Help-seeking in an electronic world: How people use the Internet for everyday situations (1998-2000)

During the 1990s the phenomenon of community networks (also known as “Free-Nets”) arose with the popularity of the Internet as a means for facilitating information flow within different types of communities. We viewed community networks as another vehicle for studying how people seek and share information, this time regarding the public in general. Interested additionally in how public libraries were using the Internet as a medium for providing everyday or community information, and how they were participating in community networking initiatives, we received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Our study “Help-seeking in an electronic world: The impact of electronic access to community information on citizens’ information behavior and public libraries” comprised two phases: (1) a two-stage, nation-wide survey with public library directors and community librarians about their involvement in community information provision, followed by (2) case studies of three public library-community networking systems (in northeastern Illinois, Pittsburgh, and Portland). For each case study we conducted an online survey followed by in-depth telephone interviews based on Brenda Dervin’s sense-making approach with network users, and conducted observation, interviews and focus groups with library and community network staff.


Data Collection Instruments

CascadeLink (Multnomah, OR)

NorthStarNet (Chicago, IL)

Three Rivers Free-Net (Pittsburgh, PA)

Publications and presentations from the “Help-seeking in an Electronic World” series

In our publications we share our findings regarding: how the public is using networked community information systems and the Internet for daily problem solving, the types of barriers users encounter, and the benefits for individuals and physical communities from public library-community networking initiatives. We further report on how specific social types play pivotal roles in information flow. Moreover and building on Dervin’s work, we present an “enabling characteristics” framework (See figure) that characterizes the actions or activities that individuals are trying to accomplish through seeking everyday information.

This framework, along with other findings, suggests several improvements and future directions for designing community information systems. Other conceptual findings included: (1) our notion of information communities or “constituencies united by a common interest in building and increasing access to a set of dynamic, linked, and varying information resources” for which we described five characteristics, and (2) how public library-community network initiatives are contributing to the growth of social capital (despite opposing observations by Putnam). On a related note we also learned that librarians are challenged with evaluating the effects of their community programming. This observation formed the basis for our second IMLS-funded study series
“How Libraries and Librarians Help.”


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