Tapping the Power of the Local Library Anytime, Anywhere

Public libraries offer free Web access to powerful and otherwise expensive databases.

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Doing research in our pajamas is a huge benefit of the Web and modern computers. But committed readers and researchers still want access to local libraries, with their vast troves of books, periodicals, and reference works. The best of both worlds? Tapping into your library over the Web, 24 hours a day.

[You'll find plenty of libraries in our list of 15 Great Underpriced College Towns.]

Many dedicated library-card holders don't know the wealth of data and entertainment that's available with the click of a mouse. Libraries are rushing to convert resources into digital format for instant downloading as they try to make themselves an integral part of Web research and reading.

It's paying off. Once seen as a threat to the need for public libraries, the Internet has proved the opposite, says Sari Feldman, president of the Public Library Association and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library near Cleveland. "The Web has instead generated new interest in public libraries," she says. "It's added to their appeal." Web links to premium resources are just part of the draw. Most libraries also provide PCs and Web access to those who don't have them at home. In addition, libraries are teaching people how to use their computers and conduct Web research.

[A controversial effort by Google would digitize the world's books.]

Access to exclusive library resources on the Web is catching on. Web surfers last year conducted nearly a million queries across the Internet at the St. Louis County Library in Missouri, where the database page gets the most hits of the system's Web pages. "People who know about the databases use them heavily," says Susan Scupin, head of the system's reference department. But too many otherwise savvy Web searchers don't know about them. They've not experienced the power and fun available through libraries online. Here's a look at some of the best resources that might be available at your local library:

Audio books and E-books. Want to listen to Dan Brown's latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol? Or how about Dick Francis's Even Money? Both are among thousands of titles available through OverDrive, a popular provider of digital audiobooks to public libraries. Free software enables library-card holders to download books for listening on a PC or a media player, including an iPod, and sometimes burn them onto a CD. Thousands of titles are also offered as E-books, which come in formats for viewing on PCs or E-book readers such as Sony's E-Reader. Not all publishers make their titles available, and the books can be checked out for only a matter of weeks. Plus, popular titles like The Lost Symbol may have dozens of holds ahead of you. Still, it isn't like you're standing in line at the library.

Ancestry and genealogy. The Web has produced a boom in amateur genealogists. "After pornography, genealogy is perhaps the most popular use of the Internet," says Scupin with a laugh, noting that ancestry sources are in high demand at the St. Louis library. But many with a vague interest in their ancestry don't know what's available for casual snooping from home. HeritageQuest, for one, lets users click through census records, Revolutionary War pension benefits, and records of Freedman's Bank, which catered to African-Americans after the Civil War. InfoTrac can find mentions of ancestors in urban and rural newspapers from the 1800s.

Article databases. Much of what's produced by professional journalists and business analysts remains locked behind expensive subscriptions and pay-for-access archives. Article databases like Factiva, LexisNexis, and ProQuest are invaluable for research, but they're expensive for most individuals to buy. Simple keyword searches can yield an abundance of professionally produced insight from publications big and small, from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to Rock Products magazine. The services also enable easy browsing of current editions of leading publications. Typically, accessing these databases through a library isn't as convenient as owning an individual account. Library users also can't save searches or customize the services, and some time out quickly when left idle.