'Net Demand Swamps Libraries

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Virtually every U.S. public library now offers free Internet access but most ration it, inhibiting the ability of lower-income families to benefit from the Information Age.

Libraries in Fresno County, Calif., impose a half-hour limit during peak periods, but one branch reported that patrons needed two hours or more of computer time just to fill out online job applications for a new Home Depot store.

Typically, two to seven people are waiting for a computer to become free at the main library.

Time limits mean "people can't get to the things that are important to them," said Karen Bosch Cobb, Fresno's interim chief librarian. "People are doing grant applications, scholarship, reading their e-mail," she said, while immigrants use the Internet to stay in touch with relatives abroad via e-mail and read news about their native countries.

In a study released Thursday, the American Library Association said 99.6 percent of libraries are now connected to Internet, with all but a handful offering access to the public. That compares with 20.9 percent in 1994 when the study was first conducted.

"If you look at some of these numbers, some people might have a tendency to say, 'My gosh, they are connected. They are doing all these things. They don't need help anymore,'" said John Bertot, the Florida State University professor who directed the study. "That has me concerned. Public libraries do still need help."

For the first time, libraries were asked about their ability to meet demand. Seventy percent of libraries said there aren't enough computer terminals during peak periods, while another 16 percent said there's always a shortage.
  • Lloyd Vries

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