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Keys Library Uses Internet To Expand Reach Beyond Island Chain

Monroe County Public Library
Images from the Monroe County Library collection — like this one, showing Key West's library from the 1930s — are available online and have attracted more than 16 million views.";s:

  The Monroe County Public Library system has five branches that are spread across 100 miles, from Key Largo to Key West.

But the library's collection has traveled much much farther. It can go anywhere with an internet connection.

Credit Monroe County Public Library
Monroe County Public Library
The library's "dead fish" photo collection has been used as evidence by scientists studying the decline of fish size and population.

  In 2007, the library started posting images from its history collection online, on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Recently, that site surpassed 16 million views.

Library Administrator Anne Layton Rice said she was not surprised at the popularity of the online collection. But she has been surprised by some of the ways people use it, like marine researchers who have used the "dead fish" collection (it's really called that) as evidence for scientific papers.

"There's been articles in Nature and the Smithsonian and various publications about the use of our images to mark the decline of the fish population, from those photographs that we have of people at the charter boats showing off their trophy fishes," Rice said.

Interior designers have also used the images — as have genealogists. One of the first collections to go up, World War I waterfront passes, has become a goldmine for genealogists.

Credit Monroe County Public Library
The waterfront passes, created during World War I, are a goldmine for genealogists.

A cadre of volunteers scans the images and library staff then write captions, apply tags that make them findable in searches and check them over for quality. The library now has five scanning stations and almost 20,000 images online.

"Being in Key West, not a lot of people can access the vault and the images that are within," Rice said. "So we felt it was a priority."

And the image collection is not the library's only digital offering. Like most public libraries, the Monroe County system added ebooks and eaudiobooks about five years ago.

The number of titles, the number of checkouts and the patrons who register for the service have all been "steadily climbing," Rice said. There are now more than 4,000 titles in the collection and the number of checkouts in May was almost 30 percent higher than the same month last year.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.