Of mice and burgers

The digital age is making libraries more lively. Not that they weren't interesting already. Last year, for example, Rocky Mountain News books editor Patti Thorn reported on the variety of items librarians find being used as bookmarks. Love letters and bacon are on the list. First prize, though, goes to the reader who chose a hamburger with mustard as a place-keeper.

But condiments aside, public libraries are increasingly attracting people who want a good book and a place to surf the Net. Rows of terminals, classes on Web browsers, and staff ready to answer technical questions are all common today. A recent survey by the American Library Association showed that 73 percent of the nearly 16,000 public libraries in the US offer Internet access.

In urban areas like San Francisco and Boston, demand is so high for free online time that libraries have had to set time limits on use. Quantity and quality of service in other branches varies. The ALA says some libraries have only one terminal, or offer slow connections. Still, any progress - however gradual - is welcome.

In some parts of the country, high school students are heading off to college without knowing how to use a computer (see "On Campus" column, page 15). These are the kind of people who will benefit most from public access to technology.

"What constitutes literacy is changing," says Carol Henderson, executive director of the ALA's Washington office. Libraries have always played a role in literacy, she says, so it's natural that they are adapting to help people use new tools and evaluate the flood of information.

For some, achieving that goal means more than just getting wired. When the new Schaumburg (Ill.) Township District Library opened in September, one newspaper called it "The Disneyland of libraries." It has 106 public-access computers, a kitchen for cooking classes, quiet discussion rooms for homework, and even a cafe. Every month it offers dozens of courses on computers and the Internet.

Not all facilities are quite this advanced. But continued private and public funding of technology in libraries -like the E-rate program, the $1.3 billion telecommunications plan funded by government grants - will help guarantee that access to information is not dictated by wallet size.

Kim Campbell is the assistant Learning editor. Send e-mail comments to campbellk@csps.com

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