Libraries are entries to cyberspace and success

February 18, 1997|By Susan Reimer

MARION the Librarian might still wear her hair in a bun, but she can surf the Net with any 12-year-old skateboarder in the neighborhood.

"Mouse" is not how she looks, but what she works with her right hand.

"Web" is not what is gathering around the dusty encyclopedias in her library, but what she navigates.

That is the message of Mary Somerville, president of the American Library Association, holding its midwinter meetings in Washington this week.

A former children's librarian, she believes that unless kids are "logged on and literate," they will be lost in the 21st century. And because the Internet will remain beyond the reach of all but a small percentage of homes, Somerville believes it is the public library that must step into the breach.

"Kids are very computer savvy," says Somerville. "This is not a different medium for them. Why should they wait years for a book on the latest space event when they can log on the next day and find out all about it and perhaps talk to the scientists involved?

"But only 39 percent of American homes have computers, and only nine out of 10 of those homes have a modem to get them on the Internet.

"There is a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and that's where libraries come in."

President Clinton is working toward his campaign pledge to have every American classroom on the Internet by 2000, but Education Department surveys continue to show that few teachers use this technology and fewer still are skilled at it.

But the president also promised that the nation's libraries will be online by 2000, and it is the librarians, Somerville believes, who will show the children how to make use of this shiny, new research tool -- because that is what librarians do.

"Librarians got this before the rest of us," says Somerville.

Libraries make perfect Internet bus stops, by virtue of their locations, their hours, their skilled staff. But Somerville concedes that this is a daunting mission because everywhere, libraries face shrinking budgets but increasing demand -- and for more than just the books. Videos, CDs, books on tape and computer links to more extensive research libraries have been costly additions to what we expect to find at our local libraries.

"The Internet has brought new people into the library, and that is wonderful, but it is creating bigger and bigger demands for us," says Somerville. "Libraries are hopping more than ever."

The answer, says Somerville, is public-private partnerships. Giant corporations and local employers have to share the financial burdens of educating the work force of the future by providing the money that local and state governments are not.

In addition, libraries, especially in remote communities and inner cities, need free or reduced-rate telecommunications services. For some libraries, the biggest bill can be the phone bill. It is up to the Federal Communications Commission to discount those rates to schools and libraries, as it was instructed to do by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

But if a child cannot read, what he sees on a computer screen is of no use to him, so Somerville necessarily focuses on the "literate" part of "logged on and literate." The director of Miami's sprawling Dade County Library System, she serves a disadvantaged population of significant size and, still a children's librarian at her heart, she has endorsed a number of initiatives to get kids reading early and keep them reading through the critical middle school years.

"Stories will always be important to kids. So will books," says Somerville. "But I see kids connected to a larger world through new technology."

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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