Some librarians in the state worry that the division between rich and poor could go beyond the accessibility level of material goods to the accessibility of something more fundamental -- information.
New technologies, such as the transferring of entire encyclopedias to compact disks, increasingly allow access to updated information, but the price of that information can be costly, said librarians gathered for a three-day Maryland Conference on Libraries and Information Services. The conference began Sunday at the Sheraton Towson Conference Center and ends today.
The "Fee vs. Free" question -- posed to decide whether libraries in the state should charge fees for some of their services -- was one of many issues that about 300 librarians, government officials and others were discussing before they drew five resolutions today to present to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
The state conference, last held in 1978, is a preparation for next July's White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, which private citizens, librarians and library advocates from all 50 states and U.S. territories will attend.
Libraries represented at the state conference include public, academic, institutional, military and federal libraries, and special libraries for the handicapped.
More than 200 delegates representing every county plan also to discuss how to promote literacy and encourage a more extensive use of libraries, as well as provide improved services for those to whom English is either a foreign or second language, conference officials said.
The 100 attending included various elected officials and people who were invited to observe, said Maurice Travillian, assistant state superintendent for libraries.
Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties spend the most money per capita on their library systems, said conference chairman Offie Clark, an Army systems analyst who has been on the Harford County Library Board for 10 years.
"The differences are essentially between the poor counties and the rich counties," Clark said. "Some people don't have access because they can't read. Some people don't have access because they don't live in that part of the county [where the libraries are]."
But the counties with more money in their library budgets still face the same problems as the less funded counties, said Maria Pedak-Kari, community liaison for the Department of Public Libraries in Montgomery County.
"I would say that many of the needs are the same, even though the stereotypes of the systems are much different," Pedak-Kari said, adding that there is still a literacy problem and a shortage of children's books in Montgomery County.
It is illegal for libraries to charge money for informational services, and a majority of librarians would prefer to keep them free, said planning committee chairwoman Kitty Hurrey, director of Southern Maryland Regional Libraries in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.
But the cost of obtaining information from data bases or of buying new compact disk data bases can be too expensive for budgets of some libraries, officials said.
Now computers are sometimes the only way to get information, Pedak-Kari said.
"Much of the information comes out on-line," she said. "It doesn't even appear in print. By the time it appears in print, the information is outdated."
Travillian said that although it is expensive to obtain information from data bases, the cost should not be a major concern because all libraries will have enough money eventually to buy their own data base systems.
"I think the trend is going to be for the libraries to buy the data in electronic form rather than buy books," Travillian said. "In the long run, if they [owners of data base systems] don't lower the price, a competitor will come in and they will sell it cheaper."
Last year, Baltimore County libraries raised $1.5 million in video rental revenues, Travillian said.
Pedak-Kari said the government needs to provide more funding for libraries if they want to keep them free.
"I think the state legislature and the federal government -- they're going to have to come in and decide where information is crucial, and if it is crucial, are they willing to help pay for it," she said.
Providing immigrants or foreigners with literature in their own language and tools to help them learn English also was high on the conference agenda.
A new development is a computerized translator that will translate English into other languages by gliding over words with a scanner, Travillian said.
"We're just getting there with these kinds of translation programs," he said. "They're beginning to appear on the market, but some of them are not very good. They have trouble with idioms." However, he said, the technology is bound to improve.