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Libraries Shelve Their Stuffy Image

They're pulling in people with social services and cafes

When a teenager was fatally shot in a parking lot in King County, Wash., the community came together to make the neighborhood safer. And for support, they turned to the public library. Together they created a program called Escape, which runs well-attended programs for teens every Friday night.

Jackie Abdullah of Freeport, N.Y., also turned to the library when she was looking for a place where her children could play and she could find information on child-rearing. She went to her library's Parent/Child Workshop. There, specialists identified both her sons' learning disabilities, enabling her to find the right educational programs for them.

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Widespread computer use and the rise of the Internet has led some observers to speculate about the demise of the local library. But more and more, perhaps in response to the electronic pressure, libraries are moving beyond their traditional job as book repository and branching into electronic networks, family-service programs, literacy classes, and even cafes.

"What you see are two fundamentally important trends," says Diantha Schull, director of Libraries for the Future, a non-profit advocacy group in New York. "One is to be far more active in terms of services to children and youths, and to people seeking community information. The other trend is to develop new technological services and provide access."

The changes run the gamut:

* The Parent/Child Workshop, which runs at libraries across Long Island, offers a place for parents to bring their young children once a week. The library provides toys, parenting resources, and a session with a different child-development specialist each time.

* The Naperville, Ill., library offers a set of programs, including peer counseling, for middle-income managers who have been downsized. Like many libraries, it now houses job information centers, which usually include books, videos, computer terminals, and job listings.

* An electronic network called Charlotte's Web, in Charlotte, N.C., provides access to local information on elections, public health, and other community concerns, and free public-access terminals have been installed throughout the city.

Despite its wide reach, the Internet is limited in scope. It can provide information, it can provide contact through "chats" or e-mail with like-minded computer-users, but the interface is still a keyboard with a screen. Libraries are finding an expanding role for themselves in providing what the Internet can't: ways for people to get together. "People are in need of contact with other people," says David Opatow, director of the Freeport library, which hosts a weekly workshop. "The Parent/Child Workshop is a warm people thing."

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Providing that feeling of neighborhood is key. Libraries are becoming cultural centers, like libraries are in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, says Elaine Cohen, president of Aaron Cohen Associates, a library planning consulting firm in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. She points to the new cafe at a Saratoga, N.Y., library as "the place for the town to meet and greet."

Ms. Schull adds that many "libraries are seeing themselves now as dynamic centers for community development and problem solving."

When a wave of downsizing hit Long Island in the early 1990s, and jobs shifted to small and home-based businesses, for example, the Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, N.Y., stepped in to help. Middle Country, like many other libraries, now has a center where small businesses can access the resources that their larger competitors can buy.

Despite the drive to add new attractions that meet specific community needs, however, libraries are still honing their traditional roles as educators and guides.

Literacy programs, which have long been a staple at public libraries, are expanding. Freeport's library also houses several English as a Second Language classes for recent immigrants. In St. Paul, Minn., a branch library is going into Hmong and Hispanic communities to find out what services they could use most. In Flatbush, N.Y., the public library is reaching out to the Haitian community.

Perhaps the most innovative of the libraries' new programs are those involving the technology that spurred them to change. All over the country, libraries are providing public Internet access and training programs, as well as using electronic networks, such as Charlotte's Web, to link different parts of their communities.

Libraries have a strong incentive to stay at the cutting edge and meet the needs of the community. Seventy-eight percent of funding comes from local governments, according to the American Library Association.

Many seem to be rising to the challenge. "Use is rising everywhere," Schull says. "Libraries are an important part of our public information system. We need to use them as a tool for development and learning."


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