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November 24, 1996

State's public libraries gear
up for patrons to surf the Internet

By Timothy C. Barmann

These days, you can check out a lot more than just books at the public library.

Several libraries in Rhode Island now allow patrons to surf the World Wide Web, and soon, nearly all in the state will have the ability to offer that service.

"It's just another way we can provide information to the public, and that's our business," said Sharon Fredette, coordinator of technical services for the Warwick public library.

Warwick's library became one the first in Rhode Island to offer World Wide Web access. And in the next month or so, all 67 libraries which are part of CLAN, the statewide library network, will be able to offer public Internet access if they choose.

CLAN has switched its Internet vendor and has been upgrading its network that stretches to nearly every city and town in the state.

Two grants have made the improvements possible. One was for $75,000 from the Third Champlin Foundation; the other was for $80,000 from the federal Library Services and Construction Act, according to Peter Bennett, assistant director for support services of the Providence Public Library.

That upgrade is just about complete and by the first of the year, there will be an "explosion" of libraries offering Web access, Bennett said.

A handful of libraries have already made the Web available, with the help of local businesses. Three local Internet providers -- InteleCom Data Systems (IDS), UltraNet Communications and Edgenet -- have been offering free accounts to libraries. And NYNEX has been providing telephone lines for computer use to libraries and schools as part of its tariff agreement with the state.

Almost all CLAN libraries have been offering access to the Ocean State Free-Net, a non-profit community computer network, Bennett said. The Free-Net provides some Internet services, such as e-mail and text-only Web access. (It's also available to home users via modem. For more information, call 277-2728, ext. 500.)

Warwick began offering full access to the Web this summer through four personal computers. Five more will be added by the first of the year, said Fredette.

Patrons surfing the Web at the Warwick library get a unique experience because it has a high-speed link to the Internet that is about 50 times faster than a regular modem connection. That means there's little waiting for pictures and graphics to appear on the screen.

The Internet connection is made through a cable television line rather than a phone line. Cox Communications and IDS have partnered to offer the service to the library and to about 10 individuals and three or four groups in Warwick as part of a test of a new cable-delivered Internet service the companies plan to offer.

Lots of changes

Adding the Web has meant a lot of changes for libraries. For one thing, librarians have had to learn how to find things in the ever-changing world of cyberspace.

"It's new for us, too," said Cynthia Archambault, a Warwick library reference librarian. "Even for people who do it constantly all the time, it's a challenge."

For smaller libraries, having the Web has allowed them to expand without adding any shelves.

"It really has extended our capacity as a library to serve the public," said Robert Balliot, information services librarian for the East Greenwich library. His library has one Internet terminal that's used only by the staff, but this month, five will become available for public use, he said.

"Instead of having to refer people to a major library, we've been able to serve maybe about 80 percent more people that we would have farmed out," he said. "It has dramatically changed what we're able to do here."

What are library patrons doing on line?

Archambault said they are job-searching with the help of classified ads from electronic newspapers, doing genealogy research and checking sports scores, among other things. Balliot of East Greenwich said that government sites, including the Government Printing Office and the IRS site, are popular.

What about limitations?

One of the issues that libraries have to address is what sort of limitations, if any, to place on Web access.

Of the several librarians contacted for this article, all expressed reluctance to limit access to certain sites on the Internet that may be inappropriate for children.

There is software available that can restrict access to adult-oriented sites, though it is not foolproof.

"A lot of libraries feel its an intellectual-freedom issue," said Rick Payette, the assistant director of the West Warwick library. "They want people to be responsible for their own actions."

"What people do on the Internet is their own business," said Archambault of the Warwick library. "We're not in the job of censoring."

Warwick's official policy is that it's up to parents to monitor their children's on-line travels:

"As with other library materials, any restriction of a child's access to electronic resources, including the Internet, is the responsibility of the parent or legal guardian," the policy states.

In Lincoln, minors must have a parent or guardian sign a waiver to allow them to use the library's Web terminal, said Maria Baxter, the library director.

None of the libraries have had any problems or complaints with their policies, they said.

It's not the end

With more and more information being digitized and offered online, does the Web signal the end of libraries?

"Absolutely not," said Balliot of the East Greenwich library. With more and more information available, he thinks it will create an even greater demand for libraries.

One of the central functions of a library -- to act as a central repository for texts and periodicals too expensive for an individual to buy -- will still be needed. Obviously, publishers will continue charging for some of their products in digital form.

Libraries will also serve people who can't afford to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars for a computer to connect to the Net, he said.

They will provide a place for people to learn about the Internet, said Baxter, of the Lincoln library. The need for training became obvious to her after the library began offering a free Internet orientation program after it opened its Web terminal in early September. About 60 people attended the first one, she said, and many had computers at home. (See below for details about future program dates.)

And of course, a computer can't replace the human expertise of reference librarians -- at least not yet.

"We have so much experience finding information," said Fredette of the Warwick library. "We're the people who know the best sources to use for information."

Computer calendar

Dec. 3 -- The Internet Business and Education Council is sponsoring a seminar called "How to buy and use an Internet-ready computer,"at Bryant College, Smithfield, at 6 p.m. Cost is free, but $5 donation at the door "would be appreciated." For more information, contact IBEC at ibec@ibec.org, see its Web site at http://www.ibec.org or call 781-6090.

Dec. 4, 18 -- The Lincoln Public Library will offer free orientation sessions on the Internet at 6:30 p.m. The tutorials last about an hour and are free to anyone, not just Lincoln residents. The library is at 145 Old River Rd. For more information, call 333-2422.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.