The threeroom Mullan Public Library is not burdened by an excess of high technology.
A drawer in the antique card catalog is still the main way to find a book. A librarian with a rubber stamp checks each book out.
Still, the library in this 821-person town soon will be linked to data banks from universities and the nation’s largest libraries. It’s one of more than 50 Idaho libraries sharing $375,000 for a six-month “test drive” of the information available over the computer Internet.
“It’s sort of an exponential increase in our ability to find information,” said James Murray, library director for the East Bonner County Free Library District.
In North Idaho, the project also includes libraries in Coeur d’Alene, Kellogg, Sandpoint, Athol, Harrison, Hayden, Rathdrum, Spirit Lake, Post Falls, Osburn, Pinehurst, Priest River, Wallace and Clark Fork.
For now, most of the libraries will use the system to answer complex reference questions and locate hardto-find documents, said Karen Starr, project consultant for the Idaho State Library. Down the road, some of the library districts hope to offer dial-in access for home computer owners, plus on-site public terminals.
“This is a role that libraries have historically played,” said Starr. “Not everyone can own every book, but as a group, people can get together and get access to information.”
If public libraries don’t offer Internet access, the information ends up available only to those who can afford it, Murray said.
“And some people won’t be able to pay,” he said. “We’re really defending the right of people to get information.”
Some librarians believe that without access to the information on the Internet - maps, video clips and articles, for example - libraries also run the risk of becoming obsolete.
“It’s not like 20 years ago, when you had families who had lived here for 50 years,” said Mullan librarian Bill Shaw.
“We’re getting people moving in from Seattle and San Francisco, wanting the rural lifestyle but also wanting access to complex information.”
The state program gives a library the size of Mullan’s about $3,500 to pay for a computer, training, a modem and up to 100 hours of time on computer access services.
After that, most of the libraries will be on their own.
“There are some who will probably not continue,” Starr said. “We walked into the project knowing that.”
But she said she’s confident that most libraries will stay connected.
“I think once they really see and understand where it can take them, they’ll find a way.”