Public computer and broadband internet access is one of the fastest growing and most popular services offered by public libraries today. As competition in the communications market remains low, monthly rates remain high, and broadband adoption rates have begun to level off, the result has been greater demand for public access in the nation's libraries. Indeed, any customer who walks through the doors can access a free, highband-width, fiber-optic connection. By ensuring greater access to costly services--particularly during the current lean economic times--the Charles County Public Library (CCPL), Md., where I serve as IT manager, has been able to address the nation's "digital divide." The numbers prove it: According to library statistics, in the last fiscal year, computer usage at CCPL's three branches has increased 67%!
Recently, the University of Washington surveyed users of public access computers in libraries and found this service has dramatic impacts. The most striking headline was that "nearly one-third of Americans age 14 and older ... used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in the past year...." (In Charles County, that number has climbed to nearly 40%.) Additionally, 65% of those customers using library computers nationally were seeking information on behalf of a friend or family member. This is significant because it demonstrates that library computer access may also indirectly impact a large number of uncounted customers who may not visit the branches. Clearly there is a great need for public access computing, and one wonders how much higher local statistics would be if libraries could offer more computers in a wider range of locations throughout their service areas.
Planning a Public Computing Center
Unfortunately, expanding public computer and broadband access is increasingly difficult in many library systems. In Charles County, for example, the three branches now have more than 60 public access computers spread over less than 40,000 square feet and are running out of physical space. There are also the challenges of available electrical power and broadband data connections. In our system's oldest building, new computers cannot be added despite available space because the library's electrical circuits cannot handle additional load. At this point, expanding public computer access in the Charles County Public Library required finding service locations elsewhere in the community.
While this is indeed a difficult task, it has not proven to be an impossible one. An example of how public computer access can be expanded to the wider community is the recent success of the public computing center in Charles County's Capital Clubhouse. The Capital Clubhouse is a 90,000-square-foot facility owned and operated by the Charles County government that contains an ice skating rink, a multisport gymnasium, and space for various family programs. When local politicians approached library administration with the idea of using some of this space for library purposes, it was decided that one room should be turned into a public computer lab.
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When planning the first public computing center, there were certain assumptions and opportunities that guided the project. For example, because the public computing center would not have regularly scheduled library staff, printing would not be offered. Also, workstations would be secured to the furniture using locking theft-prevention devices. Employees of the Capital Clubhouse and a system of security cameras would monitor the area to ensure a level of acceptable behavior but could not be expected to offer library or technical services. For this reason, automation would play a major role in the center's configuration in order to provide more self-service capability and eliminate the cost of additional staff involvement. A commitment to automation and self-service would also further the goal of eventually including a wide range of progressive library technologies and services in addition to computer access. …