Library card offers free key to helpful, often costly databases
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 3, 2007 12:00 AM
Library cards aren't just about borrowing books and movies anymore.
In Phoenix and its suburbs, they're free passes to growing numbers of costly subscription-only Internet databases with genealogy research and auto repair instructions, foreign languages courses and antique appraisals.
Maricopa County and Valley cities are spending more than $1.5 million a year to make this information free to cardholders. But librarians say they're having a hard time getting the word out and call the free access one of their best-kept secrets.
Hobbyists and professionals have for years paid hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for annual subscriptions to these specialty sites because they're known to be comprehensive and reliable. Libraries started offering them in recent years as a way to expand their collections and reach new populations, said Cindy Kolaczynski, deputy director for the Maricopa County Library District. Although a few of the sites must be accessed from computers at the library, most are available to anyone with a library card, password and personal computer.
"It's very important that libraries provide authenticated, reliable information and that we bridge the digital divide," said Chandler Library Manager Brenda Brown. The databases "are honest and up-to-date, not theoretical. This is not Uncle Joe's knee surgery Web site from his garage."
Startup businesses save big bucks using the library resources to mine a wealth of demographic data about a particular area, said Phoenix librarian Victoria Welch. And with that city's card, investors can check out Standard and Poor's stock advice and corporate profiles, and eBay sellers can find well-documented antique values on Price It! Antiques and Collectibles.
A source for any hobby
Westlaw is one of the top legal research tools and costs law firms $10,000 a year or more, Welch said. Phoenix offers it free inside its libraries, and several lawyers use it there to save money, she said.
Genealogy is a hot pastime, and serious researchers pay $13 to $30 a month for access to ancestry.com's digitalized census, immigration and historic directory records. County and municipal libraries in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe and Glendale offer it free for in- library use.
Volunteers at the Mesa Regional Family History Center, a nationally known depository of genealogy information operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the facility dropped ancestry.com this year, knowing it was available at local libraries.
Volunteer Shirley Nance of Chandler said the center is expanding its own data and offers classes that show people how to use theirs and public-library resources to find family records from generations past.
"If you're looking for census records, you go to ancestry.com. It's the daddy of genealogy research, but it's just the tip," Nance said.
Cautious shoppers can look up ratings and repair histories before they buy a refrigerator or computer without paying the $26 annual Consumer Reports online subscription fee. People with health concerns have access to a range of reliable medical sites that they won't find without a library card or a paid subscription.
Serious mechanics and car restorers have to sit at library computers in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, and Chandler to peruse the detailed schematics and instructions on Mitchell On Demand, a site for which owners of commercial auto shops pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for access to portions they need. "Mitchell's is one of the big three auto-repair sites, and it's pretty impressive that libraries have it," said Jeff Snook, owner of Noe Import Auto in Mesa. The cost to libraries: about $3,000 a year.
Maricopa County pays the biggest chunk of the database costs - $1.5 million a year - to fund access to more than 60 of these databases for county and city libraries.
Individual municipalities have their own budgets, usually around $75,000 a year, to add subscriptions. The types and quantities vary by city.
The state spends about $500,000 for databases available throughout Arizona, said Malavika Muralidharan, who oversees the state offerings.
Not always easy
Several librarians said the number and value of the free databases would likely grow if patrons use them, but that's not always easy.
Different library sites use different terms and links. In Phoenix you have to click on a "research" icon. In Chandler, it's "information databases." On the Tempe library home page, a drop down menu under "search and find" requires a click on "electronic resources."
Then there's the sheer number and daunting content of the databases. A patron looking for Price It! Antiques and Collectibles must go through Gale Reference Center on the Phoenix site.
ReferenceUSA, an expensive and popular database known for sorting financial and geographic information about businesses, also has residential addresses, phone numbers and median household incomes and real-estate values that would help neighborhood groups organize or new mom-and-pop businesses reach prospective customers. The cost to libraries: $20,000 a year.
How to access expensive Web sites
• Get one or more library cards and PIN numbers. Maricopa County and all cities except Glendale allow anyone living in the county to obtain a card. Glendale requires patrons to be city residents.
• Go to the library Web site. Databases are called different things on different sites but often contain the words "research," "electronic resources" or "information databases." Most are available from home computers, but a few sites have restricted library access, meaning you need to use a library computer for access. A list of the available databases can be viewed by anyone, but most can be accessed only by card holders.
Where to look