Hit the mall for free technology access
- By Daniel Keegan
- Jul 03, 2000
Manassas Mall has the usual suspects: the ubiquitous stores selling clothes,
books, cards and sporting equipment — and that sweet cinnamon bun smell
that lures shoppers as much as the sale racks do.
But this Virginia shopping center also boasts the unusual: a library
without books — composed entirely of computers.
Aiming to reach residents who typically do not have access to technology,
Library Connection is located in a place that welcomes those from all walks
of life. Unlike other institutions that claim to bridge the digital divide — the separation between those with technology and those without it — Library
Connection targets and seems to reach underserved populations, such as minorities
and the poor.
Situated next to a Radio Shack and Montgomery Ward, and with its computers
lining the walls, Library Connection could easily be mistaken for a store.
But the bank of computers is available to the public for free. Twenty-four
computers are available, all with word processing programs and a high-speed
Internet connection, and four of them have educational software specifically
Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m., the library is convenient
for workers and students. Even on Sundays, it's open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Library operators would like to stay open longer, but they have a limited
budget drawn entirely from donations and business partnerships.
Although the location isn't typical of a library, it's very much a library
inside. Aside from the constant clicking of keyboards and the occasional
conversation, it's silent. And on the walls are posters of Donald Duck,
Nickelodeon cartoon Doug and one of Bill Gates holding a copy of Ernest
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea — all beckoning patrons to read.
In the front, a little Plexiglas box on a pedestal sports a sign asking
for donations. The few bills and coins inside barely cover the bottom of
Still, this library/shopping center hybrid seems to work. "That's where
everybody goes," said Prince William County Public Library System development
officer Mary Tompkins, referring to the mall setting. "It's not an institution.
It's a friendly place that's accessible to kids and adults."
When the library opened in the fall, the majority of its visitors were
already at the mall to shop, work or exercise, Tompkins said. But now, survey
results show an increase in returning patrons — people are stopping in regularly
on their way home from work or school to check their e-mail, browse the
Internet or chat with friends online.
A report released last year by the U.S. Commerce Department showed
that households with an income of $75,000 or more are 20 times more likely
to have access to the Internet and nine times as likely to have a computer
at home than those at the lowest income level. Homes in rural areas also
have less access than those in urban areas. And African-American and Hispanic
households are about half as likely to own a computer as white households.
Public policy analysts generally agree that the best way to attack this
gap is to provide free access to all.
At Library Connection, the overwhelming draw is cable modem Internet
access. Survey results show that more than 80 percent of the library customers
use the Internet there. Many of those also have computers and Internet access
at home but prefer the library for its speedier connections.
Others come in to search for jobs, draft resumes and get career advice
from Department of Social Services personnel who staff the library most
days. Employment counselors staff the office about twice a month. And the
back office has a fax machine that can be used — at no cost — to fax resumes.
Technophobes are not left out. Often enticed by the computers but unsure
of what to do, they usually wander around before a staff member explains
the purpose of the e-library and suggests the person attend a class. The
one-hour classes, offered twice a week at day and night, give basic tutorials
about computers and the Internet.
Library Connection was the first project of the new Prince William County
Public Library System Foundation — a nonprofit organization formed so the
library could receive donations to counter dwindling government funding.
Library system director Dick Murphy and Tompkins got the idea from a
similar project in Maryland. After visiting that library, which has since
disbanded, and receiving a letter from the United Way urging the library
to make computers more accessible to the public, the two decided to create
Although Murphy and Tompkins knew they wanted a mall location, they
had to find one. Their first choice was Manassas Mall because, as Tompkins
explained, it is a "community mall," where all types of people go to shop.
In addition, it has ample parking, access to public transportation and a
location on a main road.
Mall managers loved the idea, Tompkins said, and donated the 2,500 square
feet of space. Local cable provider Comcast Corp. donated cable modems and
free Internet access. Others pitched in money and gifts in-kind, including
$75,000 in educational software from Microsoft Corp. and the local school
district, and free training classes from COURE Technologies Inc. and Computer
Last fall, Library Connection opened. With little advertising beyond
word of mouth, patrons slowly discovered the "store" with free Internet
Library Connection manager Vincent Idiake helps orient visitors. An
amicable man with a constant smile, Idiake is the center's jack-of-all-trades.
Like a librarian who mans the circulation desk, finds books and navigates
the card catalogue, Idiake helps people sign in, get online and figure out
software. Being careful not to invade anyone's privacy, he keeps an ever-vigilant
eye on the room to make sure no one violates library policy with what they
view online. Pornography, for instance, is off limits.
"Resume, e-mail, e-mail, Internet," he said, surveying those online
around the room on a recent afternoon.
Just as he's careful to enforce most rules, Idiake knows his community
well enough to realize which ones to let slide. "You have to remember that
this is community-based," he said, as a man walked into the library without
signing in, saying he's going to see a friend although he clearly is not.
"And you have to know what rules to enforce."
After the man who didn't sign in slowly works his way out, he hesitantly
comes to the front desk where Idiake is sitting. The older man is clearly
perplexed. Idiake, having dealt with people unfamiliar with technology and
Library Connection, patiently explains to the man what the purpose of the
e-library is and that classes are available.
"Yes, yes," the man responded. "They're free?"
"Yes," Idiake said, pulling out the sign-in sheet. The man signed up
for a 10:30 a.m. class.
On another day, a young African-American woman, who had never used the
Internet before, wanted to get online to chat. She wanted to find other
people interested in raves — late-night parties. Although Idiake told her
that "I don't chat," he helped her get online and start communicating with
Idiake said helping people is what the library is all about. "You get
excited when at the end of the day they know how to e-mail and use the Internet,"
The underserved populations seem to be using the e-library. Survey
results show that 53 percent of Library Connection visitors are Caucasian,
20 percent are African American, and 12 percent are Hispanic. The foundation's
board members want to reach those populations as well as children.
A Boy Scout troop conducted a "Surfing the Internet" program at the
e-library, and a local junior high school used the site for a science contest.
But with technology changing rapidly, the future of the e-library is
uncertain. Murphy said he has placed a three- to five-year limit on the
project, because "we don't know what the technology will be then." At that
point, the board could decide to continue or disband the project, he said.
In the meantime, the foundation has a lot of fund- raising to do. To
run the project for five years, it needs to raise about $500,000 — of which
they have only $100,000, enough for the first year.
Not only that, but local citizens have called for more e-libraries
in other parts of the county. Tompkins said that another e-library is in
discussions, but whether it will get beyond that is uncertain.
"Right now I'm just trying to keep one afloat," she said. "One thing
at a time."