Libraries in the Digital Age: Bridging the Gap between Information Haves and Have-Nots. (and Furthermore)

Article excerpt

The increased speed and volume of information are having a profound effect on individuals and organizations across the country. Since Benjamin Franklin helped to start the first public libraries, Americans have used libraries to get the information they need to enjoy and expand their lives. Libraries and librarians continue to play a vital role in organizing information, connecting people with the information they want and need and ensuring equitable access to information resources.

Libraries have worked to bridge the divide between the information "haves" and "have-nots" for more than 100 years. Librarians recognize that equity of access is not just about having public computers available. School, academic and public libraries -- which together maintain more than 100,000 facilities -- provide a broad spectrum of programs and services; trained, skilled staff; materials and other resources; and access to information technologies and services.

Libraries are changing and dynamic places. Almost 95 percent of public libraries offer Internet access to the public, up from 73 percent only two years ago. As more and more libraries offer the computer applications requested by their customers, librarians are stepping up to teach and explore applications and programs with people of all ages and abilities. With more than 4 million new pages added to the World Wide Web every day, librarians are needed more than ever to make sense of the information jungle.

24/7 Reference

In a society driven by convenience, libraries are creating innovative ways to supply the answers to reference questions when they are asked -- even after the library is closed for the night.

* More and more libraries, such as the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, currently are extending their reach with "Night Owl" telephone reference service.

* Public and private libraries from around the world are developing a free online reference service scheduled to be available next summer that will offer round-the-clock librarian assistance. About 60 libraries, from the Canadian Agricultural Library to the Santa Monica (CA) Public Library, began testing the Comprehensive Digital Reference Service (CDRS) in November. Questions can be submitted via in-person visits, e-mail, fax or phone calls to CDRS members. The project is coordinated by the Library of Congress.

Wireless technology

Wireless technology is making information more mobile than ever. In the last few years, libraries have brought computers outside their walls and made it easier for users to take their computers with them from floor to floor.

* Library users in Portage Public Library (WI) and laman Public Library in North Little Rock (AR) can check out laptops for use throughout the library, enabling them to head to the stacks for research or reading ease.

* Across the country, Cybermobiles are bring the Internet and online reference support to neighborhoods where residents would otherwise have to travel long distances to access services. Libraries using Cybermobiles include: Chester County Library in Exton (PA); St. Louis (MO) County Library; Muncie (IN) Public Library; San Francisco Public Library; South Central Region Library Council in Ithaca, NY; Topeka and Shawnee County (KS) Public Library; and Canadian and Australian libraries.

Innovative Outreach

* The Indianapolis Public Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore) also are reaching beyond the library walls with new kiosks in high-traffic shopping areas. The InfoZone is a partnership between the Children's Museum of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library. The InfoZone houses 15,000 books, CDs, videos, periodicals and other resources. The 3,000-square-foot space in the museum also will offer 20 computers for accessing the library's catalog. In Baltimore, Internet kiosks offer ready reference information, including store maps. …