December 31, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
The Boston Public Library (BPL) partnered with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and Boston Centers for Youth and Families (BCYF) to win $1.9 million in the first round of broadband stimulus awards in early December. The BPL plans to add at least 281 public terminals for accessing the Internet. Among the winning application's promises was to organize a schedule of Internet usage classes to go with the new computers.
"I can't emphasize enough that it's more important to teach people how to use this stuff effectively, rather than just plugging the terminals in and saying, 'Good luck,'" said Thomas Blake, digital projects manager for the BPL.
Blake said most computer questions from patrons to librarians were about basic usage, like how to open a browser, create an e-mail attachment and when and when not to double-click.
The city's main library will offer one class per day, while the other 25 branches will run a minimum of a single class per week. At least one class in Spanish will happen at a single branch per month as well.
"It might be that a basic class gets taught on Monday. Then a more advanced class happens on Tuesday. Every day you'll be able to walk into the central branch library and find some sort of training class," Blake explained.
The BPL considered this a realistic goal to implement over the next two years without adding staff. Blake said the BPL was careful to keep its stimulus goals modest to ensure it didn't promise an outcome it couldn't deliver. The agency's technology staff wants a year to plan the deployment and add the necessary wiring infrastructure. Officially Blake expects to begin installing terminals by mid-2011.
"I would be surprised if it takes us that long, but I didn't want to promise anything beyond that," Blake said.
Striking the right balance on the amount of money to request in the application was tricky, according to Blake.
"If you asked for too much, that would become a burden on your own resources, but if you didn't ask for enough, the government was going to say, 'Well you don't really need us.' It had to be somewhere in between," Blake said.
The BPL's share of the stimulus winnings will be roughly $500,000, which will go mostly for purchasing hardware. The BPL needed to contribute $100,000 in matching funds. Half of it came from putting aside money within the BPL's existing budget for wiring the terminals. David Leonard, chief technology officer for the BPL, found the remaining $50,000 from other city sources.
The library will do cross-promotion with the computer centers run by the BHA and BCYF. The three agencies crafted their stimulus application so that they wouldn't be in competition with one another. All three will offer classes, but in many cases, the BHA and BCYF won't offer courses already provided by the BPL. For example, the BHA and BCYF may leave Internet research classes to the BPL because librarians are especially well suited for teaching research, commented Blake.