Pratt Library puts the public on-line

July 27, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's groundbreaking effort to provide free public access to the information highway begins today as Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library opens its gateway to the Internet.

The Pratt system is the first in a state-organized computer network called SAILOR that allows access to scores of public data bases, as well as to the Internet, a global network whose tentacles extend to 130 countries.

By dialing in with a modem, computer users can embark on an journey through cyberspace that can connect them with thousands of computer systems, library catalogs and other resources around the world.

For those in the Baltimore calling area, the cost is a local phone call.

The opening culminates more than two years of work by Maryland's Department of Education and library community to develop SAILOR.

The SAILOR network, which eventually will span the state, offers users access to all sorts of government information, from the Library of Congress card catalog to a copy of Maryland's "Lemon Law," which provides consumer protection for the buyers of bad cars.

Maryland officials hope that SAILOR, one of the most ambitious public Internet programs in the nation, eventually will become a huge electronic depository of state information, as well as a pathway to other systems.

The Pratt library is making available 16 modem lines for outside calls to SAILOR. That means only 16 people will be able to dial into SAILOR directly from outside the system at one time. Given the limited number of lines, library officials acknowledge that the network's debut could produce an electronic traffic jam.

"We think it will be very popular," said Pat Wallace, who is overseeing the Pratt project. "We won't know until the dust settles Wednesday evening."

Other library systems in the Baltimore area are planning to add local modem connections in the next several months, which should lessen the Pratt's load. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties plan to open 16 modems each in August.

Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties are expected to come on-line with an additional 16 each in September, providing a metropolitan dialing pool of at least 96 lines.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties should be up and running with SAILOR some time this fall, Ms. Wallace said. By June 1995, SAILOR should be accessible throughout the state by a local phone call.

"The thing people are most fascinated with is not having to pay on-line charges, and they're amazed at how they can maneuver through the Internet," Stuart Ragland, the Pratt's help desk manager, said of early test users.

The SAILOR system presents users with a friendly, menu-based program known as a "Gopher," named for the mascot of University of Minnesota, where it was developed. Gopher allows users to use simple keystrokes to navigate through the Maryland's databases and connect with thousands of other Gophers around the world.

Mr. Ragland said he expects a flood of calls as inexperienced users sign on, but he's confident he can talk confused beginners through the process.

"I'm getting really good at making earthly analogies," he said.

Users of other systems on the Internet can connect with the Maryland system by using SAILOR's Internet address, which is 192.188.199.5.

In addition to free public access to Internet databases, the Pratt is offering a fee-based Internet electronic mail service. E-mail is a messaging system that allows users to write messages of virtually any length to other Internet users around the world, ranging from college students and researchers to President Clinton.

The Pratt has two types of accounts. For $35 a year, users receive an e-mail address with one megabyte of storage space, enough for approximately 250 single-spaced, typewritten pages. For $100 a year, users get 5 megabytes of space, as well as access to "FTP," an acronym for "file transfer protocol." This enables users to retrieve documents or files from other computer systems and transfer them to their personal computers. In addition, they will have access to "telnet," a program that allows them to log directly onto other Internet systems.

Until now, Internet e-mail has required access to a computer system connected to the Internet, such as those at colleges or universities; an account on a commercial Internet provider, which typically runs about $25 per month; or a subscription to an on-line information system such as Prodigy, CompuServe, America OnLine, Delphi or GEnie. Commercial systems typically charge at least $9 per month, and some impose additional hourly charges or fees for Internet messages.

To receive an e-mail address, any Maryland resident may open an account in person at any Pratt library branch. Applicants will need to provide identification bearing a photograph. The library will send users their password through the mail. The Pratt has allotted an additional eight modem lines using a different phone number for its e-mail users, although they can also access their accounts from the regular SAILOR number.

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