Pratt library eases hunt for books

March 14, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The big display windows at Enoch Pratt Free Library headquarters on Cathedral Street are decked out this week with a quaint memory: a wooden file cabinet with drawers the size of index cards.

You probably remember it as the venerable card catalog, drawers stuffed with pieces of paper marked with book titles and decimal numbers. Tomorrow, the century's longest-lived method of finding books in the library becomes even more outdated when the Pratt goes on-line with a computerized index catalog.

The new system, about $1.4 million worth of equipment and software called PrattCat, will give the public access to nearly 2 million listings and more than 850,000 titles.

The electronic catalog, paid for by city and library board endowment funds, will be available at Pratt Central and its 28 branches tomorrow. By late spring, it will be accessible by home computer through an advertised phone number.

"It's a listing of all our holdings," said Jim Welbourne, the library's assistant director and the person responsible for Pratt technology.

"Unlike the catalog drawers, where you were out of luck if someone had pulled the one you needed or put a card back in the wrong place, you won't have to wait. We have 95 new terminals to provide immediate access for simultaneous use. You will be able to search and print at will," he said.

Other major library systems, such as Philadelphia and New York, began working on similar service in the past three to five years, Mr. Welbourne said.

Although the Pratt has been somewhat slow in catching up, it has benefited from the mistakes of other libraries that rushed to go on-line.

About $250,000 worth of software for the new system was purchased from CLSI/GEAC, a library technology firm based in Newtonville, Mass.

"This will be the [foundation] for all of our electronic services," Mr. Welbourne said.

"It will allow us to do community service and lead people to special projects and unpublished files which will start appearing in the catalog as it grows. Soon, there will be no limit on what you can ask for from the data base."

Library director Carla D. Hayden described the evolving catalog as "a work in progress."

Dr. Hayden has named Patricia E. Wallace, a 25-year Pratt veteran most recently in charge of bibliographic control, as chief of the new Information Access Division. As part of her duties, Ms. Wallace is responsible for the electronic catalog.

"We've found that people are taking right to it, that the screens are easy to step through and there's a lot of on-line hand-holding available if you get stuck," said Ms. Wallace. If a novice is more comfortable reading text on paper, there will be plenty of PrattCat instruction pamphlets near catalog computers.

And now a word about cats and dogs.

This summer, a new state-organized computer network called "Seymour" will allow Marylanders to access scores of public data bases, as well as Internet, a global network that reaches nearly 130 countries.

The Seymour logo is a Chesapeake Bay retriever. Library users will be able dispatch Seymour to get information, and Seymour will bring it back from a network linking 86 percent of the state's libraries and about 140 card catalogs.

The logo for the new Pratt service is a feline. Seymour and the Pratt "cat" will meet in the middle of the Information Highway by summer.

"We will have interface between the cat and the dog," said Ms. Wallace. "If you don't see what you want in PrattCat, you can use it to call up Seymour."

When the Pratt opened in 1886 -- the year the Statue of Liberty was unveiled -- its catalogs were published in hardbound books with titles arranged by subject and separate volumes for fiction listed alphabetically.

The transition to the card catalog that most Americans remember took place in the early part of this century, with each card written in script, later replaced by typewritten cards.

A second attempt to put all of the Pratt's holdings into hardcover volumes was launched in the 1960s, but it failed because of the expense and difficulty in keeping the books current. Microfilm followed, but it was unpopular because the screens were hard to read, the equipment often failed, and updates were slow.

Microfiche, considered more convenient than microfilm, came next, although some Pratt departments and smaller library systems continue to use card catalogs for dependable reference.

"But computer catalogs are the real gateway to search as deep as you want," said Mr. Welbourne.

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