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Among his duties at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Dennis Golden watches the computer area. When he glances toward the monitors, he spots several familiar patrons. Two gentlemen with their backs to him click and type away. A woman with two braids hoists her hulking backpack and heads out.
These people seem to bounce around the computer areas all day long, says librarian Golden, despite the library’s imposed two-hour daily limit. It’s easy to beat the system, though; he knows exactly how it’s done.
Nodding toward the woman with the backpack, he says: “She has two or three [library] cards and all kinds of aliases and PIN numbers.”
Golden works on the first floor at MLK, the District’s main branch at 9th and G Streets NW. There are 22 adult general-use computers in the entire place. Stroll by a few on an average weekday, and you’ll see everything from job forms to online card games to pornography.
Customers sign up for a computer using their library card number. Then, their username—samples: “fartbut,” “bigguns,” “coolbrother”—goes in a queue, which is constantly updated on a nearby monitor.
MLK librarians decline to estimate how many people use multiple PINs; one called it “a big problem,” while two others said it was not a widespread issue.
On average, say librarians and patrons, the wait for computers is an hour-and-a-half to two hours. But it can go much longer. Last Friday, a person requesting a computer around 2:20 p.m. received an “estimated start time” of 6:10 p.m. The building closed at 5:30 p.m.
The library has three core groups of customers: students, government workers, and homeless people, according to a longtime librarian who asked not to be named.
The Internet addicts are easily recognizable. There’s the paunchy guy with the gray ponytail, toting around several packed bags. There’s the pugnacious-looking bearded man who plays computer games with a quiet but furious intensity. And then there’s Clinton Holmes, an amiable gentleman who says he’s been coming here since early June. It’s part of his daily routine: He sleeps at a shelter, takes a bus to a food kitchen, walks to the library after lunch, and hangs out until the evening.
Holmes says he sees a lot of friends from the shelters here: “That’s how they take up their day, instead of spending time panhandling and harassing people on the streets,” he says.
He spends most of his time on the computers but only rarely resorts to illegal techniques. Besides his allotted two hours, he uses the 15-minute express computers; friends often allow him to use their time, too.
But if he really wants to get on again, he has a backup plan. It’s easy to devise your own PIN. He points to the ID number on a library card. It has 14 digits arranged in four sections. The key parts, says Holmes, are the last two sections, which contain five and four digits, respectively. Just play around with these, he says. Holmes says it usually takes him six tries to get a winning combination. He has three PINs in his arsenal.
“Once you’ve got yours, you got them for life, and you don’t have to think about it anymore,” he says.
One librarian reports that about once a month, “a professional” will complain that people are just playing around on the computers.
“I just remind them there’s a Kinko’s down the street,” she says. “Sometimes they say, ‘I’m going to write the director,’ and we say, ‘Do that. We need more computers.’”
Change is on the way, says MosesAlexander Greene, spokesperson for the District’s Public Library system. Seventy-five new computers will be added by next month, says Greene, although he could not elaborate on whether they would be general-use computers or research-only computers.
“We understand that this library, in essence, is the de facto day center for those without homes,” writes Pamela Stovall, associate director of the MLK library, via e-mail.
Stovall says that the library hopes to hire a “free-floating aide” to assist with job applications (a task currently handled by librarians).
As for the multiple-PIN issue, Stovall says the library is “aware of this.”
“Our Information and Technology Systems department has identified a glitch in the system and is actively working to eliminate it,” she says.