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Digitally digging for roots
Genealogy, one’s family history, has become a popular pastime for people around the globe, according to Curt Witcher, manager of the Genealogy Center on the second floor of the downtown Allen County Public Library.
Technology has made searching one’s roots easier, less expensive and faster.
“The world is shrinking,” Witcher said. “Fifteen years ago, if someone was researching their family tree, they had to travel to other countries to visit relatives.”
Today they can find, contact and visit those overseas relatives using a computer and Skype software, Witcher said. Skype allows users to make visual voice calls over the Internet.
Visitors to the center can access millions of files as well as national and international genealogy databases. The library subscribes and pays for those databases and offers them to the public at no cost.
Those researching their family histories are able to do quite a bit online, Witcher said.
But technology has not reduced the number of on-site visitors, he said, because the Genealogy Center offers researchers a hands-on experience with documents such as cemetery guides and old county plats.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Ben Moore assists Donna McCay of Kokomo in her family history research in the genealogy department at the downtown Allen County Public Library.

No longer just for bookworms

Libraries evolve from warehouse to ‘mall for the mind’

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Roger Crawford researches local theater history using film scanners in the library’s genealogy department.

– A recent report on public library use shows that digital research is rapidly outpacing the traditional paper search.

As technology changes how people access and use information, public libraries have worked to keep pace. Most still offer rooms full of books, but added to the paper are computer stations, e-books and Wi-Fi.

Libraries also are offering programs and services – knitting groups and social networking, for example – that extend far beyond the traditional scope of a library.

Instead of being rendered obsolete, libraries that have kept up with the times are seen as valuable resources, according to local library officials.

“We had over 1 million visitors last year,” said Jeffrey Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library, “more than ever.”

He said the growing number of programs and services partly explains the increase, but the economy also is a factor.

“Library usage rises in tough economic times,” Krull said, “especially as entertainment options become more limited.”

And it’s not just the big libraries.

Getting wired

Limberlost Public Library in Rome City is busier than ever, branch manager Bridgett Coe said.

The small rural library has seven computers and free Wi-Fi for those who bring their own laptops.

Through a federally funded program, Indiana libraries receive money that helps pay for wireless access. Many libraries have received grants to buy and upgrade computers and other resources through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

According to a 2010-11 study by the Information Policy and Access Center, or IPAC, 90.1 percent of libraries reported providing access to jobs, databases and other job opportunity resources, up from 88.2 percent in 2009-10.

“We get lots of visitors who come in to check their email and to register for unemployment or government assistance,” Coe said.

Many small, rural libraries in northeast Indiana are in lower-income areas where the average family cannot afford a home computer.

While those libraries have an increased need for more public-access computers, they are also the ones that might have trouble maintaining and updating the hardware and software.

Geneva Public Library in rural Adams County is getting ready to double its bandwidth. That cost was included in this year’s budget, branch manager Rose Bryan said.

“Just about every afternoon we were topping out our bandwidth, and the computers were running painfully slow,” Bryan said.

The library is in an area that has a high percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches. Because of that, Geneva Library qualified for a technology grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The IPAC study shows that, while more than 99 percent of libraries offer access to licensed databases, only 67 percent offer e-book services.

Churubusco Public Library has two desktop computers and two laptops that patrons may use in-house, but there is no funding for other types of technology such as e-books, said Marna Perlich, a library staff member.

Limberlost Library limits visitors’ computer use to an hour to accommodate all patrons, Coe said. “We will allow them to extend that hour, but only if there are not people waiting,” she said.

And while the LaGrange County Library has 13 or 14 desktop computers, according to reference and adult services manager Amanda Wisler, there are no in-house laptops.

The library is preparing to move to a larger building with more space, Wisler said, so there will not be a problem accommodating more computer stations, if and when the need arises.

Gathering places

Today’s libraries are not the book warehouses of the past, Krull said. “We are community centers,” he said.

At the downtown Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, patrons can still take their children to a storytelling session and check out books, but they also can visit an art gallery, enjoy a concert, see a theatrical production, have a cup of coffee and read the paper, attend a lecture, check out a movie, take a class or search their family history.

The library offers access to e-books, podcasts and gaming arenas and is active in blogging and social networking via Facebook and Twitter.

“People value libraries as a solid place where they can go and no one asks their name, or their politics or where they are from,” Krull said. “They are free to roam and use the resources at no cost, and that model works.”

Smaller libraries are trying to follow that model, and South Whitley Public Library tries to be proactive when it comes to technology.

“We are ahead of the game due to the library board’s strategic plans that were put into place years ago, before many other libraries were thinking about technology,” branch manager Renee Wozniak Anderson said.

The rural library, which underwent a major renovation five years ago, serves the town of South Whitley as well as two nearby townships.

“We have 14 computers, and I think we are ahead of others our size,” Wozniak Anderson said. “We have the space to add up to five more.”

The library also has five laptops for in-house use, two popular gaming systems, e-book services, hosts a teen blog and is on Facebook and Twitter, Wozniak Anderson said.

South Whitley Library employs a part-time information technology staff member “because we saw the need and planned for it years ago,” Wozniak Anderson said.

Krull insists that libraries remain relevant even in a world that is moving away from traditional books.

“Libraries are a mall for the mind,” Krull said. “We are not in the book business. We are in the learning business.”

vsade@jg.net

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