The Internet Public Library Celebrates Third Birthday



Joe Janes
David S. Carter
4033 SEB
610 E. University
Ann Arbor, MI

March 17, 1998

Ann Arbor, MI (3/17/98)--This St. Patrick's Day, Internet Public Library staff and volunteers celebrate three years of service as the world's first digital public library, providing online collections and answering reference questions for Internet surfers from around the world.

"Where we are now is extraordinary, for a class project with no money, not even a server when we started," said IPL Director Joseph Janes. "Here we are three years later with over 7 million users, reference questions from around the world, major collections, and a reputation among librarians and educators for high-quality work -- and among a lot of other people too. People depend on us."

The IPL volunteer librarians and staff have answered over 5,000 reference questions from around the world, with such positive results that IPL librarians are frequently used as the "library of last resort" by other librarians with "stumper" questions. Yet at the heart of IPL is a staff of only four librarians, supplemented by a small but hardworking group of librarian volunteers.

"People think we've got this enormous staff, that 'operators are standing by,' so they ask us questions 15 minutes before they need the answer," Janes observes. "But we've never had more than a six to twelve-month horizon on financial support... I think the 'public library' phrase may have simultaneously made us successful and doomed us, because nobody pays for libraries. We don't have the community or the tax base...we serve everybody in the world, but there's no funding mechanism to support that."

Looking toward the future, Janes sees possibilities for partnerships which would allow the IPL's work to continue. "We are always looking for interesting people to work with, a partnership that would play to our strengths and expertise." Work is also underway on an IPL book, to be published by Neal-Schuman later this year, with current and former staffers writing chapters about the building of the Internet Public Library to help other librarians learn about providing library services on the digital frontier.

The Internet Public Library ( is a project based at the University of Michigan School of Information, staffed by professional librarians with assistance from students and volunteer librarians from around the world, and has been visited by more than 7 million people from over 100 countries. The library maintains a collection of online ready reference works; responds to reference questions; creates web resources; evalutes and categorizes resources on the Internet; and provides a space for exhibitions.