Nebraska libraries get multi-million dollar upgrade


November 9th, 2011

Neligh, NE – As government services are provided more often, and sometimes exclusively, online, public libraries have become an important resource for those without home computers or high-speed Internet access. In Nebraska, a multi-million dollar upgrade for local library computers aims to keep that access available to everyone.

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Inside the Neligh Public Library, a tall woman in a small chair reads aloud about a magic dragon to a boy and girl, their mouths agape. As expressive as her performance is, two pre-teen boys sitting at the computer nearby pay no attention. The kids’ online role-playing game consumes them, as they attempt to get an animated dog to follow their cartoon avatar, or character.

David City's library, opened in 1891, now has high speed Broadband access for its computers. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Library Commission)

At the tables near the check-out desk, Shannon Wilson takes a chair in front of another computer and logs into her email account. She lives just about half a block away.

“It’s really nice to just run down the alley and check my emails from my son in Afghanistan,” she said gratefully.

The gaming teenagers and emailing adults, like the rest of the residents of the north central Nebraska town of Neligh, know the library recently purchased some of the fastest computers in the area hooked to the Internet.

The librarian, Kathy Ostenrude, has no problem with any of these uses. Books still line the shelves, but increasingly, public libraries have become the computer resource center for towns across Nebraska, especially for those who can’t afford access of their own.

“I don’t have a computer at home,” explained Shannon Wilson. “I can’t really afford one, so the easy access and the availability is amazing. I don’t know how else I’d be able to do it.”

Locals in Neligh, NE have begun to rely on the library's computers. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Library Commission)

When public libraries first installed computers for the public, they were used as a high-tech method of navigating the Dewey Decimal system to find a book. Today, with more information available online than any one library could possibly store on its bookshelves, the public’s computer needs have advanced. In response, the Nebraska Library Commission coordinated getting a multi-million dollar package of grants providing dozens of libraries across Nebraska with some of the best computers available for their patrons to surf the web.

The $3.6 million project, called Library Broadband Builds Nebraska Communities, aims to upgrade what the Commission called “public computer centers” in 147 library buildings around the state. Funding combined money from the U.S. Department of Commerce ($2.4 million) with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.2 million). The computers began showing up in libraries this summer.

The W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha is one of the many Nebraska libraries receiving grant funding for upgrades. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Library Commission)

“The technology changes, but the thing we do never changes,” said Mary Jo Ryan, the communications coordinator with the Library Commission. “We help people find information they want and need, and we help them get it,” whether from a book or with a computer.

Ryan heard stories from librarians all over the state about patrons asking for help with many common online tasks, especially state government services now available almost exclusively on the web. They needed help locating tax forms, completing child welfare paperwork, restoring their driver’s licenses or obtaining hunting permits.

“We are just beginning to realize how much information is online,” Ryan told NET News. “If you don’t have good up-to-date computers and high speed broadband, you are at a disadvantage.”

Librarian Kathy Ostenrude said the funds came to the Neligh library just as they were seeing a tremendous increase in demand for its computers. The funds “allowed us to make sure all of our computers are state of the art, so we can keep up” with technology. She added that with libraries becoming “almost the cultural hub of the community, the libraries in the nation really need to be cutting-edge, especially in a small town.”

The $10,632 sent to Neligh paid for three desktop and four laptop computers, designed to make the best of a broadband high-speed wireless signal, along with accessories and furniture.

Supporters of the efforts to update local library computers point out that it’s not enough for the state to put information online if the people who need it don’t have access. The local libraries can supply that access.

The courts system is a good example, according to Antelope County Judge Judy Ferrell-Taylor. She told NET News that she’s constantly advising defendants to use state services like the Department of Motor Vehicles to check on the status of their suspended driver’s license. A variety of other documents are available on the State of Nebraska’s website.

“I handle a lot of small claims,” Judge Ferrell-Taylor explained. “In the past, if someone wanted to file a small claim, they would go to their court office, get their form, fill it out and pay their fee. They can now do that online. The state’s website also provides forms for changing your name, filing a protection order against someone or even a simple divorce.”

Using one of those new laptop computers at the Neligh library, Janet Bancroft of the State Court Administrators office navigated the Nebraska Supreme Court web page to demonstrate how easy it is to locate the forms needed for a non-contested divorce. Clicking the heading “Divorce With No Children or Property Disputes,” she notes that the available forms “are designed for Nebraska courts by Nebraskans, so you know they will work within our court system.”

The site includes instructions that, according to Bancroft, address “every element that you would face as you go through the hearing.” For those wanting to represent themselves, however, Judge Ferrell-Taylor warned that Nebraskans “need to be careful, and they need to make sure they are not in over their head.”

Having people use the libraries as the way to access often confidential matters on public computers can put some staff in a difficult position.

“It’s very touchy, I guess I should say,” admitted Kathy Ostenrude, adding that there can be a fine line between being a librarian and giving legal advice.

Sometimes people will come in with “no computer expertise whatsoever, and they need you, but you cannot do that for them,” she said. “You are not their attorney.”

On a warm fall evening in Neligh, Shelli Romano walked over the the library to take care of some family business on the public computers. “If the community was not providing Internet, those of us who don’t have Internet would not be able to do the important things. All of these things would be impossible for us to do without Internet,” Romano during a break from her online business.

Outside Neligh’s library, a large vinyl sign reads “Neligh’s Hot Spot.” The building’s Wi-Fi signal broadcasts well beyond the library’s walls, which means that residents can access the Internet outside. That’s intentional at many libraries. The Library Commission heard stories from all over the state about people sitting in their cars in the parking lot, sometimes well after midnight, taking advantage of the wireless signal. They were looking for jobs, checking email, and doing all the other things that keep small-town residents connected with the rest of the world.

As librarian Kathy Ostenrude put it, “The library is the people’s university, as well as their access to the outside world, as well as turning into being a functioning citizen.”

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