Douglas Mayes visits the Washington Memorial Library several days a week, researching other cities in which to live and checking his e-mail.
An unemployed musician and restaurant worker, Mayes said he cant afford Internet service at his home. So the best option for him is a trek to the library to use the computers and wireless Internet the library has for its patrons.
Ive been out of work, he said. (The computers) have been great. Im so happy they got all this new equipment.
Nearly a year ago, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded a $500,000 grant to the Middle Georgia Regional Library System to buy or upgrade computer equipment as part of the foundations digital technology initiative for the communities it serves. The grant was matched locally by Bibb County.
Not only has the grant allowed the library to purchase 85 new desktop and laptop computers, but it has also helped refurbish the building to set up a separate computer lab as well as to hold classes that provide basic computer instruction for people who have never had training.
Thomas Jones, director of the library system, said an overhaul was badly needed.
Weve offered computer (services) since 1994, he said. But our lab only had 18 computers, and it was always 99 percent full. We always had people waiting.
Not only were there few computers, but the technology wasnt always up to date.
The old ones were big, bulky and slow -- they were terrible, Mayes said. The improvement has been terrific.
Nicholas Reid, whos also out of work, said he, too, is at the library nearly every day to use the computers to check on his Twitter and Yahoo accounts.
Its very useful, he said. There are no more long waits.
Jones said the librarys computer lab averages about 7,200 individual sessions per month -- about 86,000 per year.
Beverly Blake, program director for the Knight Foundation in Georgia, said the technology improvements have surpassed her expectations.
Its gotten a lot better results than I anticipated, she said. The library has always been a hub of information. ... Its a comfortable community gathering spot. Its gratifying to see people use the technology available.
A recent $8,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia has allowed Jones to add free Wi-Fi to all of the Bibb County libraries. The next step is to add wireless service to the other counties in the system -- Jones, Crawford, Macon and Wilkinson. Twiggs County also will have the service once construction on its new library is completed sometime in 2013.
Jones said patrons can use the computers on a first-come, first-serve basis as long as they have a current PINES library card. They can either use one of the 40 desktop computers in the lab or check out one of the 40 laptops the library has and use it in another part of the building. Patrons arent allowed to take the laptops outside the building.
Wi-Fi is big draw
Jones and Blake said theyve even seen people use their personal laptops in their cars when the library is closed in order to take advantage of the Wi-Fi signal, and that signal extends to Washington Park, across the street from Washington Memorial Library. Jones said a recent national study reported that about 34 percent of Americans have no broadband at home, and 21 percent have no Internet access at all. About 71 percent of libraries across the country report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the Internet in their communities. In Georgia, 78 percent of the states libraries are falling short of what the FCC defines as broadband.
A lot of people are losing (Internet) access at their homes, Jones said. You see more and more that people are logging into that access.
Jones said that with a rapidly evolving digital world, more and more aspects of peoples daily lives -- from job applications to Social Security benefits -- are done online. Even in this day and age, many of the people who come to the library have little training or experience with computers, he said.
Weve started a cadre of classes -- (how to use) e-mail, job searches, Microsoft Office, the Internet, Jones said. We develop classes as needed. ... People want to do their résumés, but dont know word processing. They want to apply for a job (online), but they dont know how to do that.
Those classes are very well-attended, he said. Usually, the library aims to have a class for 10 to 15 people, but a class last month drew 40 people.
Weve taught over 2,000 people since last June, Jones said. Were teaching 100 to 200 a month and offering 20 to 30 classes every month.
With limited library staff -- all of whom assist in some way helping patrons with the computers -- Jones said he has looked to volunteers and local colleges to help teach some of the classes.
He said recently that the Delta Sigma Theta sorority has offered 400 hours of volunteer service to the library.
Blake said the 21st century versions of libraries are moving beyond printed books and publications, and the Knight Foundations goal is to help libraries make the transition in all its communities.
The library of the 21st century is leading the way in helping the community understand technology and other tools, she said. Under Thomas Jones leadership, (the library) is the best of both worlds with its printed material and digital tools for learning. At Knight, the library technology initiative provides the technology that enhances libraries.
Jones and Blake said the next phase of technology advancement at the library could be to start digitizing the archives in the genealogy department.
Not only would that make the information stored there available to anyone in the world, Jones said, but it would also help protect the more physically fragile material.
With libraries, you look how we operate, and basically 40 to 50 percent of our business is now based in technology, he said. When I started in this business 30 years ago, it was just books and magazines. Knight is looking forward to what is coming, ... and they are able to do that research very quickly.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.