Libraries are offering more free search services, database access, articles, photos, eBooks, audiobooks, music and museum passes than ever. Chances are you are buying, subscribing to, or stealing something you can get for free with a library card.
The hardest part of using the wealth of free sources out there may be finding them. There are easy ways to locate these sources, but few people use them, according to Gary Price, founder and editor of the ResourceShelf blog and director of online resources at Ask.com.
While there are no hard numbers on usage of such free services, several resource specialists and librarians echo Price's comments.
"People who gather national statistics about libraries have started adding that, but it will take awhile for the libraries to aggregate the data and respond," said Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, N.J., and past president of the American Library Association.
But there is some evidence that people are beginning to access their local library home page more frequently. For instance, Massachusetts public libraries, which recently began tracking electronic access, report (PDF) that they received more than 248 million hits on their home pages in 2006.
Burger says there's a range of information that people are generally looking for, which typically dictates where they look first. "If it's simple and easy info the first is to go to Google because it's good to give quick factoids. But for more in depth things and info not freely available on the Web, people do find their way to libraries and use the subscription databases we provide," said Burger.
Burger said that while general search engines may seem more convenient, pointed search tools can provide more reliable information more quickly than repeated searches in which the user tries out different terms.
Casting that wide Web net can pick up spam and unreliable information presenting itself as an authority, Price said. It may also be burying or missing good information.
For example, do you call it soda or pop? The soft drink industry or the beverage industry? Databases have a structure to take care of that problem. Many have a controlled vocabulary of terms that a human indexer assigns to each article, said Price.
While indexes of articles from both general publications and academic journals can be found on the Internet, users are often brought to an abstract summary of the article including publication info, but not the full text. The majority of library databases offer full texts of articles, so when you do find what you are looking for, you can immediately have access to all of it.
"The payoff...is that you are finding a lot of info you could not find anywhere else and much more quickly. Libraries have more precise searching than you can do with a general search database," said Price.
Searching in an academic realm has also become more user friendly. You no longer have to bother with Boolean search terms or complicated retrieval options. Database search methods have been replaced with easy point and click filtering in addition to the usual time frame option. Results offer links.
The tools are not limited to large urban libraries. Small-town libraries are now able to carry many of the same databases and resources previously only available to patrons of large city libraries. They are doing this by either subscribing to database services on their own, or participating in library consortiums--groups of local libraries pooling resources. States are also offering access to online resources for all residents.
Libraries in Canada, the U.K. and Australia are also stepping up online services for residents from municipalities both large and small.OK, so where are all the patrons?
With all this data at people's fingertips, why aren't the servers supporting these libraries overwhelmed due to popularity?
"The bottom line is people can't use what they don't know about. It's not just search. It's everything. Libraries need to do a better job of promoting themselves," Price said. "Unfortunately, it's been a challenge for the library world to get anyone's attention."
Price added there's also a hometown syndrome. "You go with what you know and this is a change. And that is a challenge."
The ALA's Burger seems to agree that the main reason people aren't flocking to all the free tools and content is simply a lack of publicity.
"Generally speaking, we could do a better job of publicizing that these things are unique. We need to come up with better words to explain it," said Burger.
"The beauty of the resources is that we can push that out to people. It's much better on the whole than when they had to come in person. The content is being provided in a different way and with less mediation. You don't have to go to the librarian, you can use these things independently," said Burger.
Another issue has been the library card number required to access to a public library's online services.
The U.S. library system is based on local libraries, consortiums of local libraries, or a state library with services restricted to residents. While it may not seem like a barrier to entry, people do have to make a slight effort by going to a library and showing proof of residency in order to get a library card. But that, too, is changing.
Many libraries, such as the New York Public Library, allow you to apply for your branch library card online and use a temporary password until it arrives by mail.
Several state library systems are waving the library card requirement altogether and using other means to verify residency.
Connecticut and Indiana use a computer's Internet Protocol (IP) address to determine if you qualify as a resident. The site will grant access to any computer that registers as coming from a server within the state. If your IP address is provided outside the state via a service like AOL, the library allows you to enter identifying information to gain a temporary password and then mails you a permanent one.
In Michigan, you can use your driver's license number or state identification number to gain access. Children can use the info of their parent or guardian.
"I think we're going to see more and more of this kind of content available. It's really just a matter of time before it becomes integrated in the way people use and seek information," said Burger.