After hesitating a few seconds, Geralynn Demartino pushed her toddler's stroller into the Manassas Mall's newest storefront--which just happens to be the state's first electronic library.
Within minutes, she was seated at a computer equipped with Internet access, on which she searched for World Wide Web sites about snakes in an effort to help her older child with his homework.
Called the Library Connection @ Manassas Mall, the 2,500-square-foot high-tech center is actually a county public library, without books. Instead, it offers basic computing and other library services--including Internet access, word processing and computer training--free to Prince William residents. Amid much excitement, it opened its doors this week in an effort to bridge the "digital divide" among county residents, library director Richard Murphy said.
"There are a lot of people who don't have access to computers," Murphy said. "We're responding to a need we saw in the community."
Using space donated by the mall, the center is just steps from Montgomery Ward and RadioShack. Funded entirely through commercial and private donations, the center costs $100,000 a year to operate. The library plans to run the center for five years, then assess its future, Murphy said.
It has 24 computers, as well as image scanners and printers. Although virtually all services are free, printing is 15 cents a page. A few rules govern use of the computers, but patrons are "encouraged to act responsibly" and not use them to access explicit materials, Murphy said.
Four of the computers are equipped with children's programs and currently don't have Internet connections, though Murphy said a limited selection of approved sites will be added to them later. And to avoid having the Library Connection become a baby-sitting center, all children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.
The idea behind the center, Murphy said, is to offer a resource apart from the traditional library, a place residents would visit more often. A mall, with its countless customers each day, made sense as a location. The only other project of its kind in the Washington area is at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Md., where more than 200 people use the center's free services every day.
"With the mall traffic, we're hoping to see more people than we would at the library," he said.
Yesterday, in its first full day of operation, curious residents walked in and asked about what was available. Some, like Demartino, stayed.
"I think this is just a wonderful thing for kids who don't have access to computers and for adults who want to try to learn how to use computers," she said, adding that she and her family are moving to Michigan, and their computer already has been packed. "It's great to be able to come in here to use these."
Additional users could be job seekers who need to create resumes, Murphy said. The center has teamed up with the Department of Social Services, which has a growing clientele of former welfare recipients looking for work.
"It's a way to help people get out here and help them make their resumes and look for jobs," he said. In the evenings and on weekends, Department of Social Services staff will be at Library Connection to help their clients.
Joyce Phillips, who heads the library system's board of trustees, said the center promises many rewards to county residents.
"I just feel we're on the cutting edge in having a library that's all electronic," she said, adding that it never will replace the traditional library services. "I think it's exciting."
Library Connection is open from noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.