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One day this fall, a librarian at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library (MLK) called security to eject a troublemaker from the Business and Technology section. The request was fairly routine. Every day, guards are called upon to remove homeless people loitering in the men’s room or flashing the librarians in Washingtoniana. This time, though, the man hauled out the library’s front door was well-coiffed and dressed in a business suit. His offense wasn’t snoozing behind USA Today or ripping Whitney Houston photos out of Jet. Rather, the man had breached library rules by signing up twice to use a computer and then started a scuffle with another patron who protested.
The machines in contention weren’t the old CityCat catalog terminalscreaky dinosaurs that never would have caused such a dust-up. Instead, the man in the suit was angling for time on one of the 44 state-of-the-art personal computers donated to the library by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
Last year, the Gates Foundation gave D.C.’s public library system $1 million in computer equipment and support services, and Bell Atlantic contributed another $1 million to re-wire aging buildings for modern telecommunications. By the end of the year, every one of the library’s 25 branches will be wired to the Internet and outfitted with computer equipment for public consumptiona feat few other urban library systems have accomplished. As library spokeswoman Debra Truhart says, “We suddenly have a hot commodity.”
It’s been a long time since the library system had any commodities more enticing than tax forms and Playboy in Braille. The man in the suit is only one of many signs that the technology has quietly created an entire new constituency for the main branch of D.C.’s public library system. The computers have breathed new life into the long-suffering library staff and have revived the system’s democratic ideal, creating a small sanctuary of racial and civic harmony in a city that badly needs both. “It’s been an enormous change,” says Cathy Dixon, chief of the music and recreation division at MLK. “It’s amazing what a big gift can do for you.”
When Bill Gates came to the MLK Library bearing gifts in June 1997, the ceiling leaked constantly, and the elevators were perpetually out of service. Reference librarians took calls on rotary phones, and pneumatic tubes were as close as they got to e-mail. The budget crunch had put the library on a banker’s schedule, denying many busy locals the opportunity to check out books and drop in for research. The institutional funk had prompted the book order department to resign en masse in 1995, in a fiasco that halved the number of books ordered by the library system. The system’s longtime director, Hardy Franklin, had recently retired amid charges that he had embezzled more than $20,000 in library funds. (Last month, he was sentenced to five months of home detention.)
While the computers haven’t yet stanched the ceiling leaks or closed the budgetary shortfall, they’ve brought so much new activity to the library that it might now border on fashionable. Before the computer age arrived, fewer than 3,000 young people visited MLK’s young adult section every month. After 16 machines were delivered there last June, that number shot up to nearly 10,000. It’s since dropped off a bit, but today, twice as many kids are regularly visiting the library as before the equipment was installed, according to the library’s annual report.
Ellen Kardy, the branch librarian at the Mount Pleasant Library, says it used to be common for people to come through the door and strip off all their clothes or fall down on the floor and throw up. So when she heard the branch would be getting new computers, her first thought was, “‘Oh God, instead of passing out in front of a book, now they’ll pass out in front of a computer.’…But that hasn’t happened.”
One afternoon last month, Derrick Benson, 28, sat at MLK checking one of the 311 e-mails in his Hotmail account. He had messages from NFL.com, which sends him sports updates “in case he misses George Michael.” Dummies Daily and Tip World provide him with regular missives on new computer technology. Benson also uses the Internet to improve his luck. He signs up for contests and, while his marriage prospects are slim, he collects “Honeymoon Hints” and “Tips for the Groom” from Washington Wedding Net”just in case.” He has put his résumé on several online “monster boards” in the hope that someone will offer him a job, and he has done some Internet research on D.C. zoning regulations in case he decides to start his own business.
Benson has been coming to MLK almost daily to read the paper for quite some time. Now he uses the computers, too, which he says he couldn’t do anywhere else “because of my condition,” referring to his appearance and not-so-subtle aroma of the nearby Gospel Mission, where he acquired his computer skills.
While unemployed men like Benson commonly flock to the public library stacks, you might be surprised to see the Russian computer specialist and his wife, who were sitting next to Benson last month checking the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Web site for information on getting vanity plates for their new car.
Barbara Gloriod, a reference librarian at MLK’s language and literature division, says that since the computers were installed, she’s been seeing all sorts of new patrons, particularly middle-class white people “who have never used the library before.”
Alan Bobowski, head of library information systems, says the computers have returned the library to its 19th-century roots. Public libraries originated because books were a rare and expensive resource that most people could not afford, says Bobowski. When mass publishing houses sprang up in the 1950s, though, cheap books cut into the library’s traditional stable of users.
“What in the 1930s and ’40s were natural constituents of the library now go to Borders. They never come to the library,” Bobowski says. “But with the onset of the Internet and microcomputers, the library is once again in a position to offer something no individual can develop on their own.” He adds that it’s not the computers alone that have drawn people to the library, but the expertise of the staff, as well. “No individual uses the Internet like a librarian,” he notes.
The computers haven’t come without headachesmost notably, their popularity. The 44 terminals at MLK are booked all day long, and there’s little chance they’ll ever catch a break. Currently, the library is running 25 computer training classes a monthserving more than 125 peopleand there’s a waiting list. The Mount Pleasant branch got its first four terminals in June, and Kardy says the library would have to stay open until 3 a.m. every night of the week to accommodate everyone who signs up. The competition, says Kardy, sometimes causes fights among patrons. “In this neighborhood, not a lot of people have computers,” she says. “There’s a huge demandkids who need educational software, adults who need to look for a job…lots of people looking to improve their lives.”
Kardy says the machines also attract a few mentally ill people obsessed with typing who are difficult to dislodge when their time runs out. “No matter what you do, you’re going to have a lunatic or two,” she says.
Generally, though, the library staff say the computer users have been a model of civility. “People are just so thrilled or pleased that the computers are there they haven’t started getting fussy,” says Gloriod.
And despite initial concerns about what the “information have-nots” might do with the Web’s unholy offeringsthe library does not filter contentlibrarians have been surprised to discover that most people aren’t that interested in the Internet. Instead, they just want to type up a résumé or cover letter and print it on the laser printer.
The new technology has brought with it a need for education, and librarians say it is not the homeless who require the most attention. “The homeless are the best informed of library services,” says Gloriod.
Librarians say many of the new people coming to the library for the computers have very little knowledge of what the library has to offer and extremely low expectations of District services. A few weeks ago, a woman having trouble with a computer stormed up to the reference desk and demanded, “I don’t suppose you have somebody to teach me how to use these things, do you?” Gloriod says the woman was dumbfounded to hear that the library offers regular orientation classes. “People are shocked to find that they can get training for free,” she says.
The new buzz at the library has had a snowball effect, too. Other Silicon Valley corporations have begun to flood the library system with offers of free help with training and other technical assistance. The library staff can only hope that the city will invest its own resources in technology. They try not to fantasize about having voice mail or computers on their desksa luxury their corporate benefactors have provided only for patrons. “It’s hard to be patient when you’ve seen the future,” says Gloriod.
With luck, the itch for further changes will spread to the new middle-class patrons, who will most likely get after the city to fix the ceilings and install digital phones. “People are finding they have a stake in the well-being of the library,” says Bobowski. CP