Checking Out the Internet
Vermont's public libraries are bridging the digital divide -- or not
Class is in session in the cavernous, second-floor seminar room at the Rutland Free Library. The library is housed in the former courthouse, and this was once a courtroom. But today, eight adults sit in folding chairs facing a white projection screen. On it, Outreach Librarian Jessamyn West displays something most of these men and women don't yet know how to use: an email inbox.
For many Americans -- especially young people, and pretty much anyone with an office job -- the layout of an email inbox is as familiar as the dashboard of a car. But this is still foreign turf for a significant number of Vermonters, including the students in West's free "Basic Email" class. The 35-year-old, dreadlocked librarian offers in-depth lessons on the "cc" line ("That stands for 'carbon copy' -- you can put as many email addresses in there as you want"); the "bcc" line ("Blind carbon copy...to send a message on the sly"); and why you should never write a message using ALL CAPS ("It kinda sounds like shouting").
This sort of remedial computing knowledge has become virtually essential to 21st-century life. West says she sees people at the library all the time who need to know how to use the Internet to apply for jobs. Even Home Depot asks for applications online. But if you can't afford to buy a computer or to connect to the Internet -- or if you're simply a technophobe -- learning to use computers and even getting access to them can be daunting.
Over the past few years, public libraries have tried to level the playing field. Thanks largely to grants from the Freeman and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, 153 of Vermont's 189 public libraries have at least one machine open to the public and connected to the Internet. And most libraries employ at least one person who's trained to use them.
Marianne Kotch, the state's director of Public Library Support Services, reports that last year, 13,480 users logged onto Vermont's library computers each week. That's more than 700,000 annual log-ons. Though the official number is down slightly from last year, Kotch says it's probably inaccurate; busy librarians often lose count of how many people take advantage of their computers. Anecdotal evidence suggests usage is on the rise.
But providing free Internet access and tech support to patrons in a rural state is a real challenge; what Vermont libraries offer varies wildly from town to town. The kind of training users receive depends entirely on who's behind the desk when they ask for help. And poorer communities -- which need this access and support the most -- are still often least likely to have it, despite grant funding.
In part this is because public librarians who keep up with the latest advances, as West does, are an anomaly in Vermont. The fast-talking, effervescent Rutland librarian is in a class of her own anyway. She's a real technophile. Her weblog, http//www.librari an.net ("Putting the rarin' back in librarian since 1993") has won praise from Wired magazine, and last summer secured her press credentials for the Democratic National Conven-tion. She's been teaching tech classes since the mid-'90s, when she worked as an information-technology consultant in Seattle.
West tackles the minutiae of email etiquette with the patience and zeal of a convert-seeking preacher. Teaching her class how to write an email, she drags her cursor across the desktop and lets it hover over the "compose" button. "Why do they say 'compose,' and not 'write'?" she asks rhetorically. "Beats me -- email has always had weird words like that."
West's mostly elderly students clutch email vocabulary handouts and appear to hang on her every word. Though the class is just an hour long, they linger for half an hour afterwards to ask more questions, clearly hungry for information. In fact, when West collects her evaluations at the end of the session, nearly everyone has given the class a five -- on a scale of one to five -- indicating they found it helpful. Some students adjourn to try out their new skills on one of the 15 relatively new computers occupying carrels on the first floor.
On their way out, retired construction worker DeWitt Bradbury and his wife Marie say they learned a few things about how to use the computer their sons recently bought for them. So far the Brandon couple has used it only to correspond haltingly with their grandson, a Marine serving in Iraq. They're hoping to research online a prospective trip to Alaska. "It's like having a library at your fingertips," marvels Marie.
But classes like West's are rare. Though they're available at the state's busiest libraries, in Rutland and Burlington, most Vermont libraries offer only informal, one-on-one tutoring, mainly to help patrons register for free email accounts or make travel plans online.
The library computing experience in Rutland contrasts sharply with that at the Starksboro Public Library: On a recent Saturday morning visit, the single, aging public-access computer, running Windows 98, takes five minutes to wheeze to life. The two library workers on duty politely confess they don't know much about how it works, or whether it has a high-speed Internet connection. "It has something to do with ethernet," says a thirtysomething man who identifies himself as a library volunteer. "And here's where I don't really know anything about computers."
West concedes that this situation is probably unavoidable. Vermont is among a handful of states that don't provide any funding for the libraries, and it's unlikely that small towns here will ever be able to afford and maintain state-of-the-art resources and knowledgeable IT staff. Still, it's a frustrating dynamic for patrons in search of a tech connection. "They walk away thinking, 'Oh, my God, computers are hard," West says. "Even the librarian doesn't understand them.'"
To be fair, until recently, computer skills haven't been a part of the librarian's bailiwick. People who entered the profession a long time ago, or who never received formal library services training, may not be cyber savvy. David Clark, director of Middlebury's Ilsley Public Library and president of the Vermont State Library Association, says everything he knows about computers he's learned on the job. "When I graduated from library school in 1972, we didn't have computers," he recalls. "It's something I've had to pick up."
Clark acknowledges that in the past few years, libraries have become the default gateway to the World Wide Web for many users, and he suggests the model of libraries as online access points makes sense. "In the broadest sense, libraries have always been about communication," Clark observes, adding that neither other public institutions nor businesses are meeting the growing need for connectivity.
Clark recalls a day last summer when a tour guide brought a bus full of Australians to the Middlebury library to check their email accounts -- where else could they go? "Libraries are stepping in because there's no other place that does it," he says. "We didn't plan it this way, but this is the way it's turned out." In other words, libraries, and librarians, need to adapt.
And many of them have. Less than a dozen miles down the road from the Starksboro library is the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol. The small, cozy building offers two sleek new PCs as well as the town's only wi-fi hotspot. Patrons who bring their own laptops, equipped with wireless Internet cards, can hop onto the library's Internet connection for free.
Librarian Nancy Wilson says she realized she had to "come up to snuff on technology stuff" when she took the job in Bristol 15 years ago. She now seems more savvy than most -- her library wi-fi network is one of the first in the state. When her IT contractor said all she needed was a $70 router, Wilson saw the light: "I was like, 'What are we waiting for?'" she says.
Susan Glickman, IT and reference librarian at Willis-ton's Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, is also on the cutting edge. She plans to install a wi-fi network by the end of this month. In January, she set up a blog for Food For Thought, the library's teen group. "I realized updating the blog was easier than updating the library's webpage," she notes. "And it's free."
Glickman picked up the idea from other librarian bloggers, including Jessamyn West. She subscribes to RSS feeds from blogs such as "The Shifted Librarian," and "Librarian in Black." In fact, Glickman may be one of few Vermont librarians who know what an RSS feed is. (It stands for Really Simple Syndication, and if you want to know more, look it up online.)
But not every library can afford IT staff. The population of property tax-rich Williston isn't much larger than that of nearby Winooski, and its library gets only slightly more user traffic -- 441 patrons a week versus 380. But with 13 library computers, Williston's resources are far superior.
Winooski's one-room library has seven public computers, but one of them doesn't work. On a Friday afternoon, children play games at two of them; a man browses medical websites at another. And at station number three, Somali refugee Abdi Ahmed Dhere emails friends in other states. Dhere says he has a computer at home, but no Internet connection. He comes in "two, maybe three times a week" to check his email.
Librarian Amanda Perry has a B.A. in English and is working towards librarian certification from the state. She says the city received the computers through a Gates grant, and funding from the Freeman Foundation that expired last summer. The disabled computer -- which bears a hand-lettered "out of order" sign -- broke a couple months ago, and no one has been able to fix it. "The woman from the Freeman Foundation tried," says Perry, "but she left town, and no one knows what she did to it." Perry is reluctant to spend money from her meager maintenance budget to bring the computer back online.
The Freeman consultant was also in charge of the library's website, which has languished, filled with inaccuracies, since she left. "I'm trying to teach myself how to do it, to update the hours and the days we're open," Perry says nervously, "but I don't want to mess it up."
Last month, the Gates Foundation announced another round of grants to Vermont libraries, for $165,000. Some of that money will be earmarked to fix and replace computers. Perry hopes some of it comes to Winooski. She would like to expand the number of computers to 10 when the library relocates to the Champlain Mill in the fall.
Winooski's broken computer and dilapidated website sadden Jessamyn West, who points out that these foundation grants can have their downsides. "At the end of the day," she says, "if you don't have in-house tech staff, you're going to have a difficult time."
Her observation begs the question: Who will pay for these computers once the grants run out, as they inevitably do? Will the state ever pick up the tab? West knows all about funding running dry -- the grant that pays her salary ends in April and she'll be out of a job. It's unclear if Rutland's email classes will go on without her.
Ideally, she says, she'd like to stay in Vermont and help struggling communities such as Winooski. "I want the Department of Libraries to just give me a grant so I can fix things like that," West says. As the state's first library technology consultant, she could even move things forward. "For $20,000, I could get every library in the state on wi-fi," she predicts confidently. "It's super-easy."