Internet drives up library use, costs

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(Host) Once threatened by the computer age, Vermont’s libraries have embraced them.

Computers have taken over where microfilm machines once stood.

Demand is up and budgets are getting tight.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Libraries are generally quiet places. But there are certain trademark sounds among the stacks of books and magazines.

Occasionally there’s a shhhhhh … a librarian’s gentle reminder that this is a library.

(Kids) Sounds of a childrens’ group

(Sneyd) And there are always children, such as this group that’s learning about the joys and treasures of a library during a writing workshop.

But, perhaps most of all, there’s this.

(Sounds) Tap, tap, tap…

(Sneyd) That’s the sound of research, conducted at a computer keyboard.

Modern-day libraries are still handy places to check out the latest best-seller or to peruse the local newspaper.

But they’ve also become indispensable to the Information Age.

(Reid) “I was looking at our statistics and last year our use of our online databases went up 254 percent.”

(Sneyd) Marty Reid is director of Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester.

She says patrons still want books, reading recommendations, programs for kids.

(Reid) “But now they also need us to be information navigators, coming in needing help on Internet searching, database searching, writing resumes online, applying for jobs online, just using computers – all of that whole technological world.”

(Sneyd) That’s driving up library usage. Statewide, circulation is up 14 percent and library visits are up 53 percent since 1998.

Many people use their library cards as passwords to access the library from the comfort of their homes or offices – via their computers.

Or they show up in person to use terminals. That’s the way it is at Fletcher Free Library in Burlington.

In a corner, where the microfilm machines once stood, there are a dozen computer terminals-all of them nearly always occupied.

Librarian Robert Coleburn says it’s the only place some people can use a computer.

(Coleburn) “If you look at other places around the world, like in Europe, they have Internet cafes. That whole concept hasn’t really caught on in the United States. So when people are looking for computer access or Internet access, they’re typically coming to public libraries for that service.”

(Sneyd) The immediacy of computers has reinvigorated libraries, which subscribe to databases that aren’t available on the Internet.

That’s what Reid discovered at Colchester’s Burnham Library recently after helping a patron look in the stacks for research on arthritis.

(Reid) “So we were looking up some information. (typing) Arthritis. You have got to spell it right, of course. And we wanted full-text articles. …  Here’s 1,594 magazine articles about arthritis. Or books and facts sheets about arthritis.”

(Sneyd) Reid found the information on a database that the library subscribes to.

But the subscriptions cost money. And so do all those of computer terminals.

Burnham, like many of Vermont’s 200 public libraries, is struggling to meet the rising demand. Nationally, ten percent of local libraries’ budgets come from state governments.

In Vermont, state and federal money accounts for one-tenth of one percent of budgets.

Librarians from across the state gathered at the Statehouse last week – despite a snowstorm – to ask lawmakers for $1.6 million. That would make up 10 percent of their budget. Even the smallest libraries would get $1,500.

Lamoille Senator Susan Bartlett is sympathetic. But she’s head of the Appropriations Committee. And she says there’s no money.

(Bartlett) “I appreciate the arguments but I’d be very surprised if anything happened this year. I don’t know how we’re going to pay for what we already have, never mind add new commitments.”

(Sneyd) Librarians say they’re well aware of the many demands on state government.

But they say libraries’ importance will continue to grow. So they’ll keep making their case.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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