...and Internet Access for All
- By Tracy Mayor
- Oct 03, 1999
In the Midwest, a large urban police department has set up an online hot line for people to report drug activity. But what if residents in the target neighborhoods don't own PCs? Well, they can go to the library.
One Southern California city allows residents to apply for low-income housing over the Internet. The chances are slim such candidates have easy access to Internet services, but residents can log on at the local library.
Across the country, state and local governments are rushing to put services online-as is nearly every private enterprise. But few government projects include funding for kiosks, public terminals or other means for citizens without computers to access the services easily available to their wealthier neighbors.
So who takes up the slack as America goes online? Increasingly, the answer is: public libraries. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration's "Falling Through the Net" report, which documents the degree to which minority households are being shut out of the digital revolution, speaks specifically about the crucial role that public libraries and other community access centers should play in leveling the playing field for the digitally disadvantaged.
"Until every home can afford access to information resources...we will need public policies and private initiatives to expand affordable access to those resources," the report stated. Of the 17 percent of Americans who say they already access the Internet from a point other than their home, a little more than 8 percent do so at the public library.
The report found that the library and other community centers are particularly well-used by people with lower incomes and education levels, certain minorities and the unemployed-groups that use the Internet at a higher-than-average rate to search for jobs or take courses.
Libraries are well aware of this need and are ready and willing to meet the challenge, said Harriet Henderson, president of the Public Library Association, a Chicago-based division of the American Library Association. But that service comes at a price. "Library budgets...must now fund rapidly changing technology as well as maintain the other resources that people expect," she said. "With three-year replacement cycles for PCs and similar replacement cycles for software, this is a significant budget issue."
Staffing concerns also are common as libraries gear up to serve an Internet-savvy public. Librarians need training and support to be able to execute their new roles, yet both require time and money some divisions do not have.
Three public libraries from geographically and economically diverse areas show that libraries are meeting the online challenge with aplomb, finding creative ways to finance their online endeavors and drawing up strategic plans to deliver the most bang for the buck on the Internet.
Beersheba Springs, Tenn.
Beersheba Springs Public Library may be one of the few libraries in the country that had Internet access before it had indoor plumbing. The library, housed in a 604-square-foot log building built in 1923, has maintained two computers with Internet access for a few years, but only gained an indoor bathroom late this summer, thanks to a craft fair fund-raiser and construction work from a volunteer husband-and-wife team.
Demand for the Internet varies among the town's 600 year-round residents. "There are some who say, 'I'm not ever going to ever fool with that,' " said library director Melissa Scruggs. But many others look to the library for a variety of online needs, from students researching term papers to elderly residents looking for medical data. Summer residents come in to check e-mail while on vacation.
One thing the citizens have in common: The library is nearly always their only access to the World Wide Web. The few people who have PCs at home, Scruggs said, own computers that are out of date for online work. The library, by contrast, has two computers purchased through a matching grant from a local company. But only one machine can be online at a time because they share one phone line. The library pays an average of $60 per month to the local telecommunications company for phone and telecom services and another $10 per month to the Grundy County library system for pooled Internet access.
When Internet neophytes come in to the library, it's Scruggs who shows them how to dial in to the network. She often helps guide people back to a particular Web page, but as the one and only library staff member, she simply is not able to hold people's hands as they learn their way around. With no formal training, Scruggs learned by doing. "I've spent a lot of hours here on the computer when I'm not working. It's to benefit me. I want to be prepared when people come in."
The library will increase its PC investment by 100 percent later this year when it receives two more Internet-ready machines as part of a statewide grant from the Gates Learning Foundation that was announced in August (see "Libraries' Golden Gates," at right).
Online access can make a small library much bigger, Scruggs said. "We don't subscribe to any magazines we have to pay for or any journals," she said. "But the Internet helps broaden the library. It's brought a lot of new people in."
The Internet entered the Phoenix Public Library though a side door. There were three or four online PCs scattered throughout the system, but in 1996, the Ocotillo Library, a small branch in a lower- income, ethnically diverse area of the city, became eligible for and subsequently received funding from Microsoft's Libraries Online program (a smaller, company-funded precursor to the Gates Foundation's privately funded Library Initiative grants).
Ocotillo installed six PCs with access to the Internet. Nearly overnight, library traffic increased by 30 percent to 40 percent, before settling back to a steady 20 percent increase over its pre-Internet days, according to city librarian Toni Garvey. "Ocotillo was our first big branch experience with the Internet," she said. "Use of the branch just skyrocketed. We were getting in people of all ages, by far the majority of whom had no other access to the Internet."
Since the Ocotillo branch's foray into the Internet, the Phoenix library system, which has an annual budget of $23 million, has installed about 190 PCs in branches across the city. On average, the number of public-access machines per branch is about six, which is the number that, without staffing increases, library workers can reasonably be expected to support in smaller branches, Garvey said.
Phoenix worked hard to provide staff members with training to be able to deliver support to patrons. During the Ocotillo branch project, librarians received free training from ExecuTrain, an Atlanta-based firm recommended by Microsoft and a partner in the company's Libraries Online project. As other branches came online, Phoenix asked ExecuTrain for more help. The company complied, opening about 300 spaces for library workers to receive free online training.
The library was equally up front about funding training opportunities for the public. At the urging of a library board member who happened to be an AT&T employee, the library wrote a proposal for the local AT&T business council, which then agreed to fund library-run training sessions in electronic media for the public.
"Part of it is just getting out there and asking," Garvey said of the library's success with corporate support. "If you publicize your successes, you're more likely to get more support, and companies know you can be trusted to use their money and their name judiciously."
The library also receives support from the library foundation, an active Friends of the Library organization and a sympathetic city IT department. Although Phoenix jumped on to the Internet rather haphazardly-an approach that Garvey said worked fine for drumming up enthusiasm initially-the library now tries to implement online services in a more deliberate fashion.
"You need to open up relationships with other city departments. And you do need to have a technology plan," Garvey said.
Next on the library's list is a computer ownership study that will help determine where Phoenix should concentrate its online efforts. "We're trying to determine if there are areas of the city where we should overcompensate because home [computer] ownership is low," Garvey said.
Multnomah County, Ore.
There's a good reason Multnomah County Library refers to itself as the most wired library in the country. The library, serving the Portland, Ore., area, boasts 320 PCs available for public use, and that number is expected to rise to 500 in three years. About 190 of the current machines offer full Internet access filtered through a custom-built portal that offers links to library-
recommended electronic resources, a help guide, a reference service and community resources. The remaining machines offer access to the library's online catalog and CD-ROM databases.
The idea is to provide not just access but context, said deputy director Jeanne Goodrich. "Libraries have always been something other than a huge differentiated mass of information. We're trying to put a framework on electronic information."
The Internet is all the rage, but it's not always the best solution to finding information. By cataloging all resources equally-books, periodicals, CDs, online databases and the Internet writ large-the library tries to help people find the best resources for their needs. "We do try to let people know there's a lot of different information out there. The Internet is just part of the reference interview that librarians traditionally do," Goodrich said.
To support its extensive Internet efforts, the library maintains a staff of 18 full-time developers and coders, although dozens of other library workers contribute to the content and upkeep of various pages. Any librarian at the central library or any of the county's 14 branches is able to give a 15-minute introductory tutorial on the Web, thanks to a full-time trainer hired four years ago.
In general, training is a massive and ongoing job that has some library workers attending classes on Allaire Corp.'s ColdFusion Web application server and a number of other Net-related specialty classes. A public relations department ensures the citizenry is sufficiently aware of the library's vast offerings.
If all that sounds like it costs money, it does. The Multnomah County Library budget for 1999-2000 is $38 million. Goodrich said most of that money comes from property taxes, but the library has a large and active foundation with professional-level fund-raising, runs a coffee bar and gift shop, has raised money through a local bond issue and qualified for a Microsoft Libraries Online grant in 1997. The library also raises funds by partnering with other local organizations, such as the school system, to qualify for state and federal technology grants.
Technology is an investment that pays the library's patrons back in many different ways, Goodrich said. Thanks to online offerings, an ever-increasing number of people use the library by accessing its services from a PC at home, school or work, and come to a library branch only to pick up a book or other material they reserved electronically. That's a key development in a system where square footage is the biggest shortage, Goodrich said. In fact, dial-in use of the library's resources has increased to where it almost equals the foot traffic of the system's largest branch.
Multnomah keeps no hard statistics on who uses in-library Internet services. But on any given day, Goodrich said the seats are filled with a representational cross-section of the population. "There are a lot of economically challenged people who use us," she said. "Homeless people have pretty amazing e-mail networks. They get a Hotmail account, come in here and check their e-mail, and it works great for them. Public libraries really are the great levelers in the community."
Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology.
Libraries' Golden Gates
In August, Tennessee joined a growing number of states that have qualified for Statewide Partnership Grant from the Gates Learning Foundation. The grant gives the Tennessee State Library the means to funnel funds to eligible libraries, such as Beersheba Springs, in economically depressed areas of the state.
The Gates Learning Foundation's Library Initiative (www.gatesfoundations.org/GLI) works with public libraries in low-income areas to provide the hardware and software required for access to digital information.
The foundation has made grants to more than 1,300 underserved public libraries in 28 states, according to a spokeswoman for the foundation.
Qualifying libraries aren't under obligation to use the funds to purchase any brand of computer equipment, but if they do buy supplies from the foundation's partners-Microsoft Corp. and Gateway Inc.-they receive reference and educational software from Microsoft and free training and technical assistance from the Gates Center for Technology Access.
The Library Initiative is a broader, deeper and privately funded version of Microsoft Corp.'s Libraries Online program, which underwrote improvements to library branches in places such as Phoenix and Multnomah County, Ore. The Gates Learning Foundation was established in 1997 with a $200 million gift from Bill and Melinda Gates with the goal of bringing access to all libraries in the United States and Canada serving low-income communities.
- Tracy Mayor