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Internet Public Library
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI

Year: 2002
Status: Laureate
Category: Education & Academia
Nominating Company: Sun Microsystems

An Internet library web site with more than a million users a month provides a realistic environment to train librarians to be effective in the digital age.
Through the IPL, librarians & library students learn to integrate the use
of the Internet into their professional practice. Internet users get help
in navigating the sea of information on the Internet in order to
find information they actually need and can use (approx. 1.5 million
people use the Web site each month). By training librarians,
students, and to some extent users, in using, searching, and
evaluating the Internet, IPL improves information literacy, a much
needed skill in the 21st century. Librarians & library students
learn from IPL's examples, thus relieving them of the need to
constantly 'reinvent the wheel.' Internet users spend less time
wading through garbage, more time getting their real work done.

Sharing knowledge: lessons learned by the IPL are shared with the
library community through publications, conferences, etc. We have
recently worked with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium
(AIHEC) to develop an AIHEC Virtual Library, and have begun to work
with Universities in Mexico and Japan to assist them in developing
IPL-like services for the Asian and Spanish-speaking realms.
The IPL provides a place for librarians and library students to
develop the skills they need to be successful librarians in the
digital information age and to adapt to new information technologies
as they arise.

IPL's 'Ask a Question' service and QRC digital reference software
are considered models for digital reference services (e.g., the IPL
receives a VRD award for Exemplary Reference Service in October
2000). We are working with the Library of Congress and others in
developing standards for digital reference. QRC is presently in use
at several other institutions, including the Provincial Library
System of Saskatchewan and the Documents Center at the University of
Illinois-Chicago, which handles the reference service for the U.S.
Department of State.

The IPL has trained hundreds of librarians and library students.
Former IPL students and staff have gone on to become leaders in
their areas of expertise (e.g. Joe Janes in digital reference; Sara
Ryan in Internet Teen services; Josie Parker in youth services (and
winner of the 2000 Loleta Fyan Award; Lorri Mon in Internet and
Government documents).

"I just got promoted to a new job in the New York Public Library
system. As of Monday I will be the Web Coordinator for the Branch
Libraries. I just found out that one of the major things that sold
them on me was my DFE at the IPL! Thank you!"

- Carrie Bickner, former IPL student.

IPL has served millions of people through its Web site and has
answered more than 10,000 reference questions from around the globe.

Here are a few examples of kudos that the IPL has received from our

"I have been plagued for years by the problem of insufficient
materials for my studies. I never dreamed that it would be solved
once for all now on Internet, with the help from people like you,
who do not even know me except an empty name. To tell you that I am
very happy to get your help is not enough, because I am also very
moved by your good will to help, especially when I learned that your
staff are almost all volunteers. So, I want to let you know that
besides the information I had asked of you, you have also given me
strength, in addition, to adhere to my faith in Goodness. And that
is surely something special. I thank you for all that!"

- an IPL patron in China.

Mr. Carter, we have never had the pleasure of meeting - and probably
never will! But, I want to extend my most sincere thanks to you and
anyone else involved in answering my question about the Bio-Sphere
II project.

You ( collectively ) have steered me off to a hundred times more
information than I had even hoped to find - especially after hours
of wasted searching on my part. I am a reasonably competent
user - who obviously is NOT well versed in 'searching' on the

As a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and the 'safety
guy' responsible for over 1000 employees at San Diego Transit, I
take my responsibilities rather seriously - and get great enjoyment
from being able to present ideas to our employees that will in any
way 'improve' their lifestyle or protect them and their families
from any hazard!

While all of this may seem far removed from "Bio-Sphere II", it is
just the opposite. I hope to be able to prepare some simple
materials to aid our employees and their families in being prepared
for "the big one" ( earthquake ) which is overdue in this
seismically active region of the west coast.

You, and whomever may have assisted you, have done a lot to fill a
gapping hole in my needed information. 1,050 plus one persons are
grateful for your efforts!!! And please, if anyone ever wants to
"pull the plug" on your service - present this note of thanks as
just one reason for your continued existence!

- Jack Foultz, Safety Administrator San Diego Transit

"I want to thank you for your information. It is a great deal of
help to us. This was my first attempt at sending a question online
and I am happy that it works. I just signed up last week so this is
very new to me. Thank you for making my first attempt such a
success. I have been a librarian for about 30 years and am a new
comer on computers (only about 5 years) and I am having a ball. I
love this medium. Thanks again."

- from a fellow librarian

As a virtual library, the IPL is largely dependent on the Internet
for its existence, notably through the use of E-mail the World
Wide Web. The use of distributed technologies allows users to access
the IPL anytime, anywhere (with a net connection, of course), and for
staff and students to work on the IPL anytime, anywhere. IPL has
made extensive and innovative use of free and open source software,
such as Apache Web server, Perl programming language, and MySQL
database in providing its services.
The IPL ( is the world's first virtual public
library. We were early innovators in the fields of digital
reference, Internet resource collection building and organization,
Internet services and content for youth, and information
architecture. IPL is recognized world-wide as a leader in Internet
library services. In the past year we have met with visitors from
Japan and Germany. Some of the awards IPL has won are listed on They include the PC Magazine Top
100 Web sites, MacUser 101 Must-see Sites, and NBC Editor?s Choice

Many IPL projects are seen as exemplary, notable, and key
information resources on the Internet: (e.g. POTUS, Online Literary
Criticism Collection, Online Texts Collection.)

The IPL began in early 1995 as a graduate class project, seeking to
explore the intersection of the Internet and librarianship. It has
since expanded beyond initial project, to the point of now involving
students at other universities (U. Washington, U. Illinois, Kent
State, among others). [see Janes, Joseph (1998). "The Internet
Public Library: an intellectual history". Library Hi Tech
16(2)2:55-68 for a good article on IPL background.]

The IPL regularly meets and exceeds it goals for training, learning,
and providing service. It has been operational for nearly 7 years
but is constantly changing and expanding. We are presently putting
the finishing touches on an innovative database system for managing
large collections of bibliographic links to Internet resources, and
in early 2002 will be debuting a new front-end design for the IPL
The biggest technical difficulty for the IPL has been the need to keep
things simple. The IPl has always strived to be usable by users with low
connectivity, and this has always been at odds with desires to increase
the functionality and complexity of the Website.

We have also run into the problem of there not being the apprpriate
software available for what we want to do. We have approached this by
creating our own software, first for digital reference, and more recently for
cataloging and organizing of Internet-based resources.

The biggest organizatoinal challenge has been in organizing the activities
of the dozens of students and librarians who are working on the IPL at
one time, most of whom we never meet in person. We have developed an
extensive set of training materials to use in distance training for our digital
reference service.