Eric Sheptock has got to be the District’s best-known homeless man. He’s been profiled by National Public Radio, featured in a number of Washington Post articles, and interviewed on CNN.
Why all the attention? Because unlike other street dwellers, Sheptock has a huge digital presence. He’s got a blog, almost 2,000 friends on his Facebook page, 700 Twitter followers, and at least as many contacts in his Yahoo e-mail account. He writes Mayor Fenty when he’s angry about something going on in one of the city’s homeless shelters (“he doesn’t respond very often”) and has advocated against budget cuts that would affect homeless services.
Yet Sheptock doesn’t own a computer, which puts him in good company. According to the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, fewer than 40 percent of residents in Wards 5, 7, and 8—virtually all of Northeast and Southeast, minus Capitol Hill—have access to high-speed Internet.
That’s where free comes in, and taxpayer money is helping. Over the past three years, the D.C. Public Library system has increased the number of computers from 100 to close to 600, all with fast connections and flat-screen monitors.
“We’re really proud of our public access computers,” says Chris Tonjes, DCPL’s IT director. “[They] have a lot of capabilities,” like the latest version of Microsoft Office, iTunes, CD recording devices, and Picasa photo editing software. “We’re also rolling out a number of Macs at the library that are specifically targeted to young adults,” he added.
It’s not enough, of course. “We could put out 6,000 and usage would probably continue to be quite high,” admits Tonjes. It’s going to take a broad distribution of laptops and a WiFi signal as pervasive as the city’s humid air to fully close the District’s digital divide.
Until then, anyone without Internet access will have to keep creatively hunting for free services available around the city. Here’s a guide to what’s out there.
Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library
The best place in the area for virtually unlimited, unmonitored computer use. In what Georgetown officials say is “a conscious effort to reach out to the community and the city,” the library is open daily from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. to anyone with a photo ID. On the main floor are 45 computers equipped with Windows Vista and available to anyone, though they tend to be for short-term use. The real sweet spot is downstairs. Open 24 hours most days (closed between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday nights), the basement’s Gelardin New Media Center has roughly 65 computers with a basic version of Windows; the chairs are soft, the lighting not too bright, and the computers all come with keyboard wrist pads.
Need to know: The library has an idiosyncratic entry scheme for outsiders. If you’re a non-Georgetown student, you can’t enter the library after 11 p.m. But if you arrive at 10:45 p.m., you can stay all night. While the area downstairs is monitored by one or two staffers, the computers lie in a grid of cubicles, and no one will care whether you’re a student or not. Expect a full house during finals season; at all other times, there will be at least a few computers available.
Perks: Multiple. Best is the second-floor café, which is open until 2 a.m. many nights and offers dirt-cheap bagels with cream cheese.
Drawbacks: It’s not on the Metro, so getting to Georgetown requires a 20-minute walk or a $1 ride on the university’s bus from the Dupont Metro station. Also, get ready for sensory deprivation—if you spend too much time in the windowless Gelardin Center, it will start to feel like a dungeon.
University of Maryland at College Park’s McKeldin Library
When you approach the computer area at McKeldin, you’re bound to encounter this sign: computers in this area are intended to support umd students, faculty and staff. when others are waiting, you may be asked to vacate if engaged in activities not essential to academic pursuits. Don’t be put off—the atmosphere is relaxed, and usage seems to be unmonitored; patrons are a wide variety of ages, and outsiders are unlikely to be noticed. No ID is needed to enter, and there’s no time limit on Internet browsing or word processing on the roughly 75 PCs on the main floor.
Need to know: The library is open 8 a.m.–11 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Saturdays, and from noon to 11 p.m. on Sundays.
Perks: The place is pretty basic, but there are a few decent procrastination options, including an extensive periodicals section with thousands of magazines and journals, from Accounting Horizons to Zyzzyva. Also inside the library is a small store with snacks and decent coffee. For anyone planning on camping out all day, the student union is a five-minute walk and offers a much wider menu.
Drawbacks: Getting to McKeldin from central D.C. is a haul and requires a ride on Metro’s Green Line and then a free shuttle from the Metro. Inside the library, you won’t need to be reminded that you’re at a public university: The vibe is somewhat dismal, thanks to no-frills, 1970s institutional décor accented by long rows of fluorescent lights.
Library of Congress
Who’d have guessed the Library of Congress has amenities for lowly plebeians? Well, technically it doesn’t; the library is designed for folks doing serious research, and if you chat long enough with staff, they may begin inquiring about your motives. But keep to yourself and you’ll fit in fine. The place to go is the Jefferson Building, across from the Capitol. On the second floor, the Computer Catalog Center has 60 computers open to visitors. They aren’t the newest or fastest, and opening documents on them can be challenging, but printing is free and the atmosphere cozy and quiet.
Need to know: The Computer Catalog Center is open business hours every day except Sunday, and stays open until 9:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Perks: Tons. It’s an ornate building festooned with marble, mosaics, murals, and chandeliers, and the long arched hallways make for good exploring during breaks. Before heading into the computer room, take a quick peek at the impressive circular (and WiFi-equipped) Main Reading Room, with its high domed ceiling, stained-glass windows, and mysterious little hut in the center from which the librarians emerge.
Drawbacks: Visitors can’t use the library’s rooms in either building without a pass. Get one on the ground floor of the Madison Building; it takes about 15 minutes and requires a photo ID.
University of the District of Columbia’s main library and Learning Resources Division
On some afternoons, UDC is completely deserted. That can be a good thing, since it means there’s no one to check IDs or hog computers. One spot for free computer access is the main library, on the fifth floor of Building 41 (west of the campus’s Connecticut Avenue entrance), but the 20 computers there are relatively old and slow, featuring not Internet Explorer or Firefox but a generic “web browser” knockoff. A better spot is the Learning Resources Division, on the second floor of the same building. The computer lab hosts a mix of machines; some are as old as the ones upstairs, but at least 30 are new and feature Windows 07.
Need to know: During the school year, the Learning Resources Division is open 8 a.m.–11 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m.–6:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
Perks: Conveniently located just above the Van Ness metro station, UDC is easy to get to.
Drawbacks: Never been to a former communist country? UDC’s a good place to get a sense of Soviet-era aesthetics. Arriving from the Connecticut Avenue side, visitors enter a bizarre gateway building and ride screeching escalators that open onto a vast, barren plaza. Ahead in the distance is a hulking concrete edifice in the Brutalist style. No need for fancy names or frivolities: It’s Building 41.
Catholic University’s Mullen Library
The beautiful library at Catholic is a strong argument for private education, with its easy chairs arranged in small groups and gleaming glass contrasting nicely with old stone architecture. In the main room are 10 standup kiosks with the latest Macs. Unfortunately, they can be used only for Internet browsing. Around the corner, in the area labeled meric, is a computer lab with 12 PCs and a free printer—but again, no word processing. Somewhat surprisingly, Catholic University’s administrators don’t appear to have blocked any Web sites, so visitors are free to peruse porn and learn about their abortion options at Mullen.
Need to know: Monday through Thursday, the library is open 8 a.m.–11:30 p.m.; on Fridays, it closes at 10 p.m. Weekends are a little more restricted: 9 a.m.–10 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m.–11:30 p.m. on Sundays. While a sign at the door says that IDs are required to enter, the rule is enforced sporadically.
Perks: The university is at the Brookland Metro station (Red Line) and virtually next door to the library is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—the largest Catholic church in the country and D.C.’s tallest building. With simple but soaring architecture and glittering mosaics decorating the domes, it’s worth a side trip.
Drawbacks: Not many. Cynics might sneer at the signs dotting various rooms that encourage students to “plan ahead on assignments!” Otherwise, it’s hard to knock the facility’s innocent, cheery vibe.
D.C. Public Libraries
D.C.’s libraries are probably the first place District residents think of when their computer crashes and they desperately need to check the Internet. But computer opportunities at the city’s libraries vary widely. Since they’re the natural go-to place to get online, many of the libraries’ computers are booked all day long. East of the river, where fewer residents own computers, demand is especially high: On a recent weekday at the Anacostia interim library, a line to sign up began to form the minute the facility opened at 1 p.m.; within 20 minutes, the library’s 18 computers were fully occupied. Computers at MLK Library are also in constant use. But libraries in Northwest, especially interim facilities—Georgetown’s interim facility, or the Tenley-Friendship interim library—may have computers with a short or no waiting list.
Need to know: Branch libraries operate on different schedules; they’re listed at dclibrary.org/hours-locations. Most have a computer or two available for 15-minute express use; the rest can be used in two 70-minute sessions.
Perks: Despite the bad press the city’s library system gets, the interim libraries are remarkably decent places to hang out. They’re clean, bright, often host educational activities and speakers, and aren’t overly dominated by homeless folks seeking respite from the elements.
Drawbacks: If it’s been a while since you’ve tried to use a computer at one of D.C.’s libraries, you’ll have to ask for instructions—getting into a virtual queue to use one of the machines is that convoluted. Once you’ve successfully signed in, you’ll find out how long you have to wait. It’s notoriously overestimated; don’t wander too far away.
Enhanced Business Information Center (eBIC) at MLK Library
On the ground floor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Library is eBIC, a technology center with the aim of supporting small businesses. It’s run by another city agency, not the public library system, so the center’s 10 computers with fast connections aren’t on the library’s time-limit system.
Need to know: Staff members are supposed to ask for proof that users own a small business, but the ladies staffing the center are friendly and just might be amenable to a little sweet talk.
Perks: Located within MLK, eBIC shares the library’s hours and its convenient location between two Metro stations. At the same time, it’s clearly not MLK: The environment within eBIC’s flimsy walls is brighter, cleaner, and more businesslike than the rest of the library; plus, the place is a lot less crowded.
Drawbacks: Word has it that enforcement of proof of business ownership recently increased, so either bring something that looks vaguely official, or come prepared with a good excuse and a charming smile.
Recreation centers around the city
Most of the District’s rec centers have computer facilities open to anyone, and a number of them have recently been upgraded. But they’re a mixed bag. At Barry Farms Recreation Center in Anacostia, for example, there are six new Dell computers with fast Internet connections, but after 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, they’re slated for student use only. By contrast, Fort Stevens Recreation Center in Brightwood has nine laptops available for unlimited use, and staff say the facility is rarely crowded. But the computers take forever to start up and the connection is horribly slow.
Need to know: Each rec center has slightly different rules covering its computer facilities, as well as different hours, so make some calls before heading out.
Perks: Once computer needs have been sated, basketball, Ping Pong, and other games await.
Howard University’s Founders Library and Undergraduate Library
Howard’s two main libraries are connected; the main Founders’ Library is an older, imposing building, with around 25 old PCs scattered around without word processing capacity. Below it is the Undergraduate Library, a newer building with a relatively modern Media Center complete with all basic computer functions, but accessible only to Howard students. The center’s desk attendant only requires visitors to sign in with their student ID number, though, so not-so-scrupulous computer seekers might try creatively stringing together numbers to gain access.
Need to know: A photo ID is required to enter. Monday through Thursday, the libraries are open 8 a.m.-midnight, but on weekends they close around 6 p.m.
Perks and drawbacks: It’s hard to find anything particularly good or bad about Howard’s libraries. They’re functional, even relatively attractive, but not much about them or their computer services stands out.