local governments are also becoming more involved in helping public libraries plug in.
Partnerships with private industry are another option. Sacramento has workstations connected to the World Wide Web, and equipment and three year's online time is being handled by Pacific Bell. While partnerships are valuable for getting started, such arrangements are limited, said Schuman, because of ongoing costs beyond acquiring hardware and wiring. "It will cost a fair amount to keep online services up," she said.
The ALA, which is spearheading a drive to convince Congress to put more money into libraries, hopes to increase federal funding from the current 57 cents per person to $1 per person for public libraries to purchase technology equipment and online access. The federal government funds less than half of the nation's public library budget, with state and local governments providing the rest. But "the government provides leadership, and it has to come from the federal level," said Schuman, who chairs the ALA campaign, called "Americans can't wait."
RURAL LEFT BEHIND?
Rural libraries often don't have the resources to even begin plugging into the Internet. The irony of the situation is that rural residents stand to gain from Internet access because they would have access to the same information as the urban population.
Public funding in rural areas is generally scarce to begin with. Opportunities to partner are not as plentiful because there are fewer businesses in the countryside. And unlike their peers in the cities, rural librarians usually don't have technical departments to provide expertise on what it would take to fund Internet hookups.
Another issue with rural libraries is telecommunications costs. Most access providers are not in the immediate area, and rural libraries could have to pay extra toll charges to reach a far-away access provider.
"The solution is to move a major access point closer to them," said Chuck Wright, director of business services for the Southeastern Library Network, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization working for public libraries in 10 Southeastern states.
Some states are creating a local access point for rural libraries with statewide networks, including Georgia and North Carolina. "Many states are involved in state networks," Wright said. "Most larger libraries are hooked together, and these networks are becoming state-based."
The issue of rural access to the Internet is also being solved as service providers spring up in rural areas. "There are rural areas with local providers, and there are others getting better service than urban areas," said Holly Hinman, project consultant with Internet For People, or InFoPeople, a nonprofit based in Pasadena, Calif., which distributes federal seed money to local libraries for online access.
Hinman said that the trend of more access providers and local telephone carriers being created should continue, especially once new telecommunications laws are passed by Congress. Some current local providers are giving rural libraries free access, which the companies hope will turn people who dabble on the Internet at the library into paying customers.
While libraries are being challenged to evolve with the Information Age, the smaller public libraries continue to grapple with regular services. Internet access is a relatively new issue for libraries, and the problems, including funding, are being sorted out.
"It is essential that we [provide access]," said Pat Ryckman, new technologies manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., Public Library, which runs Charlotte's Web, an Internet project. "I'm lucky I get supported in a mid-size city. I feel sorry for the small libraries unable to do traditional things."