[Videolib] off topic but good news never hurts

Jed Horovitz (JedH@internetvideoarchive.com)
Thu, 22 Apr 2004 08:36:37 -0400

April 22, 2004
Libraries Wired, and Reborn
THE low point came in 1997, a year before personal computers and the
Internet came to the libraries of Terrebonne Parish, a swatch of bayou
country in South Louisiana, where people make their living on the water,
harvesting shrimp and crabs or servicing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Four of the nine branch libraries had been shut down for lack of funds, and
the main library, a dreary concrete-slab building that locals nicknamed "the
bomb shelter," needed repairs and books.
Today, the Terrebonne Parish main library is a year-old spacious postmodern
building of red brick and skylights, built on a former sugar cane
plantation. There are 81 computers linked to the Internet, all with
high-speed connections, in the parish libraries. Three of the closed
branches have been reopened.
Technology, to be sure, is only part of the story. The arrival of the first
few dozen Internet-connected computers in 1998 - courtesy of the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation - brought people in and helped revive community
interest in the libraries. Local leaders saw an opportunity and ran with it.
They put a one-quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot for the parish
libraries, a proposal that narrowly passed in 1998. That provided the funds
for the new library, 81 computers, more staffing and a 10-fold increase in
the annual book budget.
"Before we had the Internet and this building, the library was not
considered a winner," said Mary Cosper LeBoeuf, the head librarian. "But now
it is."
This bayou parish is a showcase, an example of how a major institution like
the American public library has been transformed by an Internet connection.
(The impact on corporations, schools and government has been significant,
too; for each of those institutions, the Internet has been a tool to further
its main purpose - making money, educating people and delivering services.)
For the library, supplying patrons with access to the Internet and the Web
has become central to its mission, an updating of its long tradition of
providing information free to the public.
The transition has come quickly. In 1996, 28 percent of all libraries had
PC's for public access to the Internet. Now, 95 percent of libraries offer
Internet access. The Gates foundation accelerated the trend. There are now
more than 120,000 Internet-connected PC's for public use in municipal
libraries nationwide. Since 1998, the foundation has installed or paid for
more than 47,000 PC's. The raw numbers somewhat overstate how many of the
foundation-sponsored machines are currently in use. (In Terrebonne Parish,
for example, the 35 Gates foundation computers have been replaced by newer
PC's purchased by the library.)
But the computer count alone may well understate the influence of the Gates
foundation, librarians an academic experts say. Beyond PC's and cash, they
point out, the foundation also provided leadership, training and a
simplified recipe for using and maintaining PC's in public libraries.
And Internet-connected computers are clearly bringing more people into
libraries. A year after computers are put in libraries that do not have
them, visits rise 30 percent on the average and attendance typically remains
higher, according to a study led by Andrew C. Gordon, a professor of public
policy at the University of Washington. Over the last six years, visits to
the nation's 16,400 public libraries have increased more than 17 percent, a
trend that can be partly attributed to the spread of computers with Internet
Critics say the Gates foundation's library program is a Microsoft marketing
exercise masquerading as philanthropy. The foundation does not require
recipient libraries to use the program's preferred package of software -
Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office and other Microsoft products - but 83
percent have opted for the bundle recommended by the foundation.
"Sure, there is a huge self-interest, but when you look at what the Gates
foundation has accomplished it is fairly phenomenal," said Charles R.
McClure, a professor of information studies at Florida State University.
"The impact has been especially important in rural and inner-city
The foundation program was intended to help close the digital divide by
giving people in less affluent and remote regions free access to the
Internet. To qualify for Gates grants, libraries must serve communities in
which at least 10 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty
level. "This wasn't a library project; it was a computer and Internet access
project," Dr. Gordon noted. "But the fact that the computer is a
multipurpose tool opens the door to all kinds of new activities at
Now that nearly all libraries are wired, the Gates foundation is shifting
gears. At the start of this year, it announced that it would focus on
"staying connected" grants, offering $2 in matching funds for every dollar
raised locally, in communities struggling to pay to upgrade equipment and
retain Internet service.
"We do feel that the big phase of this project is done," said Melinda Gates,
wife of the Microsoft chairman. "The communities have to sustain access
themselves. Our role has been mainly as a catalyst. The first seed funds
come from us, and that prompts other investments."
A look at two library cases helped by the Gates foundation - an urban
library in New York, and the Terrebonne Parish system in Louisiana - affords
a glimpse into the impact that bringing computers and the Internet into
libraries has had on the digital divide and the libraries themselves.
The Bronx: Like a Busy Gym
At 3:30 p.m., Claude Brown, a library computer page, called out, "All 3
o'clock computer appointments are now over."
At the New York Public Library's West Farms branch in the South Bronx,
computers are rationed like treadmills at a busy gym, in half-hour
intervals. More than 14 million Americans can gain access to the Internet at
public libraries, according to the Commerce Department. On this weekday
afternoon, the crowd is made up mostly of students. Clivel Charlton, the
young-adult librarian at West Farms, says the most popular uses include
sending e-mail, research for homework, playing games, and looking up the
lyrics of songs by rap stars like Jay-Z, Nas and DMX.
Luis Rizner, an 18-year-old senior at Samuel Gompers Vocational and
Technical High School, said he comes to the library most afternoons. He has
a computer at home but no Internet access. He sends a lot of e-mail, from
seven free accounts, including some on Yahoo, Hotmail and Bolt. A few
computers away, Zenayda Quinones, a 13-year-old seventh grader, was doing
research for a report on clothing in Colonial times. Silk petticoats and
buckle shoes were not to her taste. "Weird" was Zenayda's succinct verdict.
Melquan Jones, a 16-year-old junior at Samuel Gompers, was looking up
information on the history of the printing press for a school report. He
browses the nearby books occasionally, he said, "but I come here mostly for
the computers."
His is a common sentiment, according to Mr. Charlton, who estimates that
more than half of West Farms users ages 12 to 18 come to the library mainly
for the computers. "We draw them in with the computers," he said, "and then
try to convert them to reading books." The conversion tactic, he says,
succeeds with perhaps 40 percent of the young people.
Studies have shown that minorities, immigrants, lower-income groups and
people in rural areas rely more on libraries for access to computers and the
Internet than do Americans in general. Of course, that does not mean that
the digital divide has closed: a teenager waiting for a half-hour stint on a
PC at the South Bronx library does not enjoy the same Internet access as a
teenager with a PC with broadband service in the bedroom.
"There have been good gains, but it's not over," said Larry Irving, a former
technology policy official in the Clinton administration and principal
author of a 1995 government report called "Falling Through the Net," which
pointed out the digital divide. "We have to continue to pursue the goal of
relatively equal access to the Internet, and continuing investment in
libraries is crucial."
The New York Public Library has made a significant commitment to Internet
access. At its 85 branches, all 1,800 computers are connected to the
Internet, with the Gates foundation contributing 450 of the total. The
library now spends $17 million a year on technology, including both
equipment and staff, or about 8 percent of its budget. "What we have done
very deliberately is embraced this new way of delivering information," said
Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library.
Louisiana: A New Clientele
At the Terrebonne Parish libraries, the annual technology budget, including
the salaries of three staff members, runs about $100,000 a year. In return
for that investment, the library has acquired many new patrons and new uses
for the library. Visits by teenagers, people age 50 and older and members of
ethnic minorities have nearly doubled in the last couple of years, said Mrs.
LeBoeuf, the head librarian. "It's a whole clientele that didn't come here
before," she noted.
The computers are put to all manner of uses. E-mail, Mrs. LeBoeuf said, is
perhaps most common, from messages to friends elsewhere in Louisiana to
those to relatives in the military stationed in Iraq. One local woman who
was adopted found her biological parents by searching on the Internet, Mrs.
LeBoeuf said. But most of the uses are more workaday inquiries, like looking
up prices on the Web before haggling with merchants. ("Harry, I'm not going
to pay that. The Web price is $10 less.")
Neumen Joseph Henry, a 51-year-old carpenter, was attending a basic computer
class in the Houma library last week to get help looking up real estate
listings. Mr. Henry said he was getting divorced and was looking for a new
house. "Before this class, I had no computer skills at all," he said.
"There's a wealth of information in there, if you know how to find it."
Russell P. Hebert, 80, a retired backhoe operator for a construction
company, said his children had prodded him to learn to use a computer. A
World War II pilot, Mr. Hebert said he enjoyed looking up information on the
planes he used to fly. He also sends e-mail to his children and
grandchildren. "I'm learning that - that's working pretty good," he said.
A drive down toward the gulf, at the Chauvin branch, a one-room red brick
building, Debbie LeBlanc, a homemaker, came in to find information on how to
care for a tiny Saguaro cactus a truck driver friend had brought her from
Flooding is so common at the branch that Tina Freeman, the librarian, is a
practiced expert at storm preparations, which involves taking the books from
lower shelves and stacking them on chairs, above the flood line. Ms. LeBlanc
reads at a Web site that her cactus will thrive on a tablespoon or two of
water a month. "What's going to happen to it here, where we're surrounded by
water?" she asked.
In Houma, Mrs. LeBoeuf walked through the bustling new library as mothers
with toddlers gathered for story time, the staff stocked shelves with books,
and people of all ages sat at clusters of flat-panel PC's. Computers and the
Internet are changing libraries irrevocably, she said.
"Books are never going away, but the future of libraries is much more as
community centers," Mrs. LeBoeuf observed. "I worked here for 22 years and
never thought we'd have something like this."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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