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Vermont Automated Libraries System

Vermont Department of Libraries

Fifty thousand Vermonters have no public library service. More than 90 percent of the 210 public libraries are in towns with populations of less than 1,500 and are staffed by volunteers or part-time personnel having no formal library training. Nearly 50 of the public libraries do not even have a telephone line. Furthermore, during the early 1990s, Vermont's Department of Libraries (DOL) lost 22 percent of its staff positions and more than 18 percent of its operating budget due to reductions, absorbed costs, personal services increases, and inflation.

Against these odds, the DOL has connected the widely distributed and mostly rural Vermont library system into an impressive electronic network. The Vermont Automated Library System (VALS), demonstrating the role of the library in providing electronic access, is based on the same premise guiding most public libraries in providing nonautomated services: "Access should be made available through the local library to the individual quickly, at no cost or low cost, and with no pre-judgments or limitations" (Patricia E. Klinck and Sybil McShane, "The Vermont Automated Libraries System," p. 1).

Philosophy of VALS

According to state librarian Patricia E. Klinck, "Growing demand for electronic information services came from even the most rural and remote areas of the state and presents a challenge not only to the state, but to all Vermont libraries to find ways to ensure that all Vermonters have the same access to books, information, and worldwide resources as their urban and suburban counterparts" (Vermont Department of Libraries, Biennial Report, 1995, p. 8). Albert Joy, of the Vermont Library Association and librarian at the Bailey Howe Library of the University of Vermont, points out: "The Internet as a tool is especially benefiting to rural areas because of the distance involved in between places. . . . Sharing information-while valued-just doesn't work the same way here as it does in the cities. If I were in New York or Boston, I could just jump on the train and be at another library. Here, it's an hour-and-a-half drive."

A key element of the program is centralized funding combined with decentralized control, because most of the libraries lack the tax base to develop their own technology programs. In order to keep telecommunications costs down and to allow easy access to local information, the DOL established VALS as a distributed network, which means that rather than placing all the information on one central computer, VALS is composed of several computers spread out all over the state-each holding local information, yet capable of accessing the other computers if necessary.

VALS is unique because it involves all types of libraries. Coordinated by the state's department of libraries, it comprises a partnership of public, state, and academic libraries, all sharing resources over the network.

Project history

The program began in 1984, when the Department of Libraries, University of Vermont, Middlebury College, and later the Vermont State Colleges met to draft a plan for addressing the changing nature of information distribution. After two years of negotiation, they signed a contract with ATLAS software to build and support a statewide computer network. In 1984 Middlebury College and the DOL put their catalog systems online, and then Vermont State Colleges joined them online. Finally, in 1988, these systems linked to create the Vermont Automated Libraries System.

Nuts and bolts

The ATLAS software developed by Data Research Associates is an integrated library system operating primarily on Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) hardware and software developed by Data Research Associates of St. Louis. Local bibliographic databases (six online library catalogs), linked directly through DECNET with dedicated telephone lines and dial access lines, allow remote users to query all the online catalogs to determine location and status of material with a single local telephone call. This linked partnership approach was chosen over the centralized approach in anticipation of rising telecommunications costs and the realization that the predominant use of each collection would be local. Any standard microcomputer with telecommunications software emulating a vt100 computer terminal will work.

Once VALS was running, the DOL created a toll-free dial-up access network to help individual public libraries connect. This access was combined with a state-funded program for matching microcomputer grants to public libraries in areas of low population. In addition, Ford Foundation-Harvard Kennedy School Grants for Innovations in State and Local Government helped upgrade VALS and provide additional microcomputer grants. In 1989 55 public libraries were online; by 1995 the number had grown to 118 (in addition to the 20 special and academic libraries and 158 school libraries). Dial-up access became available to the general public in 1990. That same year automated services for people with disabilities were brought online and full text databases of Vermont Supreme Court opinions were added. The early 1990s witnessed the addition of many more items, including newspaper indexes, state human services databases, and Internet access (lynx, gopher, and hytelnet). By 1994 and 1995 full text of Vermont state and U.S. government documents became available, as well as other features including Environmental Law Division decisions and selected full text general magazine articles.

"The first issue is access, access, access, and then the second is training, training, training," says Albert Joy. One without the other is useless. "It's so important to train the librarians to use the Internet so that they can turn around and train the general public. . . . The problem, though, is that the towns can't afford to pay the librarians for the time away from their jobs to get the necessary training-not to mention any class fees." As a result, VALS has implemented training programs, conducted on-site by the vendor or in-house by higher-level staff. Professional staff receive advanced training at the vendor's location. Other users have been kept up-to-date with multi-day training sessions provided by department staff, and extensive documentation.

How is VALS used?

According to Patricia Klinck, VALS is used in a variety of ways. "One man said that he got through college on VALS. He used to have to drive to libraries in order to do his research. With VALS he did all his research online. . . .Government information is another widely used resource. All Supreme Court decisions are put up minutes after they are issued. VALS has also opened up the state bidding system. The old boys' network no longer has control over it. All state contracts go up Thursday afternoon. One man said "I would never bid on highway contracts because my operation is not big enough, but now I can see who gets them and I can subcontract with them."

Jeanne Walsh, director of the Dover Free Library, is planning on installing a second computer and phone line to accommodate the public use of the system. "It has been valuable," Walsh says, "for students and people doing research through state colleges." Because of VALS, the Dover Library, serving a population of approximately 1,000, offers an indispensable link between library users and academic research institutions that would take hours to reach by car. "I can't imagine doing business without it. It has completely changed our image in the town."


The Department of Libraries now devotes only 6.5 percent of its overall budget to the operation of VALS. Funding for system operations has come exclusively from state funds. The automation program is a priority of the department, second only to Reference and Law Information Services. Ford Foundation Innovations Grants provided matching funds for computer equipment.

In Lyndonville, with a slightly larger population (5,371), VALS and other technology programs help library users develop new job skills. Originally based on agriculture, light manufacturing, and the railroad, Lydonville's economy has suffered as these industries have faded. "People are looking for new jobs and new opportunities," says Pat Hazlehurst of the Cobleigh Public Library (CPL).

The CPL has responded by offering a series of literacy, continuing education, and, of course, computer training classes. The computer classes, Hazlehurst explains, "are not like courses in college. They are for people with a fear of computers. They are designed to help people begin to get comfortable with technology. Since we began, we've been absolutely snowed with people calling. . . . We have found people looking for new jobs facing applications that ask 'Do you have computer skills?' Now they can say 'yes.'"

In addition, Hazlehurst has found that many parents are at a lower computer literacy level than their children. As a result the CPL started a family computing program in which kids tutor their parents. "The generation gap has always been there. This program tries to help. And besides, kids love to show their parents what they know that their parents don't." The CPL also offers a resume program, four computers for word processing, and two state-of-the-art computers for advanced design and publishing. According to Hazlehurst, one man came in without any computer experience and now he is using imaging and page layout software to design his own newsletter. "Other people come into the library to use computers and they see books, too. They are drawn in by one aspect of our services and exposed to another."

By serving as a computer training center, the CPL is providing the skills people need to access VALS, a program that has offered tremendous benefits to Lyndonville. "We're in poor area, we can't have everything everybody needs and wants. With VALS we can share with rest of state, the University of Vermont, Dartmouth, and even out of state resources. . . . In a rural, isolated environment this is an important connection."

Information to rural areas

Wiring an urban public library located in a calling region with competing Internet service providers is certainly a difficult task. Making those same electronic options available in a rural setting poses additional problems, however. At the same time, it is often more crucial for individuals in these isolated areas to have easy access to electronic information. According to Albert Joy, "The electronic stuff is crucial here-many of these libraries are one-room libraries without a lot of funding, and things like community service bulletin boards or access to FirstSearch databases can be very empowering." Through the public library, VALS is making this "stuff" available and accessible to everyone.

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Last updated: 3 June, 1997 mrl