Access 'the world' via Seymour Md. network will let computer users tap libraries, Internet with phone call

November 01, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Imagine browsing through the card catalogs of the Oxford University library in England, checking out Miami's weather or South Africa's political climate -- all from your home and for the price of a local phone call.

If you live in Baltimore or parts of Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, and have a home computer with a modem, you already can. Next summer, you ought to be able to do the same -- and perhaps a lot more -- from library computer terminals in all but the state's remotest sections.

The reason is "Seymour," a new state-organized computer network that allows Marylanders to access scores of public data bases, as well as Internet, a global network that reaches nearly 130 countries.

It is, in essence, public transportation for the Information Age.

Through Seymour, Marylanders will be able to rummage through all kinds of electronic files, from the practical to the esoteric. The system will link 86 percent of the state's libraries, providing access to about 140 card catalogs by early summer, organizers say.

Within a year, people in Easton should be able to track down a book in Hagerstown, make sure it's on the shelf, and then order it through interlibrary loan.

Users also will be able to access specialized data bases, including the complete works of Dante and Shakespeare, as well as Roget's Thesaurus and the Koran.

"We're offering people the world," says Barbara Smith, section chief of the State Library Network and Information Services.

Maryland is one of several states that have developed similar networks in recent months. About 30 public libraries in Morris County, N.J., began offering Internet access, along with census data and a ZIP code directory, in September. Early next year, Rhode Island plans to open a statewide network that will include bulletin boards for job-seekers as well as electronic mail.

Until recently, only librarians, their friends and computer aficionados knew about Seymour. Organizers named the system for a fictitious Labrador retriever, because it fetches information.

The state Department of Education as well as public, school and university librarians across Maryland have worked together to develop Seymour. A prototype of the network went on-line in July, but its telephone numbers have not been released to the public. Organizers are still trying to work out bugs and make the network easier to use.

Some people, however, have already found their way into the system. In August, 2,535 log-ons were recorded. The number rose to 3,750 in September.

Some users left anonymous comments in a file, critiquing the infant network.

'Fun to send sonnets'

"Fun to send Shakespearean sonnets to people," wrote one person.

"Makes me feel I'm getting something for my tax$," wrote another.

When Seymour opens publicly next summer, people will enter the network by dialing a local phone number through their home computers or terminals in most public libraries. Using a series of menus, they will then be able to "surf" -- computer slang for searching through -- the various networks, choosing items of interest.

Some day soon, you may be able to pull articles from hundreds of popular magazines, including profiles in Sports Illustrated and recipes from Bon Appetit. Stories from The Sun also may be available.

Patrons may have the option of printing copies for 5 or 10 cents a page or requesting a faxed version. How much access people have to periodicals and newspapers will depend on the cost of commercial data bases, which can run up to $100 an hour to use.

Librarians see the network evolving into a depository for all kinds of state and local information. For example, data bases might include an electronic version of the "Maryland Manual" -- the comprehensive reference book on Maryland government -- or a constantly updated list of bills before the legislature.

Computer specialists are now busy transferring files onto the network.

Based on available money, organizers plan to expand and tailor Seymour in the coming years to people's needs. For example, Mary Anne Hodel, chief of the State Library Resource Center, envisions a day when police officers could check bed space in domestic-violence shelters from computer terminals in their patrol cars.

Organizers, however, have a long way to go before reaching that level of service. They are spending $1.6 million in grants from the federal government to get the network operational. That includes at least $100,000 to train more than 1,000 staffers to teach citizens to use the system.

To keep expenses down, some librarians will teach themselves with manuals. System organizers say they will have to ask for state funds beginning in 1995.

In the long run, the network could save money and space. If a library wants an encyclopedia today, it usually has to buy all 26 volumes in hardcover. With the network, however, a library can buy the same information on a data base -- probably for less money -- while increasing availability.

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