ST. PETERSBURG — Dozens of adults click away at keyboards while kids play online games in a packed computer lab.
Black and white. Young and old. It's a scene of low-tech democracy played out at libraries and city centers as the world tilts online, all the time.
With personal computers averaging $550 and broadband averaging $53 per month, Internet access is out of reach for most low-income families, leaving some residents with public terminals as the only option.
In St. Petersburg, a city with an estimated population approaching 250,000, there are 239 public computers at libraries and city recreation centers, leaving less than one terminal for roughly every 1,000 people.
Is that enough?
Well, no, says the director of the city's libraries.
"I don't think you could ever have enough," said Mary Gaines.
Just this week, Gaines walked into the Mirror Lake Branch and thought there was some sort of giveaway. It was just people waiting their turn to use free computers.
"My feeling is that it doesn't matter how many you put in," she said. "There's not going to be enough for everybody."
• • •
Jamele Williams and his cousin Erin Williams walk away from the reference counter at the main branch of the St. Petersburg Public Library, at 3745 Ninth Ave. N, each clutching a key that gives them access to a quiet computer lab.
Both have home computers, but viruses forced the machines into disrepair. Now, they spend about an hour a week at the branch. Jamele, 20, is researching college applications. Erin, 17, is tagging along to check out MySpace.
Their scenario isn't uncommon. Virus-racked personal computers send users to public machines for free Internet access.
But as more people gravitate to public computers, each user brings the chance for a host of infections. That's what killed several computers at city recreation centers, said city recreation manager Rick Craft.
"That's the problem," he said. "You get them when they're new, and there's so much software and upkeep that go with them."
Broken home computers are only part of the reason that people are clamoring to use public computers.
People who don't have access at home are responding to a governmentwide push for "E-government" services, which use technology to exchange information digitally.
Library officials say that creates a big problem.
The influx of novice users overwhelms library staffs. A July 2008 study by the Florida State University Information Use Management and Policy Institute shows a spike in E-government use. The same study shows that library staffers are simply not trained to handle questions like how to fill out immigration forms or file taxes.
"While it is clear that patrons seek E-government information and service from the library," the study concludes, "it is not clear that libraries are ready to meet the challenges associated with E-government."
Another issue is the one-hour limit for use of many library computers. The rule has drawn criticism from library patrons.
"Sometimes it takes longer to apply and fill out your applications and e-mail who you need to," said Cynthia Alexander, 53, who was at the main branch completing admission forms for the semester at Eckerd College. "You feel a little rushed."
Library officials say that's the best system for now.
• • •
Data from companies like Bright House and Verizon isn't publicly available, but studies show that more U.S. homes have access to broadband. Even so, the number of low-income people and African-Americans adopting broadband has remained stagnant, keeping alive the digital divide.
Librarians say they're working to close it.
"We're tuned in to the need that's out there and we're trying to address it," said Gaines, the library director. "If we've got the need, let's accommodate that need."
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.