Baltimore County libraries implementing computer learning stations for patrons Specialized software, word processing at 4 sites

December 09, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

From a small corner of the Essex branch of Baltimore County Public Library, Curtis Roberts can navigate a 3-D trip up the Congo River, visit the Taj Mahal or write a newsletter for a group of teen-age soccer players.

At 44, the Dundalk resident has broadened horizons he never dreamed possible -- all free, from a small cubicle on Merritt Boulevard.

Roberts is one of thousands of library patrons who line up and log on at computer learning centers in four county branches -- part of a national push by Microsoft Corp. to offer a slice of cyberspace in the territory of the book.

All 15 county library branches have Internet access, but the four learning centers also provide word processing and other specialized programs in low- to middle-income neighborhoods where many households don't have computers.

It's part of a computer trend sweeping the country that has the American Library Association pledging to see all 122,663 libraries wired to the Internet by 2000.

"We see it as a vital community service," said Jennifer Haire, manager of the North Point branch, where six terminals attract hundreds of users each month. "It's wonderful to see them use the library in such a way."

The county's learning centers are in branches at North Point, Essex, Arbutus and -- beginning next week -- Randallstown. The system also has two remote sites, at a young parents' support center and a Police Athletic League office in Essex.

Computer programs include an interactive guide to more than 20,000 movies, a 29-volume encyclopedia, Magic School Bus science programs, a gardening guide and Yellow Pages for every area in the United States. Patrons may use the terminals as long as they like, unless others are waiting -- then they are limited to a one-hour session.

Started in 1995 with a $250,000 donation of terminals and software from Microsoft, the learning centers have become so popular that administrators last year persuaded politicians to restore $200,000 to their budget for upgraded technology, said K. Lynn Wheeler, assistant director of the county library system.

With word processing and interactive software donated for the other 11 branches, Wheeler said, the library system is seeking ways to form private partnerships and install learning centers throughout.

"We have found that from the moment we opened the Essex center, it's been busy nonstop with people of all ages and cultures," Wheeler said. "They are using the computers for all kinds of things. It's an opportunity for a window on the world that's there in your community."

E. J. Woznicki, branch manager in Essex since 1995, said free access and general curiosity are the main reasons the computer center is in constant use.

"This is a place where they can go to experiment and learn," he said. "If they don't go to school, where are they going to get access to the Internet?"

Roberts acknowledged he was afraid to go near a computer until one day in February when he mustered the courage to log on.

Today, he and his 13-year-old son, Chris, work side by side browsing the Internet or compiling statistics for Chris' soccer team. A job-related injury has rendered him unemployed, and Roberts said he might return to school to prepare for a new career -- in a computer-related field.

"It's brought us closer," Roberts said of his son. "I've found computers simple -- more simple than I thought. I definitely want one in my home. I don't see how I've existed without one."

Tiffany Tebo, a 20-year-old student at Anne Arundel Community College, said she frequently does schoolwork on the Arbutus computers. "This is easy access -- and it's a nice environment," she said last week while working on a microbiology lab report.

Next to her, 18-year-old Alicia Ladd worked on a college research paper. "You can get all the information you need here," she said.

"The public needs this access," said library system director Jim jTC Fish. "A lot of people don't have PCs at home or PCs at work, and I think the public library has always been an access point. If you are incredibly wealthy you would never need a library -- we're just moving that into the 21st century."

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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