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Internet demand outpacing libraries' capacity, study finds

Limited space, lack of funding, wiring blamed

Chris Pore and Dora Castillo surfed the Internet recently using the free wireless service at this Las Vegas library. Chris Pore and Dora Castillo surfed the Internet recently using the free wireless service at this Las Vegas library. (JAE C. HONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK - YouTube, online job applications, and homework help sites have boosted demand and contributed to lines for Internet access at the nation's public libraries, yet a new survey suggests the majority has no immediate plans to add computers.

For many library systems, the buildings simply do not have enough room, and their electrical wiring could not deliver the required power. Others are already struggling to stay open, buy books, and encourage youths to read.

"We have this entirely brand-new service coming to libraries, but the funding has not recognized that," said Kathleen Reif, director of St. Mary's County Library in Leonardtown, Md.

"We're still continuing the books, the outreach, the work with young children, and the student support."

A study from the American Library Association, scheduled for release today, finds the average number of public Internet terminals largely unchanged since 2002, yet only a fifth of libraries say they have enough computers to meet demand at all times.

Besides cost, limited space, outlets, and cabling are cited as the chief factors preventing libraries from buying more computers. Las Vegas officials, for instance, say they reached capacity a few years ago.

"There are times, especially during peak usage after school and as people get out of work, that you may have to wait an hour, an hour and a half," said Robb Morss, deputy director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of the libraries say they are the only source of free Internet access in their communities, increasing pressure on them to meet demand.

"Libraries are a place where books and periodicals are available, but increasingly public libraries are being asked by their patrons to make these information technologies available," said Greg Shaw, the director of US program advocacy for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which cosponsored the study.

Local and county governments remain the chief sources of funding for libraries, but many libraries are turning to nontax revenue such as fines and donations to pay for basic technology-related services, the study found.

The St. Mary's system is likely to leave one full-time position unfilled to free up $40,000 to buy 20 computers, Reif said. That means a 50 percent cut in staff available for outreach programs serving youths.

"You've got some basic missions that you're trying to achieve in a community, trying to reach children at birth and trying to get them ready for school, and you have these computers you need to access the world of information," Reif said. "It's a very difficult choice you have, to be constantly balancing those needs."

Libraries are increasingly turning to wireless networking to help reduce the wait. More than 17 percent of libraries say they plan to add wireless capabilities within a year, meaning 71 percent would be allowing patrons to connect through their own laptops.

But libraries have not always been able to boost the size of their bandwidth because of cost or the availability of high-speed services in the area. More computers sharing the same bandwidth means slower speeds, even as Google Inc.'s video-sharing site YouTube and interactive homework help sites like Tutor.com demand more capacity.

"We may be in fact where we were in 2002," when many libraries still had only slower, dial-up access, said Denise Davis, director of the American Library Association's Office for Research and Statistics. "Just everything is faster and larger files are being moved around."

Las Vegas is one of the more fortunate systems, serving a growth area with ample revenue. Although it does not have room to add computers, it has money to add bandwidth - something it had to do earlier this year to cope with the growth of interactive sites.

"We were seeing a great slowdown after school," Morss said.

Students "are looking at interactive sites. They are not looking at text-based sites," he said. Everybody who wants their site to be viewed realizes they have to keep up with the competition."

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