My great little library card, Part 1

With one card, I gain entree to some of the best consumer values in New York City: a computer with high-speed internet and access to sophisticated search engines, dozens of classes and performances, music, video and research help. My card even lets me access much of this from home.

I'm talking about my New York Public Library card, of course. Its latest offering is an update to the ASK NYPL service, the free program whereby librarians will answer my research questions in Spanish or English. It's now available 24/7. I can query by phone, e-mail or online chat. More complicated questions will cost me. (The NYPL Express service charges about $60 an hour.)

Through a quiet but steady adoption of tech tools, public libraries across the U.S. have become lifelong learning labs for adults and children alike, teaching tech literacy to would-be netizens and bringing culture of all kinds to the masses.

Library branches in Long Island, N.Y., this summer are offering Computer Kindergarten for Grownups so elderly residents can play catch-up with the kids. The cost, $0 to $25, depending on the branch, includes "lifetime support" via e-mail.

In Princeton, N.J., a class called School for Scanning is a draw for all ages, says Leslie Burger, the public library director: "Bring in your own negatives," she says. "We'll train [you] to turn them into digital photos."

No longer helping patrons sift through card catalogs in oblong boxes, librarians have become skilled players at the forefront of the new digital age, distilling the information glut and modeling the techniques to navigate it. Embracing their role as educators in a big way, libraries now provide free or low-cost tech training.

Burger, who just wrapped up a three-year executive term at the American Library Association (as president-elect, then president and past president), filled me in:

"When a community chooses to invest in its library," so it can offer new technologies, digital content and expanded programming, she says, "the people who use libraries and their communities are transformed." Then the library is "not an afterthought, not a nice thing to think about but you never go there...but central to how they learn, to their lives, how they make decisions, entertainment -- to democracy." Plus, she says, noting the increased complexity of information and technology, "in some ways, it's bringing people back to libraries."

In the old days, a printed reference work was published, became dated and libraries waited for an update, Burger says. "In the digital world," she says, "it can be updated much more frequently." Today public libraries pay for subscription databases and make them available online.

According to a Pew Internet and Public Life report published last December, 53% of American adults visited a public library in the past year and 68% of them used computers while there:

"The profile of library users shows an economically upscale, information[-]hungry clientele who use the library to enhance their already-rich information world," the report said. "Public library patrons are generally younger adults, those with higher income and education levels, and those who are internet users. Parents with minor children living at home are very likely to be patrons. There are no significant differences in library usage by race and ethnicity."

I put ASK NYPL to the test one recent Friday evening, querying via online chat: What are the world's most technologically advanced libraries? In six minutes, a librarian named Susan, instant messaged me from California, with a link to "The 25 Most Modern Libraries in the World," written by Christina Laun. Aside from saluting the NYPL as technologically advanced, she singled out libraries in Cerritos, Calif.; Cleveland; Richmond; San Diego; Pittsburgh; the Netherlands; and Finland, among others.

Confident that my local library was in the high-tech big leagues, I surfed on to find other routes to self-improvement. See "My great little library card," Part 2.

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