Small-town libraries struggling to keep up with technology

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Reprinted courtesy of: The State Journal-Register

By: Maggie Menderski

A yellowing copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” has a much longer life span than the computer used to look up its location in the library.

For decades, American libraries served as a hub of timeless classics and new releases. But as technology has developed, so has the library's role.

Books still dominate the shelves in libraries throughout the country, but patrons are seeking more than stories. In rural communities, 70.3 percent of libraries reported they are the only place that provides free Internet and computer access to their residents, according to a 2012 report from the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Students without computers at home need software to finish up school projects. Grandparents who have never turned on a computer want help tracking down online photos of their out-of-town grandbabies.

Some libraries struggle to keep up. There isn't funding for a new wave of computers every year. For Laura Carter, director of Auburn Public Library, there isn't even money to update them every decade. Some of the computers were purchased in 2002, the same year that the library was built.

“We truly need to have new computers all the time,” Carter said. “We have really good service, but the computers are just old.”

The demand for technology is there, even if the money may not be.

Staffing troubles 

Carter tries to keep two librarians on staff during operating hours, but that's not always possible. Sometimes there's just one person tasked with checking out books, running programs and helping with technology.

And some people need a lot of help.

As more employers switch to online job applications, Carter said, more people come to the library to look for work. Many of these people have minimal experience with the machines. Phrases like “search bar,” “left click” and “X out of that screen” mean nothing to them. Often they need help launching a search engine or even navigating from screen to screen.

“It's really difficult because they have no idea how to use computers,” Carter said. “It will take some people literally hours to fill out an application because they're not used to the computer.”

Bennett Bess, director of Pawnee Public Library, operates a staff of about a half-dozen part-time employees to help keep the library's cost down. No one on staff, including Bess, works enough hours to earn benefits. While this has allowed him to, at times, dedicate up to 25 percent of his budget to books, it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for computer aid.

“They are spread thinly,” Bess said. “If there are two people in line, and there's someone over here saying, ‘I've never turned a computer on before; can you tell me how to turn a computer on?' Well, there's not much time to go over there and teach that.”

For Carter, it's difficult to keep her staff up to date on the latest software, let alone have to teach it to the public. Her staff members often learn new skills by experimenting.

“We don't have the money for training and to learn all the new things that people need to know,” Carter said. “We sort of just have to learn things by trial and error.”

Fortunately for Bess and Carter, the majority of their visitors know their way around a computer. Both said their keyboards see the most use from the younger generation wanting to play games or work on school projects.

“It might be that the biggest part of the pie chart is just kids coming in and messing around on the Internet,” Bess said. “But they're supposed to be able to. They're kids, and it's the Internet.”

The problem comes when the library can't provide the tools needed for those school projects. While many schools leave time to complete these projects during the school day, Carter said it's not uncommon to have students without computers at home come in for a last-minute project. Carter only has a couple of computers with PowerPoint, which has become as common an assignment format as a standard essay. When those computers are taken, it can mean tears.

“The schools require a lot more of kids,” Carter said. “Not everyone has the money, including us, to supply the kids with exactly what they need.”

Funding gap

Chatham Area Public Library serves dramatically more people than Auburn or Pawnee. Amy Ihnen, the library director, may see 400 faces in a single afternoon, while Carter is lucky to get 50 visitors in a day. Bess said there's really no way to gauge his traffic except that some days he checks out as few as six books and others upwards of 100.

But serving more people typically equals more funding and more resources.

Carter hasn't had an active Friends of the Library organization in Auburn during her tenure. Often, when the library needs something expensive, she posts notices in the paper and hopes someone feels generous. Just seven miles north, Ihnen has continuous support.

Chatham's Friends organization annually contributes $3,000 to $4,000, which helps with unexpected expenses and technology and even helped spur a coffee bar in the building. Rhona Kelley, who chairs Friends of the Chatham Area Public Library District, said the group has a strong interest in promoting technology and providing resources for the community to learn about it.


“It's obviously the way that everything is going, and not everyone has access to computers and training,” Kelley said. “It's a way for us to make it more available.”

The group hosts an annual dinner theater fundraiser and book sales to provide new tools for library patrons. That funding helped Chatham launch its popular Library on the Go program, which allows e-reader users to access the library's digital collection from most tablet devices.

Meanwhile, that cash flow helps keep computers and knowledge up to date. Ihnen still has computers more than a decade old, but she has the luxury of using those for tasks that don't require heavy lifting — mostly children's games and searching for books. Chatham also has enough staff to have a computer lab attendant who can guide those with less experience through an application or even turning on a machine.

“I think the training is especially important,” Kelley said. “It's hard to find places to get trained on word processing and searching the Internet, especially for free.”

Learning the basics

Peggy Mendenhall, 55, had the computer at home, but she didn't have the skills.

She actually feared her computer, feeling as though any button she pushed or any link that she clicked would break the machine before she figured out how to use it.

“I was frightened by it,” she said. “I was just so afraid that I would do something wrong.”

Mendenhall knew nothing about her computer except the nervousness that she associated with it. Rather than tiptoeing around the machine, she went to find help.

Mendenhall signed up for a class on Microsoft Word four years ago at the Chatham library, and the instructor helped her learn how to navigate the program and the computer.

“The girls there are good at helping, and they'll sit down and go through it with you,” Mendenhall said of the Chatham staff. “Now I know I cannot destroy it. I can fix it. I can go back. I redo it, and that's the most valuable.”

Today, she's online shopping, building fliers in Microsoft Publisher and even teaching the basics of computers to her friends.

Kelley said the Friends of the Chatham Area Public Library are eager to provide that ease and access to the community, and she's grateful they have the resources to do so.

“The training is definitely getting a lot of use, so I think they're appreciating it and learning from it and getting a lot from it,” Kelley said. “I think it's opening up a whole new world for them.”

But there's still more to be done. While Ihnen won't have a young girl standing in her library crying over the lack of PowerPoint, she's still not able to offer everything she'd like. She's hoping to offer lessons on more technical programs such as Photoshop.

“We're always willing to push that boundary, but you can only afford so much,” Ihnen said. “We have such a young community, and they're very technically savvy. We really want to evolve with them and give them the resources while realizing that not everyone is there.”

In the meantime, she's glad to have the resources to teach rookies like Mendenhall the basics. She has the staffing to teach patrons how to set up an email account, submit online documents, and track down the photos that friends and family have posted on social media.

 

“It's all very foreign, and it's a very scary thing,” Ihnen said. “It's about knowing that you have someone to guide you, and that you're not stupid and you just have to try. I think that's one of our best skills.”

 

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