The citizens of Vermont traditionally take pride in their rural, independent character. People in the state are very protective of their personal freedoms from the influence of outside government. They like their towns to be small and independent. This is shown by the fact that over 90 percent of the State's public libraries are in towns with populations under 1,500 people. These libraries possess collections that are generally also very small, yet rich in their individual holdings. The harsh weather and mountainous character of Vermont complicates this situation by making it difficult for citizens to access the State's major library collections and information.
To give public libraries access to all of the State's library collections, the Vermont Department of Libraries joined with the University of Vermont, Middlebury College, Vermont State Colleges, and Norwich University to develop a statewide linked computer network. This network is linking the State's public and private library collections into one central catalogue, making the information available to every citizen.
One major challenge lies in the fact that many of the State's libraries do not possess the technology required by the project. Most of these libraries lack a computer and nearly 40 percent don't have a telephone. In order to repair the deficiency, the State of Vermont provides these libraries with matching funding to purchase the equipment. This partial assistance creates a different atmosphere in Vermont. Instead of resulting in libraries going without the service due to under funding, local volunteers are making determined efforts to make up the funds. The result is a real sense of ownership on the local library's behalf, as each becomes personally invested in the project.
The system is maintaining each library's independence by linking the collections in a way that serves each library's needs, and no single institution is the net lender. This decentralization is the program's primary innovation. For instance, when the Wells River Public Library (pop. 880) wants to borrow a book from Middlebury, they can go directly to the Middlebury collection, and avoid relying on a state library to broker the transaction. In this way, nearly every library book in Vermont is available to nearly every citizen.
The impact of the project has been significant. All of the State's large collections and at least half of the smaller village collections are currently linked, with more coming online every day. The system also plans to expand into private homes by 1990. An unforeseen positive impact of the project is that more governmental information, at the state and national levels, is now accessible to these local libraries. Vermont is seeking to expand this aspect of the innovation by researching how state-government forms could be filed and corrected through the system.
The Statewide Library Automation Project was not the first to provide computerized access between library collections: the Boston Consortium and the Research Triangle of North Carolina already have similar systems in place. The Boston program reaches Eastern Massachusetts, and North Carolina's program is tailored to professionals conducting institutional research. With the Statewide Library Automation Project, Vermont has managed to maintain its rural, independent character and yet increase the average citizen's access to information.