Gates helps Pratt teach Internet literacy Microsoft money supports computer training in Baltimore neighborhoods

March 24, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The Enoch Pratt Free Library has won a $240,000 grant from computer software tycoon Bill Gates to teach people in poor and working-class neighborhoods how to access and exploit the Internet for their own gain.

The Pratt will add about $250,000 to the grant from the Gates Library Foundation to establish a computer training center in the basement of the library's branch at Broadway and Orleans Street. Smaller classrooms will be set up at branches in Northwood, Hollins Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the central library.

All of the Gates money -- part of nearly $4 million spread over 21 urban library systems -- will be spent on personal computers, printers, and other hardware. Software to run the computers will be donated by Microsoft, the company that made Gates one of the the richest man in the world.

The Pratt is responsible for staff, furniture, phone lines, and renovating the basement of the Broadway branch.

"Without private funding we wouldn't be able to teach computer literacy on this level," said Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt director. "We have a few nibbles from local foundations to help with our part. We're not so worried about new carpeting. The wonderful thing about the Gates grant is they'll upgrade the software over the next three years."

By late June, the Gates foundation will fly two Pratt staff members to Microsoft headquarters near Seattle for intensive training in how to teach Internet literacy. Hayden said the library might send people already on staff or hire specifically for the positions.

"We did four Internet classes in our auditorium at Central last year but they weren't hands on, more than 200 people showed up for each one and we had waiting lists," said Pat Wallace, chief of information access at the Pratt and chair of the committee that wrote the grant application. "A lot of technology training today is simply demystifying it."

To be eligible for the grant, the library had to serve a population with 40 percent or more at or below the poverty line; needed to be wired for the "information highway;" and had to show that it could support the grant's goals long after the money is spent.

The Pratt's current operating budget is $20.8 million, with 54 percent coming from Baltimore, 44 percent from Maryland and the rest from grants, fees and fines.

"We'll ask them within four months of the computers' being installed to show us exactly how they spent the money," said Richard Akeroyd, programs director for the Gates Library Foundation.

The Gates Library Foundation has committed $200 million over the next five years -- $2.7 million to Alabama alone -- to make America's public libraries the place where the less fortunate can benefit from computers.

In this way, Gates is looking more and more like the Andrew Carnegie -- the 19th-century steel baron who financed about 2,500 public libraries worldwide -- of the 21st century.

"I prefer to see him as Johnny Appleseed, planting technology seeds over areas that can't afford it and then standing back and watching it grow," said Wallace. "The challenge to us is to keep it watered and free of weeds."

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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