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Two pioneers in the Howard County public library are attracting national attention with a computer system of extensive reference materials that county residents can reach through their home computers.

The system, INFO-LAN, was designed by library assistant director Norma Hill and head of information services Joyce Demmitt.

Although they installed the system three years ago, it has been available by home computer only since June. Visitors to the central library in Columbia can tap into INFO-LAN's 14 data bases using one of six computers there.

When the library closes, INFO-LAN becomes available to county residents with home computers.

The system offers indexes from eight U.S. metropolitan newspapers and more than 300 periodicals. It also provides reference texts and encyclopedias, academic papers, medical and business journals, and details on social service studies and projects by public and private agencies worldwide.

The library charges a one-time $50 fee to help cover the cost of the INFO-LAN package, which includes a 105-page users guide and software for IBM-compatible machines with a modem.

So far, about 100 county residents subscribe to the service.

The system, the first of its kind in a public library, now serves as a prototype throughout the country, said Howard McQueen of CD Consultants, a Baltimore-based computer systems consultant. McQueen, who assisted with INFO-LAN, is helping set up comparable systems at dozens of libraries, from Chicago to Detroit to Washington.

Visitors from Japan, the former Soviet Unionand Canada also have come to Howard County to study the system.

"What is amazing is that the Howard County library was so forward-looking," McQueen said.

Since 1989, Hill and Demmitt have traveled thecountry giving lectures to other librarians about INFO-LAN.

They began the project as novices. Neither had any formal computer training.

"There was nobody out there for us to model after, so it was trial-and-error, and that was the challenge," Hill said.

"You're looking at how best to provide information. . . . We recognized the technology and how it would work."

One goal, she said, was to eliminate long lines of library patrons waiting for access to individual databases. What used to be a week or more of research can now be done ina few hours because of the system's sophisticated cross-indexing.

The system was developed with private grants totaling $50,000. It costs about $16,000 a year to update each of INFO-LAN's 14 data bases. That compares favorably with the cost of storing and caring for comparable material in traditional paper format, Hill said.

"It not only saves money and storage space, but provides information that is much more extensive and current," Hill said.

It has been only in the last year that the data base market has really matured, and demand for computer networks has skyrocketed as a result, McQueen said.

Thesix computers at the central library that tap into INFO-LAN during regular hours are accessible by home computer after 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, after 5:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and after 5 p.m. Sundays.

Some county residents already depend on the new system.

Home computer access has become particularly valuable to late-night students and researchers as tight budgets threaten to cut libraryhours.

Fred DeMarco of Ellicott City was one of the first to signup. In recent weeks, he said, barely a night has gone by that someone in his family has not used the system. DeMarco's children -- three high school students and a daughter at Villanova University -- have used it to get information about prospective colleges and to study forresearch papers.

"You can plug in and get the latest information," DeMarco said. "The age of technology continues to amaze me."

Mike Panczenko, an electrical engineer from Columbia who is pursuing a graduate degree, signed up to get computer access to the library even before the service began. He uses it to do academic research and prepare business proposals from home.

"It's fantastic," he said. "I never had any problems with it. It is very user-friendly."

Though for now the library has stopped refinements on INFO-LAN because of county budget problems, Hill said she hopes to see further upgrades to the system, such as 24-hour dial-in service.

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