One of our ‘best-kept secrets’ is truly MARVEL!-ous

Posted Feb. 20, 2012, at 2:40 p.m.

In the 1990s, a student researching Dr. Martin Luther King found ample information using a search engine. The problem? The number-one result was David Duke’s Web site. The student, who didn’t know Duke was a former KKK member, was stunned by the intense anti-King bias. But that’s the downside to search engines; you’re frequently faced with biased, erroneous, or useless information, never mind all the ads.

The solution may be public libraries, where the staff is trained to find the best information and help you learn critical-thinking skills while doing your own research. Along with that comes many other services you can access at the library or even from your home computer. One of those is MARVEL!, the Maine Virtual Library.

MARVEL! is a collection of many resources, including encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and more. They’re all in one place, completely searchable, and completely free to all Mainers. If you can imagine it, you can find it. For example, my wife makes beaded jewelry and teaches beading classes, but rarely buys expensive beading magazines. But a quick visit to MARVEL! reveals an entire beading subcategory, featuring over 4,900 downloadable resources, most of them detailed beading projects from popular magazines.

That’s just one of 209 subcategories just within the Hobbies and Crafts category — and there are 78 categories. There’s plenty more: hundreds of magazines, online Britannica encyclopedias, newspapers, legal help, genealogy, historical resources, and much, much more.

You don’t need to click around the categories, either; you can search all of the MARVEL! resources at once from the OneSearch box at the top of the start page. The results cover everything on MARVEL!, including URSUS results and downloadable ebooks.

The amazing thing is that this astounding free resource has been around since 1998 — but it seems to be an unintentionally well-kept secret. And everyone involved would like that to change.

“People don’t know about it,” said Barbara McDade, librarian at the Bangor Public Library. “And we don’t know how to get the word out that this marvelous resource is there for you.”

There has been plenty of effort, including TV and radio spots, an instructional DVD sent to every public library and many school libraries in Maine, and regular in-library trainings and online webinars. But in 2011, usage dropped.

This past August, Valerie Osborne, a Maine State Library consultant based out of the Bangor Public Library, did a MARVEL! program for unorganized schools, to train staff, teachers, and librarians. And despite 14 years of publicity efforts, many of those people were unaware of MARVEL!

“I was working with a library at the top of Penobscot County who said, ‘You know, we’ve never heard of this before,’” Osborne recalled. “We just don’t know what more we can do.”

MARVEL! is funded through many sources: the Maine State Legislature, the Maine State Library, the University of Maine, Colby College, Bates College, Bowdoin College, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Maine Telecommunications Educational Access Fund. This collaboration ensures every library, school, and resident in Maine has access.

This statewide collaboration and cooperation is also very cost-effective. Individually, each library would have to spend over $700,000 for the same resources. And if each of Maine’s 214 public and private schools with grades 9-12 purchased just the EBSCO resources in MARVEL! — namely, the magazines — each school would pay $20,000. All of them together would total $4.28 million.

And McDade and Osborne remind us that there’s always something happening at your local library, which is really a vital community center. At Bangor, there are always seminars, webinars, classes, discussion groups, presentations, historical displays, reading groups, and so much more. You can check out ebooks and download audio books. In Bangor, you’ll even soon be able to check out an ebook reader.

“[The library is] the one resource that a town like Bangor has from cradle to grave,” Osborne said. “It doesn’t cost any money. It provides a wealth of information that you won’t find anywhere else — and people who are skilled in helping you use it.”

As for MARVEL!, McDade said libraries are always open to new ideas to expand the service.

“We are always looking to see where people are going, so if people have suggestions on databases we should be getting, directions we should be going, we would love to know,” she said.

There’s no way to boil down all that MARVEL! is in this one article. You can get started exploring MARVEL! today by visiting http://maine.gov/marvel, or contact your local library to ask about workshops and one-on-one assistance.

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