Hit the mall for free technology access

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

for children.

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

the box.

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

Library Connection.

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

Training Depot.

Last fall, Library Connection opened. With little advertising beyond

word of mouth, patrons slowly discovered the "store" with free Internet

access.

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

others.

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,"

he said.

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."

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