Magazine article American Libraries

It Takes a Virtual Village to Empower All the Villagers: Assistive Technology Embraces All Comers in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Technology)

Magazine article American Libraries

It Takes a Virtual Village to Empower All the Villagers: Assistive Technology Embraces All Comers in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Technology)

Article excerpt

By noon the room is alive with the clatter of keyboards and the hum of quiet conversation. Office workers on their lunch break stop to send a video e-mail to friends, while hurried jobseekers print out last-minute copies of their resumes. It's not your great aunt's library. Walls and workspaces are sculpted into geometric shapes and colored in vivid shades of red, purple, gold, and green. A neonlit entrance gives the feeling of walking into a rave or a hip Internet cafe, not a technology lab.

But the Virtual Village Communication Center is more than a fun hangout in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. The 11,000-square-foot renovated technical-services space bursts with activity: desktop publishing, resume writing, video editing, teacher-led and self-directed computer training. All 90 Macintosh and PC workstations have high-speed T1 Internet connections and general office-productivity software. More specialized stations have MIDI keyboards, video-editing equipment, smart media readers, or a host of assistive hardware devices and software applications. Open 71 hours over a seven-day week, it serves more than 8,000 patrons each month.

This free computer lab is vital to community members whose economic status or physical disabilities might otherwise block their access to technology. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County designed the Virtual Village to give the entire community access to computer technology and information: from people who are physically challenged to new grandmothers who want to print out digital baby photos, aspiring filmmakers, and first-time jobseekers learning the basics of Microsoft Office. Access to high-end technology is particularly valuable to those who need specially adapted equipment, which is simply out of financial reach for most families.

PLCMC's computer lab dates back to April 1995, when we opened as the Virtual Library. Using a federal Department of Commerce grant, we opened a 1,500-square-foot community-learning laboratory equipped with 12 PCs, eight Macintoshes, scanners, desktop-publishing applications, and 500 CD-ROMs. We billed ourselves as the place where patrons could use and learn about the latest in computer technologies. ALA and Information Today named PLCMC their 1996-1997 "Library of the Future" in recognition of this groundbreaking project (AL, Sept. 1997, p. 74).

Building on the Virtual Library's success, we looked for ways to expand computer access to the larger community. To do this, we sought out two nonprofit partners, Program for Accessible Living and the Carolina Computer Access Center, to collaborate. These partners gave impassioned pleas to the Board of Mecklenburg County Commissioners in support of funding, helped design the facility, and provided staff training. Overwhelmingly, voters passed a $400,000 county bond issue in 1999 that allowed us to renovate the space into what is now the Virtual Village. Equipment purchases came from the library's operating budget, and our staff grew from 6.5 to 9 FTE.

Launched in August 2001, the new facility offered more workstations and a disability-friendly design. We challenged the architect to create an open, integrated environment where people with and without disabilities could interact and share resources. Accordingly, tables and counter surfaces are designed with accessibility in mind. Fifteen workstations have adjustable surfaces, six of which are electrically driven by an easily accessible rocker switch.

Sixteen computers are equipped with assistive hardware and software beyond what is available on the general Internet machines. These devices range from a Braille embosser and keyboard to foot mice and jellied wrist and arm supports, voice-recognition software, the Eye Gaze system (which allows patrons to control a cursor by moving their eyes), and the Cyberlink headband, which picks up nerve signals to allow hands-free control of a mouse.

Our newest public-service enhancement, the state-provided Video Relay Service, enables deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to communicate through an interpreter using American Sign Language. …

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