Librarians Clicking On A Future In Cyberspace

Posted: January 29, 1999

It was shortly after 3 p.m., and the Lehigh Avenue Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia was getting crowded.

Young children and their parents were exploring books in the preschool corner. A young father was looking for a child-development book in Spanish. Children's librarian Mary Gazdik was helping youngsters find material for homework assignments. And a couple of fifth graders were using the computer lab to type book reports for Black History Month.

The Lehigh branch is an imposing stone structure that dates to the heyday of library construction that industrialist Andrew Carnegie launched in the 1900s. Nowadays, in addition to printed books, Lehigh has 16 computer terminals with Internet access available for public use.

Computers, the Internet and CD-ROMs have revolutionized the operations at Lehigh and the nearly 16,000 other public libraries across the country. Today through Feb. 3, more than 12,000 librarians - in Philadelphia for the midwinter conference of the American Library Association (ALA) - will be considering how technology has fueled a library renaissance and transformed their jobs.

Ann K. Symons, president of the 57,000-member association, recalled that when she began working at a university library in Oregon about 30 years ago, the hot new technical development was the arrival of Xerox machines. Librarians were thrilled that they no longer had to manually type up cards for the library catalog when a new book arrived; they could copy the information onto a file card.

``We have come a long, long way from then,'' said Symons, now a high school librarian in Juneau, Alaska. ``Our job has changed dramatically over the last five years. It has changed, but it has not changed: We are still doing what we do best - linking people to information.''

Elliot Shelkrot, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, expressed a similar view. He said librarians today consider themselves ``navigators.''

``I believe that our mission to connect people to information and ideas is the same,'' Shelkrot said. ``The tools that we use have expanded in unbelievable and very exciting ways.''

Sarah Long, ALA's president-elect, who will succeed Symons at the helm of the organization in June, said that librarians using the Internet apply the same analytical skills and knowledge about how information is organized that they use with books.

``There is so much information out there,'' said Long, a system director based in Wheeling, Ill. ``Who can help you? It is the librarian.''

More than 75 percent of the nation's libraries are connected to the Internet, according to ALA reports. As a result, librarians increasingly are introducing patrons to electronic searching and helping them find the most useful - and reliable - information.

They also are assisting in the use of software programs and computer databases and educating children how to use the Internet properly.

``We are teaching kids how to have safe, rewarding experiences online,'' Symons said. ``We are working hard to teach them the safety rules and to make wise choices.''

She pointed out that the ALA has developed a Web site for parents and children that includes a link to more than 700 sites for children. It can be found at http://www.ala.org/parentspage/

Librarians also must gently remind patrons on occasion that the Internet is not always the most efficient place to find information.

``Sometimes we say, `Why are you looking on the Internet?' '' noted Lillian E. Marrero, library supervisor at the Lehigh Avenue Branch. ``Sometimes it is easier to get it from [a printed] encyclopedia.''

But librarians agree that technology has increased library usage. A Gallup Poll released in the fall found that two out of three adults use libraries - an increase of 13 percent from two decades ago.

``I think we are seeing a real resurgence of interest in libraries,'' Symons said. ``We are reaching people we have not reached before. For many people, the library may be the only place where they have [Internet] access. And the side effect is that we are drawing them into other library services.''

That certainly is true at Lehigh, in the city's Fairhill section. Marrero, the library supervisor, noted that the community surrounding the library includes many low-income families, few of whom have access to computers at home.

``I think the technology has given this library more visibility than ever before,'' Marrero said. ``People are turning more to the library for all kinds of information.''

Libraries also are involved in more community outreach than they were even a few years ago - sponsoring book clubs, scheduling talks by prominent authors, offering technology programs for youngsters, and helping local groups.

Marrero noted that Lehigh has a small lab with five computers, where instructors regularly offer workshops on introductory computer skills and resume writing. During the afternoons, when the workshops are not offered, students working on school assignments use the lab. That keeps the students off the 11 computers on the main floor of the library. Those machines are in such demand that users sign up for them and are limited to an hour.

Since libraries are in the information business, it is not surprising that librarians were among the earliest users of computers and online databases.

``Librarians have always been adopters of new technology,'' Long said.

Shelkrot, head of the Free Library, said he expects that to continue.

``The people we serve and the world we are in is changing and continues to change,'' he said. ``If the library is going to be a useful institution, it has to be part of the community and the environment it functions in. I think with the explosion of information with the printed word, and now through technology, the librarian's role as a navigator is more important than ever before.''

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