IMLS sponsored research we found numerous examples across the U.S. of innovative services that empower citizens and facilitate the flow of information within communities (

For instance:

  • By collaborating with the city's black community, the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County has digitized decades of the black experience through its "An African American Album" online collection;
  • The San Francisco Public Library's AIDS Foundation Database includes extensive listings of HIV service providers;
  • The Middle Country Public Library has created a comprehensive Long Island community information database in partnership with local businesses, agencies, and foundations;
  • The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Free-Net serves as a central resource for the region's vast non-profit community; and,
  • The New Haven Free Public Library coordinates the city of New Haven's Web activities.

Our project Web site,, includes many examples, arranged by category, of best practices employed by community information librarians. These include examples of digitization projects that increase access to previously unavailable CI of historic value, outstanding CI database efforts, exemplary community information services, etc.



Benefits of Networked Community Information

Although we found that librarians believe that their current evaluation tools are grossly inadequate to evaluate the public's use of CI; many, when asked, were able to identify ways that the citizens in their community used CI. Fifty-four percent said that they remembered a time recently when they had learned how someone or some group had made use of community information. We received scores of examples from librarians responding to our survey. This kind of data, however, is haphazardly collected if at all.

The benefits discussed in this section are filtered through librarians. They came as a result of informal feedback from users of CI. Many resulted both from use of information in the library's CI database and from personal assistance provided by a librarian. To indicate the cumulative impact of anecdotal data, we grouped responses into several representative categories of impact. These include personal assistance or empowerment, value resulting from connecting people with other people and groups, neighborhood improvement, and community building. In the interest of space, the examples below are not categorized. A number of examples can be found on the final report of "Help-Seeking in An Electronic World" on the project Web site.

Examples of CI Benefits Identified by Librarians

  • Every year about five adults collect information on how to get their GED, register for the test, and pass with assistance provided at the library. Help ranges from providing basic directional information to help taking a practice test to one-on-one tutorial assistance.
  • A person, who was setting up a small business, needed advice on licensing requirements. She used our community directory for lists of organizations to contact, our Web site, the electronic small business directory produced by us, and our print resources. She later sent us a very complimentary e-mail.
  • A concerned relative from half way across the country was able to contact one of our senior citizen services to check on her elderly relative.
  • There was a tragic fire in our city last Christmas that claimed the lives of a father and all but one of his children. The Fire Department asked the library to suggest some social service organizations and community groups that could offer aid to the surviving mother and child. The library created a potential referral list using the community information database.
  • An organization that administers our hospital told us that many of their patients use the community information database to locate support services for themselves in preparation for leaving the hospital. A brochure is placed on each meal tray to promote use of the service.
  • A couple has just bought a home which has a pond declared "wetlands" by the state. Using the new GIS (geographic & aerial photo database) the couple has the evidence needed to get Department of Transportation & Department of Environmental Management to help clear the pond of sand & salt from winter road work which caused a large sandbar in the pond, reducing aquatic life substantially.
  • With the help of the library's photo collection, volunteers based the construction of a children's playground on a building in one of the historic photographs.



Best Practice Public Library Community Networking Activities

For more than a decade a group of best practice libraries have played pivotal roles in community network (CN) development. CNs provide citizens with equitable access to the Internet for obtaining CI and communicating with others (Cisler, 1996; Durrance, 1993, 1994; Durrance & Schneider 1996). CNs provide citizens with one-stop shopping using community-oriented discussions, question-and-answer forums, access to governmental, social services, and local information, e-mail, and Internet access (Schuler, 1994; 1996). While individuals may interact with other users by posting queries, monitoring discussions, etc., CI is often a central community network feature that appears in many forms: information and referral (I&R) agencies and libraries, for example, may mount their databases on the Internet, while individual service providers may post information about their programs and services.

Thus, the architecture of the Internet makes networked CI possible by linking information files created not only by single organizations such as libraries, but by agencies, organizations, and individuals throughout the community (and, of course, the world). This is a major departure from traditional I&R services where librarians and other CI agency staff work with files about the community that are created and manipulated using an internal system. For individuals, the availability of networked CI over the Internet means they can access it at anytime and from any place, including the home, office, and public library. The success of these community networks, however, in facilitating citizens' access to needed services hinges both on the participation of service providers and its use and support by the intended audience, i.e., the public.

The roles played by libraries and librarians in community networking vary considerably (Durrance & Schneider, 1996; Durrance & Pettigrew, 2000; Pettigrew & Durrance, 2000). CN initiatives reflect the leadership taken by these public libraries in increasing access to the community's information about itself. These projects virtually depict the community with information by and about local non-profits and other organizations, health and social services agencies, libraries, museums and educational institutions, some businesses and employers, and local and state governments. By bringing information created by a number of organizations including, but not limited to, the library together in one place the CN provides one-stop shopping for community information. Some CNs help the community keep track of its events by creating, hosting, or linking to a community calendar. Some libraries invest in information infrastructure for the good of the community - a server, software, tech support, etc. - for the CN. In come communities the library serves as a physical presence for this virtual entity. Some library staff train community leaders and citizens in technology use. As a result, as we see below, CNs can function as catalysts for educational, social, and economic growth in their community.



Benefits of Community Networks

The CNs in our case study examples, the Three Rivers Free-Net in Pittsburgh, PA; NorthStarNet in the Chicago area; and CascadeLink in Portland, OR serve as powerful examples of what can happen when a community pools its resources to better inform the public. The site visits to the three communities provided us with rich data obtained from interviews, focus groups, and examination of resource materials. Our respondents represented social services agencies, non-profit organizations, local government units, the librarians who created, developed and nurtured these community networks as well the administrators of their library systems. Finally, we surveyed and interviewed users of CNs who were engaged in seeking information from the CN. We found that those involved with their local community network were able to identify in their own words a range of benefits that accrue to themselves and to the community. (Pettigrew & Durrance, 2000).

The case study CNs profiled in our IMLS study share some elements or approaches; see

Each CN reflects the mission of its parent organization, and, just as importantly, the knowledge, skills, and values of librarians. The leadership in these best practice community networks are able to assess situations and local conditions. In addition, each CN model seeks to solve a local access problem or to improve existing access. The actual CN model developed will result from a variety of community and library circumstances and consist of a range of content development and service considerations. Leaders of these three CNs recognize the need to provide training and technical assistance to community organizations and non-profit groups - how they do it varies. They are likely to convene or otherwise bring community organizations together (through Web technology, listservs, etc). They find different ways to show community groups the value of developing relevant content and linking to related organizations. CN leaders foster communication among community organizations. They know that communication leads to the creation of new partnerships among community groups. The CN is a mechanism for modeling activities that result in increased collaboration, volunteerism, training, and other benefits to the community.

In this research we identified a number of ways that these CNs provide value for service providers, their clientele, and the community. The use of qualitative approaches yielded rich and convincing examples of how a CN can help a community through the information it brings together and the community building activities that occur along the way. Our data showed several distinct categories of benefits. We found that a CN can:

  • Overcome barriers, including geographical and digital divide barriers and the reluctance to ask for information;
  • Increase the effectiveness of non-profit organizations and help them become more responsive to the community;
  • Increase people's ability to access relevant information;
  • Mobilize community organizations as information providers information providers and help them see the value librarians' knowledge and values;
  • Contribute to community building, foster civic engagement, create a sense of community.

In this article, we can provide only a few examples from each broad category. The project Web site provides much more detail from our study; see

A CN Can Help Overcome Barriers

We saw that community networks are able to overcome barriers that citizens had identified - including geographical and digital divide barriers and the reluctance to ask for sensitive information. CNs in our study harnessed the power of the Internet to bring together previously unconnected individuals and groups by diminishing the barriers of physical distance. We illustrate this in the profiles of the three community networks (

The following are just two examples of how CNs help bring down barriers:

  • An employee at a non-profit agency explained how "many of the people we serve are the least likely to have their own computers and Internet access. The community network allows access to everyone through dial-up services and public library access."
  • An agency that serves a disabled community created an online access guide to its city, which appears on their community network-sponsored page. The guide offers information on access to parking, buildings, restrooms, telephones, water fountains, etc., provided by local businesses to persons with disabilities.

A CN Can Increase Organizational Effectiveness and Responsiveness

Staff at we interviewed at different non-profit organizations articulated how the CN increased their effectiveness by saving them time and money and by increasing their knowledge, skill and organizational visibility not only in the community but beyond its borders. For example:

  • According to one school district employee: "What makes the CN successful is the way it is based on a network system. You already have that infrastructure in place so you're not building something from scratch - that would take forever. If you start it from the library, you can work from there and save a great deal of time in doing so."
  • A volunteer at a local historical society noted a marked increase in communication since the organization posted its Web pages on the CN. She said, "We are amazed at the way in which people from places throughout the country - and throughout the world - come and visit our page. We even get e-mails from people who had a connection to our community three generations ago."
  • A representative of a large, national non-profit organization noted that having a presence on the CN gives his local chapter a voice. "Many community residents are aware of the organization," he said, "yet few understand what the non-profit has done for the local community. This way, the local chapter can inform their community of the exactly the types of activities the organization invest in locally." In their case, they alert their constituents to their efforts to help families and support local education initiatives.

As a result of their increased effectiveness, these service providers found that they had been able to build capacity by becoming more responsive to their constituents and to the community. For example, a city official reports that he has taken an active role in his community network because he feels information technology can make government more responsive to its citizens, especially due to the interactive nature of the Web. He further asserted that citizens have a right to feel angry with government if doesn't make government information available online.

A CN Can Increase the Ability to Access Relevant Information

Community networks increase the ability to access relevant information thus empowering community organizations to provide their clientele with well-organized, trusted information sources brought together in the CN. People reported an increased ability to access relevant community information. Our interviews with users of CNs repeatedly revealed the appreciation that people felt being able to get information that they had previously viewed as hard-to-get. They told us that through the CN they felt that they were able to access a 'higher quality' of information - more current, more comprehensive, better organized, and information linked to other relevant sources and sites. Users also found that the information brought together on the CN was easier to use. That saved them time, money, and energy, reducing their "transaction costs" and increasing the convenience of getting information. Finally, CN users felt that they had an increased ability to identify trusted information.

  • A non-profit organization representative indicated that the subject-based organizational scheme at her community network enables her clientele to save time wading through "all that information online."
  • Another expressed the concept of "trust in information" in the following way: "I would say the library contact is the best part of our connection with the community network. Putting the library in that role is the biggest benefit to the community and the library."

A CN Can Mobilize Community Organizations as Information Providers

Very importantly, community networks help non-profits and government agencies become information providers. The community networks we studied actively work with organizations in their communities to help them become information providers. As IPs, these non-profits and government agencies are learning to recognize their responsibility to provide content regarding their services and programs via their library-sponsored electronic community networks. The non-profit organizations we interviewed have come to recognize the tremendous potential of information sharing and collaboration through their community network. In the process, groups become more likely to link to and from related information, understand the value of information currency for their own information and that of others, and come to value librarians' knowledge, skills, and ability increase access to CI.

  • Susan Holmes, coordinator of the Three Rivers FreeNet, said she regularly reminds groups of the importance of hyperlinking. "I talk about the baby Web site and the importance of getting your information out, but also of linking to complimentary or next step services or categories in your areas. You already have people that you collaborate with. Why not link to them on your Web site? Get your people thinking, if I am at Mom's House. Well, I'll use my typical example: Zor Home is a residential treatment facility for addicted woman with children and so once they have gone through that program, it just makes sense that they might want to think about going back to school and so they would need day care or parenting classes, which are two things that Mom's House provide. So why not have Zor Home point to organizations like Zor Home?"
  • Thanks to its local CN, a village trustee now posts the town meeting minutes within a day or two of the meeting to alert citizens to issues discussed by the board. Previously this public information wasn't available to the community until weeks - sometimes months - after a meeting.
  • "It brings everything to one location. It's very easy to navigate around in and everything is right there at your fingertips - it's just right there."

A CN Can Contribute to Community Building

The benefits of community networks summarized above have a cumulative effect. A viable community network results in a critical mass of organizations that understand its functions and contribute to its success. When these conditions occur the community network can make strong contributions to community building by bringing organizations together, strengthening organizational partnerships, often resulting in increased training opportunities, organizational telecommunication capabilities and other benefits. A CN can foster civic engagement through volunteerism and other means, and it can create among the citizens a sense of community. Below are examples of these community building contributing factors.

  • An employee at a non-profit that serves AIDS patients indicates that the community network works as a catalyst that links his organization with other like-minded groups: "AIDS services are often fragmented, leaving people who are living with HIV infection wondering where to turn. Having our Web site hosted on the network allows us to pool our resources and create links to other agencies, thus broadening the availability of resources."
  • One CN participant described the atmosphere at a recent meeting of CN participants: "I was sitting there in a room with people representing pretty much every facet of a community. You had a business owner, a fireman, a police officer, as well as people representing a social service-agency, the chamber of commerce, school districts, park districts, and every facet of a community. That's what I think is the coolest idea - the PTA president and the police chief might get together, the park district and someone who works with physically disabled kids might get together, the school librarian and the public librarian might get together."
  • A police department partners with the local library to offer an Internet safety program. The officers say that since their department developed a Web site, the use of the Internet as an interactive communication tool has greatly enhanced-community policing efforts. A librarian talked about the authority that partnership with the police department lends to their collaboration efforts: "For me to bring in a uniformed representatives from the local police department adds an incredible amount of credibility to our workshop on Internet safety. The CN makes a difference in our community by bringing together groups of people and organizations within the community that might not otherwise have an opportunity to interact."
  • One small town library spoke of the direct increase in collaboration as a result of their central involvement in the community network. Since beginning involvement, the library has signed off on two collaborative grant applications, one with the high school and another with the senior center.
  • An organization that provides special services to the elderly finds that its Web site helps recruit new listeners, while keeping their current audience better informed of its offerings. The Web site also serves as a effective recruitment tool for the organization, which now boasts close to 300 volunteers.
  • For a municipal health department, the community network strengthens its grant-making activities. "Since funders often require that you show how you will share information on your activities with the community, [we] list the community network in our grant applications, citing the network as an important means of disseminating our message."



Implications for Evaluation

Despite their use of information technology to provide community services and inroads aimed at closing the digital gap, public librarians are unable to show the impact of these efforts. We found that the vast majority (nearly 75%) believe that current tools are not able to show how effective their efforts in this area are. So far little work has been done on this front. Our work (Durrance & Pettigrew, 2000; Pettigrew & Durrance, 2000) and Ann Bishop's (Bishop et al., 1999, Bishop et al., 2000; Bishop, 1998; Mehra, Bishop & Bazzell, 2000) present a framework for beginning to look at impact issues and tools.

A number of factors - an increased realization that tools are inadequate, pressure on governmental agencies for more accountability, growth in scholarship that focuses on impact, the availability of funding for such ventures, and the willingness of agencies and groups, including libraries, to experiment with new evaluation approaches - have converged to facilitate the development of such tools.

The challenge is to develop tools that will, on the one hand, effectively tell the story of the differences that library community information services make and, on the other, will be used. Without appropriate tools for evaluating their initiatives in digital community services and community building, libraries may not be able to justify the receipt of public support and will experience difficulty in adapting their services to meet the growing needs of the public for information in new formats.

The tools librarians need can be built on the work we have done in this IMLS sponsored study; they should identify indicators of impact that reflect the social context in which individuals access and use digital community services. These new tools should be context-based, easily implemented, capture richness and show patterns that reflect how digital community services affect people's lives. They should help librarians determine how digital community services help and show them how community organizations, citizens and communities benefit from public library digital community services, and how these services build community.

Our new study, "How Libraries and Librarians Help: Context-Centered Methods for Evaluating Public Library Efforts at Bridging the Digital Divide and Building Community" ( to develop such tools. In that study we aim to: assess librarians' evaluation needs, tool requirements and current practices; identify candidate indicators of impact from the context of the benefit to the individual, non-profit organization, and/or the larger community. We will develop tools for librarians that will yield clear indicators and field test their usability. Using Web technology we will make our findings and the tools easily accessible to public librarians and decision-makers. Finally, to assure that such new and unfamiliar tools are accepted by opinion leaders, gate-keepers, and librarians, we will collaborate with organizations whose constituencies will benefit and we will develop and conduct evaluation training workshops. End of article


About the Authors

Joan C. Durrance is Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information (SI) where she teaches, conducts research, and contributes to the literature of information needs and use in community settings, evaluation of information services, and the professional practice of librarians. She is co-principal investigator on "How Libraries and Librarians Help" ( with her colleague Karen Pettigrew. This major project, funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will provide librarians with tools for measuring the outcomes of public library community information services. It builds on their previous IMLS grant - "Help-Seeking in an Electronic World" which examined how libraries provide digital community information and how people benefit from it. For information see Prof. Durrance has been active in the American Library Association and the Public Library Association, particularly on committees that focus on research and evaluation and on the provision of community information. She is one of the founders of the Association for Community Networking. She has served the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) as President and as chair of various units.

Karen E. Pettigrew is an Assistant Professor at The Information School, University of Washington. Her main research and teaching area is information behavior or how people need, seek, give and use information in different contexts. In past work she examined the flow of community information among community health nurses and the elderly at health clinics. She began working with Dr, Durrance as a postdoctoral research fellow funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In addition to her IMLS studies with Dr. Durrance, Dr. Pettigrew is studying the flow of health information among residents and service provides in Central Washington. Her work, which primarily draws upon qualitative approaches, explores social and affective aspects of information exchange. She is active in several associations such the International Network for Social Network Analysis, and conference series, including "Information Seeking in Context."



The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of our Research Assistants throughout the life of the "Help-Seeking in an Electronic World"project, Karen Scheuerer and Michael Jourdan; see



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Editorial history

Paper received 5 March 2001; accepted 16 March 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Toward Context-Centered Methods for Evaluating Public Library Networked Community Information Initiatives by Joan C. Durrance and Karen E. Pettigrew
First Monday, volume 6, number 4 (April 2001),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.