Libraries Shelve Their Stuffy Image They're Pulling in People with Social Services and Cafes

Article excerpt

When a teenager was fatally shot in a parking lot in King County, Wash., the community came together to make the neighborhood safer. And for support, they turned to the public library. Together they created a program called Escape, which runs well-attended programs for teens every Friday night.

Jackie Abdullah of Freeport, N.Y., also turned to the library when she was looking for a place where her children could play and she could find information on child-rearing. She went to her library's Parent/Child Workshop. There, specialists identified both her sons' learning disabilities, enabling her to find the right educational programs for them.

Widespread computer use and the rise of the Internet has led some observers to speculate about the demise of the local library. But more and more, perhaps in response to the electronic pressure, libraries are moving beyond their traditional job as book repository and branching into electronic networks, family-service programs, literacy classes, and even cafes.

"What you see are two fundamentally important trends," says Diantha Schull, director of Libraries for the Future, a non-profit advocacy group in New York. "One is to be far more active in terms of services to children and youths, and to people seeking community information. The other trend is to develop new technological services and provide access."

The changes run the gamut:

* The Parent/Child Workshop, which runs at libraries across Long Island, offers a place for parents to bring their young children once a week. The library provides toys, parenting resources, and a session with a different child-development specialist each time.

* The Naperville, Ill., library offers a set of programs, including peer counseling, for middle-income managers who have been downsized. Like many libraries, it now houses job information centers, which usually include books, videos, computer terminals, and job listings.

* An electronic network called Charlotte's Web, in Charlotte, N.C., provides access to local information on elections, public health, and other community concerns, and free public-access terminals have been installed throughout the city.

Despite its wide reach, the Internet is limited in scope. It can provide information, it can provide contact through "chats" or e-mail with like-minded computer-users, but the interface is still a keyboard with a screen. Libraries are finding an expanding role for themselves in providing what the Internet can't: ways for people to get together. …