When television took hold in the United States in the 1950s, pessimists predicted it would be the death of books and reading. Similarly, with the rise in the availability of the worldwide computer Internet and its ready access to millions of information resources, many observers felt that libraries - the traditional home of books and other information - would lose vast numbers of patrons.
In fact, the Internet is a big draw, attracting patrons to public libraries and boosting their importance to the community. Last year, library districts spent almost $700 million on new buildings - the second-highest total on record. And the last time figures were counted in 1999, almost two billion items were checked out of America's libraries. That's up 21 percent from 1990.
Maurice Freedman is the president of the American Library Association. He also directs the 38 independent libraries that make up the library system in Westchester County, New York, a wealthy suburb with almost one million people just north of New York City. Mr. Freedman says the Westchester libraries are connected through a computer network of 600 terminals, 400 of which are available to the public. "The more Internet access we've provided, the more heavily the libraries have been used," he said. "And the extraordinary aspect of it is that it's book use that the Internet has maximized."
The Westchester library system opened the book reservation process to computer access in 1999. Up till then, using a cumbersome manual paper system, patrons reserved 4,000 books a month, on average. Now, the number of books reserved each month tops 76,000. "Thirty percent of the books that were borrowed were published prior to 1990," said Maurice Freedman. "So books that were never circulating are now circulating."
At the libraries themselves, patrons - many of whom do not have computers at home - use the library's Internet-connected computers to send and check e-mail, to do heavy-duty research, and to play games or gather information about their favorite hobbies.
Maurice Freedman says these functions have turned librarians into what he calls "knowledge navigators," teaching patrons how to wade through the morass of information that confronts them when they log onto the Internet. "This story is not an apocryphal story," he continued. "It's been verified in different ways. The college student is in his dormitory room, beating away on a computer terminal for an hour, hour and a half, cannot find what he wants, goes to the library, talks to the reference librarian, who, like a good reporter, asks a number of pointed questions and gets to what the person is really looking for. She turns to her terminal, clicks a few keys, turns the terminal around and says, 'Is that what you're looking for?' And the student says, 'Yes, yes, yes. That's exactly what I was looking for.' And then he says, 'How come my computer didn't find it, but yours did?'"
On the other side of the country, in Washoe County, Nevada, which includes the resort city of Reno, the appeal of the Internet has been so profound that people line up outside before county libraries open, waiting for their chance to use one of the 52 available computers. In addition to 12 physical branch locations, Washoe County also maintains what it calls its "Internet Branch," a virtual library with its own manager and online website that gives patrons access not only to the library collection but also to an assortment of online databases and library links. The county also operates a mobile library equipped with wireless computers. From one location or another, patrons are encouraged to e-mail reference questions to the library staff.
Scott Fifield, 39, who runs a carpet-cleaning business in Reno, uses the library's internet terminals to check e-mail and surf the Internet. He says he has no computer at home, and besides, the library's system is faster. "I race bicycles also, professionally, so I look up a lot of different races and get registration forms and such like that," he says. Asked if the library saw much of him before the Internet, he responds, "No, not at all. I probably wouldn't be here."
Tony Gaulis, 60, is a retired Forest Service employee who uses the Reno libraries' computers to keep up on government information. He also uses the Net to follow fires throughout the West each summer and has taken off to help fight several of them. "The Washoe County Library System gave some classes on it, and I went to them. They were free, you know. And I got interested in that way," he said.
Had he thought about getting his own home computer? Yes, but he seems in no rush, as long as the service is available from the library. He agrees it's a whole new world, and he's enjoying it very much.
Public libraries across the United States are dealing with a thorny Internet issue - what to do about patrons who use the computer terminals to access sexually explicit websites or other sites that offend community standards. As Caroline Haythornthwaite, who runs a library-science program at the University of Illinois, puts it, "It's like going into a store where everything is on the same shelf," she said. "There's no back to the store. You don't have an index system so that you can cut certain things out. You can't go to the Children's Section, and you can't go to the Adult Only Section. It's an interesting side effect of just having this open bin."
A few systems, like that in Raleigh, North Carolina, have installed filters on all their computers to block offensive material. Westchester County leaves the decision up to its individual branch libraries. Director Nancy Cummings says the Washoe County, Nevada, system gives patrons a choice.
"Our adult stations are unfiltered," she says. "With the children, we feel it is the parents' responsibility. So children under the age of 18 must have their parents' permission to use Internet stations in the library, and the parents choose whether or not they can have unfettered access or filtered access, with or without their presence."
If they find people viewing pornographic sites, do they make an effort to stop them? "We do remind the patrons that they must conform to the same policies that library staff does," says Ms. Cummings. "We do have privacy screens, so it's very difficult for people or staff to view what someone else is viewing on a computer unless you're practically standing right directly behind him."
Nancy Cummings in Nevada and Maurice Freedman in New York say the Internet has been the information salvation for low-income people who cannot afford computers at home, for new immigrants, and for foreign students looking to stay in touch with people back home.