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Internet use at Washington County library branches growing

December 27, 2007|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Brian Hamilton goes to the Washington County Free Library's central branch on South Potomac Street almost every day after work.

The 34-year-old construction worker from Hagerstown uses the library's public computers to check e-mail, pay bills online and browse Internet sites such as YouTube and ESPN.com.

Hamilton, who does not have Internet access at home, said he appreciates the service, but often spends more time waiting in line for a computer than he does using it.

"It can be a long wait, especially after work," he said. "Sometimes, I'll wait an hour for 10 minutes online."

Lines for Internet access at Washington County Free Library have grown "exponentially" since the library began offering the free service in the late 1990s, Library Director Mary C. Baykan said.

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Initially, a handful of people used the library's computers. Now, more than 100 people per day log on to one of the roughly 30 computers at the library's central, Smithsburg and Clear Spring branches, according to data produced by the library's automated sign-in system.

Many, including Hamilton, go to the library after work. They use library computers to do job searches, upload rsums, do research and keep in touch with family and friends, Baykan said.

"We have a real crush of people in the evening, but also on the weekends," Baykan said. "The number of computers we have does not come close to meeting the community's need for access."

A study released earlier this year by the American Library Association shows that libraries are struggling to keep up with rising demand for Internet access.

The average number of public Internet terminals has stayed about the same since 2002, according to the study. However, only one-fifth of libraries said they have enough computers to provide access to everyone who asks for it.

Aside from cost, a lack of physical space is a big obstacle, according to the study.

Baykan said she agrees with that assessment.

"We really just don't have any more room for computers, and it's a shame because the demand is not going down," Baykan said.

The library's central branch sees the most Internet use.

Baykan and others have said the increase in Internet traffic signals a change among library patrons, who now are just as likely to check e-mail as they are to check out a book.

"We need to acknowledge that while libraries are still primarily about books, they are becoming information centers where people will do all kinds of things, including the Internet, and these things need to be funded," U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said during a meeting with the Washington County Commissioners earlier this year.

While the library's Internet network is provided by the state, computer equipment and upgrades are funded through county budget requests. Baykan said the library spends between $20,000 and $25,000 every year on computer upgrades.

Library officials want to more than double the size of the library, from 40,000 to 90,000 square feet. The extra space would provide room for more computer labs and study areas.

In addition, the library is working to beef up its wireless network in an effort to reduce waits. Wireless access is offered at the central branch, and Baykan said she hopes it soon will be at the Smithsburg and new Boonsboro branches.

"That will help because with wireless, we can offer free service to anyone with a laptop. But access will continue to be a problem for people without laptops," Baykan said. "It is a challenge that I think we, as a library, must work to meet."

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