Baltimore County's library system is trading in its vintage central computer for a new model that will enable people to use home computers to get library information.
The county library board of trustees picked the lowest bidder, CARL Systems Inc. of Denver, for the $950,000 contract.
Library Director Charles W. Robinson said that the switch and associated costs will add $200,000 to the bill. Another $500,000 in new equipment, including computer printers to print out information or articles found by the computer, will bring the total cost to $1.7 million.
The new equipment, housed in the basement of the Towson branch on York Road, will be fully operational by January.
Home computer users will be able to use the system within the next few years, but not in January, Mr. Robinson said.
The beauty of the new system, Mr. Robinson said, is that it will be paid for out of money already budgeted for maintaining the current computer system and that the computer terminals now used by patrons will remain in use, easing the transition.
Patrons at the Towson, Cockeysville, Randallstown and Essex branches will see the first change next month, when value cards will be introduced as substitutes for cash.
For an initial $1 fee, patrons will get a card that works rather like mass transit fare cards. The patron pays cash to add value to the card, and deductions are made as it is used to rent video tapes, use library copying machines and, eventually, to pay for computer printouts.
Videotapes will cost $1.50 with the card, but $1.75 for cash. The goal, Mr. Robinson said, is to reduce the use of cash in libraries by 80 percent to 90 percent.
The new central computer will be installed in October alongside the 7-to 15-year-old equipment at the Towson branch. After several months of staff training and dual operation, the new system should debut Jan. 2, Mr. Robinson said. He compared the changeover to trading in "a 1975 Chevy for a 1994 model."
"It's the wave of the future," he said.
Patrons will be able to use the Windows on the World (WOW) system to access the catalog listing of books, find which branch has a book and reserve a copy.
In addition, the computer will have a community information file, a national newspaper index, magazine indexes, some full-text magazine articles, a full-text encyclopedia, and other library catalogs and data bases through a software service called Internet.
A similar, picture-based system for children will be available in every library. This system will include a diagram showing where a desired book is in the library.
Mr. Robinson said he has already received three calls from patrons angry about the expense, given the county's decision in February to close the Loch Raven branch library and eight minilibraries.
The director said the move to new computers is not a trade-off for closing libraries, but is part of a strategy to keep the county system stocked with plenty of new materials while it moves toward the future in electronic communications.
He also said the current computer system needs to be replaced.
And, according Mr. Robinson, the system is powerful enough "to handle the Pratt system, too."
He made that point to support his belief that Baltimore's Enoch Pratt and the county library systems should merge into one metropolitan area system. Without such a merger, he said, both systems would wither and die.
He said that libraries also need new computer technology to avoid stagnation.