Technology comes to Baltimore's public libraries

Tucked under a public library computer keyboard was an anonymous note: "Thank you for helping me get a job."

The paper scrap turned up at downtown Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, where staff members say their 160 computers are enabling unemployed people to find jobs, do homework or manage their budgets.

"From McDonald's to McDonnell Douglas, 85 percent of all hiring is done online," said Pratt CEO Carla D. Hayden. "In a city like Baltimore, where 30 percent of the population has no home computer access, we have found a new role."

The banks of crowded computers illustrate the changing role of libraries, where technology is replacing paper and the throngs keep coming. Libraries are busy providing research services, such as job hunting and resumes, to people who don't have these resources at home. And more changes are on the way, such as plans to allow electronic books to be downloaded for free on reading devices.

To be sure, Baltimore's library system houses a lot of paper — everything from a first edition of a Beethoven score to copies of the teen sensation "Twilight." But it is evolving. And Hayden, who recently received national recognition and a handshake from President Barack Obama on the White House lawn, is embracing the new world of the energetic, electronic library.

The new technologies are boosting library use and drawing in new constituencies, transforming once staid reading rooms into highly diverse mixes of students, seniors and job seekers intent on finding answers.

"The future of libraries is about content and community," she said last week as she was about to leave for Washington, where the Senate recently confirmed Baltimore's library director to a seat on the National Museum and Library Services Board.

In the current economic climate, the library's new role is perhaps best seen in a space reserved for job searching.

"If you are looking for a job, you would be lost without a computer in the library," said Keysha Turner, an unemployed teacher who lives in West Baltimore. She read classified job listings in local newspapers and made online applications at the central library one day last week.

According to a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-Institute of Museum and Library Sciences study, 23 percent of the Pratt's patrons who looked for jobs were granted interviews. About 11 percent were hired.

"What is being done at the Pratt is impressive," said Samantha Becker, a University of Washington in Seattle researcher in information systems. "The limited penetration of broadband in Baltimore and its poverty results in limited options for Internet access. The amount of care and concern the Pratt staff give their patrons is extraordinary."

Job seekers are just one group of users. There are still traditional readers but, even for them, the hardback library books may evolve in the near future. Coming soon: a docking station for a free download of popular titles. Under one plan under discussion in Baltimore, library patrons would have three weeks to read it on a Kindle or iPad, then the text would disappear. They could also access a musical recording for a similar period of time.

"The day is coming when people will want to be able to download 10 novels for their summer reading or for a trip to Italy," said Hayden. "All the details aren't worked out yet, but it's coming. The Seattle public library system is already doing it."

As she spoke last week, all of the central library's 160 computer terminals were in use by patrons. Another 20 laptops were checked out for mobile use throughout the building.

Phil Martin, who lives on West Franklin Street, is retired and walks to the Pratt each afternoon. He waited for a vacancy at a computer terminal.

"I like to play mah-jongg on the computer, but you have to wait when school is out," he said.

Becker, the Seattle-based researcher, said that while interviewing Baltimore library patrons for the national study, she heard several recurring themes. "People who may have had access at home said their computers were broken. We also heard that in large families, there was competition for time on the home computer. One girl told me her brother bugged her so much she left the house and went to the library to finish her homework."

Earlier this year, the number of visitors to the Enoch Pratt Free Library increased by 20 percent in a six-month period, prompting library officials to suggest that the Internet is helping boost usage at an institution known for its printed word and paper collections.

"On one side of me there might be a homeless person looking for work," she said. "On the other side there could be a teen chatting with friends online. What they have in common is using technology as a tool."

"It's been a steady increase, across the boards," said Hayden, the library's chief executive. "People are using our website to find the treasures we have in here. New digital technologies have opened up the collections to so many more people."

When her library recently reopened its Edmondson Village branch after a renovation, patrons flocked to newly added computer stations, Hayden said.

Baltimore County's public libraries also experience heavy use, said James Fish, their director. Attendance at the system climbed by 22 percent in the past year,

"We had 5.8 million in-person visitors in a year, more than twice the attendance of a season of Ravens and Orioles," Fish said. Computer use is significant, he said, but traditional library services, such as his Storyville children's departments, are highly patronized.

"Libraries are great service outlets," he said. "Close a public library and see how that goes."

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