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Online at the Library


Ellen Perlman

Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Governments boast about the many services they offer online so people can do business with them 24/7. That's fine for people who have computers with speedy Internet access at home and at work. But for some segments of society, the main access to the Internet comes via a workstation at a public library, typically in half-hour to hour-long chunks of time.

Fortunately, libraries remain a place where people can use a computer and receive help in navigating the Web without paying a dime. More than 70 percent of libraries report that they are the only places in their communities where their local residents can log on to computers and the Internet without charge, according to Libraries Connect Communities 3, a new American Library Association study on public library funding and technology access.

Lately, that's become more important due to widespread job losses and a constricted economy. More than ever, residents are coming to libraries to do job searches and get help with finding employment information. "Finding and applying for jobs is the area where we've seen the greatest increase in the use of our computers," say Toni Lohman, service development manager for the Virginia Beach, Virginia, public libraries. "This often involves one-on-one instruction by library staff, helping the customer learn how to use a computer, to find job listings, to fill out an application online and to create an e-mail account."

The Virginia Beach libraries also provide technology help to people who bring in little scraps of paper with Web addresses that they don't know how to access. Librarians will help them get the information and services they need. Other patrons in need of free technology assistance are those who use public law libraries' electronic legal services because they can't afford an attorney. They end up doing the research themselves, conducting online searches and creating documents without charge.

On the job front, strangely enough, even those positions that don't require computer use often have online-only job applications. Many applicants rely on library staff members to help them with basic computer skills so they can apply for service industry and entry-level positions, such as housekeeping and stocking shelves.

Libraries also have seen an uptick in the use of public-access computers for e-government, including filing for unemployment benefits. More than 80 percent of public libraries' staff members help patrons understand how to use government Web sites, programs and services so they can download tax forms, apply for state jobs and renew vehicle licenses and registrations.

And while it's not as convenient as heading to the den or the home office, some people with home Internet connections might actually prefer using library equipment. Often the connection speeds at the local library are much faster than patrons can afford individually. Seventy percent of public libraries reported that they offered speeds of 1.5 Mbps or faster, up from 65 percent that offered such speeds in 2007-2008.

But that's true more in urban areas. In rural areas, one-third of libraries have connections of less than 1.5 Mbps, and find they can't keep up with the bandwidth that patrons demand. Nearly 60 percent of libraries reported that at some point in the day, connection speeds aren't fast enough to meet users' needs.

As much as they'd like to provide more technology assistance, libraries have had to tighten spending along other public entities. More than 14 percent of public libraries reported that their operating budgets had decreased in fiscal year 2009. Nearly 48 percent reported that funding increases were less than the rate of inflation. On the bright side, some federal stimulus money may be available.

No matter what the difficulties, the Virginia Beach librarians seem willing to do what they can to help those who show up at their doors. "While the workload has increased for library staff," says Lohman, "the appreciation shown by our customers more than makes up for the sometimes frantic pace we are working in today."

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