Level of Govt: Local
Problem/situation: Local libraries need online access.
Solution: Federal grants, budgeting and partnerships.
Jurisdiction/Agencies: Carnegie Library; National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Sacramento, Calif., Public Library; Maryland; Georgia; North Carolina; Congress; Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., Public Library
Vendors: Pacific Bell
Contact: American Library Association 800/545-2433.
By Brian Miller
In some ways, the local library isn't what it used to be. Because online information has gone mainstream, books and bound periodicals aren't enough to fulfill the needs of today's information-hungry patrons.
Because a public library's basic mission is to store and index information for access by the public, libraries are increasingly adding online access to the Internet. The importance of plugging in is expected to grow as the public continues to embrace easy-to-use software for navigating the Internet. And not plugging in could have serious consequences for libraries.
"The ability to meet our mission in the community would suffer," said Dan Iddings, assistant director of Networked and Automated Services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. "What makes it vitally important is that it may be the only place in town where patrons can have access to the Internet."
Those who cannot afford online access or don't need it often enough to subscribe to an Internet provider often turn to libraries.
"Libraries have been a traditional equalizer," said Patricia Glass Schuman of the American Library Association (ALA). "It is a free institution where anyone can go in and get information."
But there is another reason online access is important. Increasingly, federal and state government agencies are providing some data in electronic form only. Without Internet access at a public library, only a minority of the country would be able to get the government data.
FEW PLUGGED IN
A survey published in June 1994 by the National Commission on Library and Information Sciences found that about 21 percent of public libraries were providing public access to the Internet.
Meanwhile, fewer than half of U.S. households own a computer and modem, the basic equipment for Internet access. And of those with access to a computer, according to a recent Gallup Poll, slightly more than 25 percent use online services.
The importance of online service is hard to underestimate. But in these times of tight government budgets, many local public libraries simply can't buy the equipment and online hookups.
Some seed money is coming to help libraries get started. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded $24.4 million to 92 public-related organizations, including public libraries, for the current fiscal year. The purpose of the grants is to provide matching funds for purchasing equipment and training personnel.
"The purpose is to help groups take advantage of these technologies," said Laura Breeden, head of NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. "We believe libraries have a critical role in access to the Information Age for the have-nots."
But the grants just provide an initial investment for libraries to get equipment, online services and staff training. Some library systems may need to cut portions of already lean budgets to pay for online hookups, which require continuous funding.
"There is tension between the present and the future," said Mark Parker, systems manager for the Sacramento, Calif., Public Library. "If there is no more money, libraries may have to redirect money. And it may be painful."
NUMBER OF APPROACHES
In Maryland, a statewide system providing public library access is being funded mainly from refunds owed by a telephone company as a lawsuit settlement. Georgia is using lottery money to train librarians how to use the Internet. State and