With the expansion of print and multimedia sources in American life, public libraries have had to adapt to society's greater dependence on computers. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi looks at one modern library in Fairfax County, Virginia near Washington, D.C.
Public libraries in the United States are no longer simply print-based institutions. Online catalogues have replaced card catalogues, more material is available on CDs and DVDs and users can search remote databases for information.
Ingrid Bowers is the associate manager of Pohick Regional Library. "Our database is especially wonderful because it provides all kinds of E-books and magazine articles and newspaper articles, encyclopedia articles and full text online to our customers," says Bowers.
With multiple information formats available in print and electronic mediums, Bowers stresses the importance of library information specialists to serve customer's needs.
"When a customer comes up to us, we need to make a professional decision on whether a book would be the best format,” adds Bowers. “We have to kind of sift through our knowledge of the databases and what we know on the databases and which database will help our customer."
Bowers says library customers can e-mail their research outcome to their computers at home. They can also access databases from their homes.
"They can access the catalogue from home; they can place books on hold,” says library manager Jean Johnston. “They can check their accounts. Many of the databases that we have give them access to excellent periodicals, in many cases full text, they can access from home. We have homework help: tutor.com. Many of the students and their parents are delighted with that service."
Johnston says that information technology has allowed the public library to introduce another new service.
"We do have what we call Ask-a-Librarian and it is staffed with professional librarians. So if they (customers) have a question, they certainly can go back and forth so it is rather like a chat format. Many times they (librarians) answer the question, but other times they (customers) get referrals, but it has proved to be very popular."
With the spread of mobile Internet devices, public libraries are providing visitors with both wireless access for laptops and a quiet room to work on assignments. New technology also allows the library to offer special texts for vision-impaired visitors, and electronic children's books for pre-school visitors.
Sam Clay is the director of Library Administration in Fairfax County. He says information technology has enhanced the library's role in educating and entertaining the public.
"Libraries are not doing new services,” says Clay. “They are doing existing services but differently because of the technology. Technology helped us to expand our range, to expand what we are able to offer to our customers."
In today's public library, Internet access is attracting all sorts of visitors. But information technology is not replacing people's need to physically read books.