Photo: Guests using computers at the Selby Public Library

Need to Use a computer? Sarasota-Manatee Public Libraries are Back to Help

Posted on June 22, 2020 by Emily Wunderlich, Herald-Tribune Media Group

Daily computer use is limited for each guest, but library cards and reservations are not required.

Harry Reynolds writes books about automobile racing — and he does it without internet access at home.

When Sarasota County public libraries closed in March as the coronavirus pandemic set in, Reynolds, 83, would sit in the parking lot of Fruitville Public Library to conduct research and check his email using the public WiFi.

But “wrestling with a computer” in the cramped, and often hot, quarters of his car “never works very well,” Reynolds said.

So when Fruitville Library reopened, along with most other branches across Sarasota County, Reynolds returned to sort through the 300 emails he’d missed since he was last online.

“I pay for this with my taxes,” he said, “so I might as well use it.”

With only an hour to access the public computers per day, Reynolds has set a schedule to visit Fruitville three times a week.

“It’s a help, having air conditioning and a solid ‘workbench,’ if you will,” he said.

According to Renee Di Pilato, director of Sarasota County Libraries and Historical Resources, Reynolds is not alone. About 17% of Sarasota County lacks high-speed internet access, she said.

“We have noticed many people in our parking lots using our WiFi, so that’s something we certainly promote,” Di Pilato said.

Sarasota County public libraries reopened on June 15, with the exception of Osprey Public Library. Each branch is open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The computers are spaced 6 feet apart — per CDC social distancing guidelines — with disposable keyboard covers. Face masks are encouraged. And to temporarily cut back on cash-handling, Di Pilato said, printing is available at no charge.

“We noticed a large uptick in questions about applying for unemployment benefits and the need to apply for jobs, and we know that a large number of people do not have internet access at home, so the library is the place where they can access high-speed internet,”

Di Pilato said. Di Pilato added that while library cards and reservations are not required to use the computers, guests can still guarantee a time slot online. Staff will be available to provide technology help from a distance, and residents who have computer and internet access at home can use the county’s “Ask Us” feature to get real-time assistance from a librarian.

For Sandra Piper, 76, the reopening of Selby Public Library came as a relief. Her computer recently broke down, and getting it fixed or replaced was “out of the cards” for her financially.

“The library is really necessary for me,” she said. “I think we’re really lucky to have such wonderful facilities in Sarasota.”

In Manatee County, public libraries reopened on June 8 and 9, with each branch opening at the normal time but closing an hour early to allow for sanitation of public areas.

Although fewer computers are available than usual to promote social distancing, visitors can use them for up to 30 minutes per day without a library card or an appointment.

“They should just walk in and use the machine,” said Cathy Laird, interim library services manager for Manatee County. “If it gets to the point where we start having a waiting list, we can look into moving furniture to make more computers available.”

Although face masks are required at libraries throughout the county, staff will provide them to guests who don’t have them.

Printing is also available at 10 cents per page with a limit of 50 pages, as the coin box will not accept a higher dollar amount, per the county’s internet and computer policies.

“There are people in our community who don’t have access to a computer at home,” Laird said. “So much of life these days — applying for jobs, applying for unemployment, applying for food stamps — you can’t do it without a computer, and the library has stepped up to try and fill that gap.”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

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