DataNet connects library patrons 24-hour service ties homes, offices to various databases

December 07, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The Howard County library is selling a cutting-edge database service designed to enhance how the knowledge-hungry gather information while chiseling a new niche for area libraries.

For $85 a year, 'Round the Clock DataNet can connect library patrons throughout Maryland to 27 business and educational databases 24 hours a day in their homes and offices.

Heralded by library administrators as a one-of-a-kind information system, DataNet illustrates the changing role of libraries -- from free purveyors of books and periodicals to sellers of expanded technology used beyond the library's walls.

DataNet software links subscribers to the library's server computer and to a diverse collection of Internet sites and CD-ROMs that provide up-to-the-minute news of mergers, advice for overwhelmed taxpayers, even the latest issue of a confectioners' trade magazine.

The Better Business Bureau, Encyclopedia Americana Online and the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory are several of the resources available.

Daunting research questions -- more than 700,000 a year, library officials say -- sparked the library to update and expand its previous database service, which offered fewer databases and limited hours of operation.

"If you look at the growth of ownership of home computers, access to current, immediate information isn't a luxury anymore. It's a necessity," says Mary Volland, the library's reference supervisor who has been training users since DataNet was launched Nov. 12.

Jean Moon, a member of the Friends of the Library board of directors, says Howard County has belied libraries' reputation for lagging behind technologically by scrambling to meet the demands of its computer-savvy patrons.

"Howard County is way ahead of the field in technology," Moon says. "[Library Director] Norma Hill is much more sophisticated when it comes to technology. She's really pushed the library to be on the cutting edge."

After choosing which CD-ROMs and Internet sites to include, Hill and other library administrators received a grant from the state's Division of Library Development and Services to partially fund DataNet, which can be used for no charge at the Central Library in Columbia and will become available at its branches.

Sales of expanded products and resources by public institutions such as libraries have become common in recent years. Standard library services are still provided free, Moon says, but a fee must be charged for more advanced products and at-home access.

The fee, Volland says, is "a bargain by a long shot." According to the library, some of the databases cost as much as $1,500 a year, and all of them together would cost more than $10,000 annually. Giving access to them via DataNet is the electronic equivalent of letting library patrons check out expensive books with nothing more than a library card.

The library also hopes to turn a profit by selling DataNet. "We hope so," Volland says. "Some of these products are outrageously expensive. It can really run into big bucks."

The county's growing number of business owners -- seeking help with market plans and scouting competition -- persuaded the library to explore ways to update its resources.

"The Howard County business community is a very demanding community, in a good sense," Moon says. "We see them as one of our target audiences."

Some of the databases -- such as the Small Business Exchange, Disclosure's Global Access and the American Business Directory -- are geared directly to these investors and marketers. Other databases focus on social issues, current events and education, such as Ethnic Newswatch, Col-legeSource Online and several online newspapers.

Patricia Wallace, chief of the Information Services Division of Enoch Pratt Free Library, says other state libraries carry some of the individual CD-ROMs and databases that DataNet offers, but they don't package all of them or provide them 24 hours a day. Pratt, for example, offers Ethnic Newswatch on a walk-in basis, and Hoover's Online and Small Business Exchange on its Web site.

"What Howard County has done is a unique package of World Wide Web sites and CD-ROM resources, which will respond to a significant percentage of customers," Wallace said. "All libraries make a decision about packaging resources. They select databases that meet needs in their community."

Though anyone with a Maryland library card can subscribe to Howard County's DataNet, other area libraries may eventually provide competitive services.

"We have an automation plan that calls for a lot of things down the road," says Chip Old, network administrator for the Baltimore County library, which provides subscribers with Internet links, electronic-mail service and limited access to its server. "It's going to be something we're looking at."

DataNet will, though, complicate the job of librarians -- but in a way they anticipate eagerly. Volland says that when she began fielding research questions in the late '60s, finding answers was less complex than it is today.

"Back then, you'd know exactly which book would answer which question," she says. "DataNet expands the horizon, and it's forced us to be extremely creative. You just can't close the door as quickly."

For more information or to subscribe, call 410-313-7807.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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