LIBRARIES HOPE TO MAKE YOU GO 'WOW' New cards can buy services, pay fines

Yvonne Bates thought the dollar she paid for her shiny, new plastic Baltimore County library card yesterday was a charitable donation.

Barbara Montfort was a bit suspicious of the high technology she was buying as she paid for her card at the Cockeysville branch during her lunch break.


"I'm at that unfortunate age when anything that's different, I look at as an inconvenience, but I'm trying to take a more mature attitude," the 59-year-old teacher said with a smile.

The new WOW (Window on the World) cards they purchased are harbingers of the computer age in Baltimore County's library services, officials said at yesterday's ceremonial introduction in Cockeysville.


Although they're used in some academic libraries, officials said Baltimore County is the first public system in the country to use the cards, which work something like Metro fare cards.

Patrons put cash in a wall-mounted machine, which electronically registers the deposit on their WOW cards. When they pay library fines, use the copying machine, make computer printouts or rent video tapes, patrons can use their new cards instead of cash.

To encourage their use, the library is offering discounted prices to WOW card patrons, at least for the time being, said marketing coordinator Kathleen Reif.

Patrons using a copying machine will pay only 15 cents per copy with the card, compared with 25 cents in cash. Video rentals will cost $1.50 with the card but $1.75 in cash, she said. In addition, the library will add a nickel to the card account for each dollar a patron adds.

The new cards actually became available at four branches on Sept. 20, but the software operating the wall machines that activate them didn't work until last week, delaying the official introduction until yesterday.

The Cockeysville, Randallstown, Essex and Towson branches test the system this month, and it will be installed in all 15 branches by late next month.

Ms. Reif said more than 4,000 WOW cards have been distributed over the past several weeks without significant complaints from users.

Library director Charles W. Robinson said card payments will be used to offset the cost of paper, ink and printers for the library's new, enlarged computer system. The cards will eventually be the only way people can pay for computer printouts, which are now free for the first 25 pages.


By January, the county plans to have the hub of its $1.7 million Tandem computer system installed in the basement of the Towson branch.

The new computer will replace the system the library uses for its catalog and circulation and allow it to enter the electronic information age.

While users of the current system can access the catalog and the World Book Encyclopedia, the new system will enlarge the information data base to include a community information file, a national newspaper index, a data base of full-text magazine articles, health information, financial reports, additional encyclopedias and other reference works, Mr. Robinson said.

Patrons seeking traditional catalog information as well as the new services will use the existing terminals in library branches, which display the information on a computer screen. But for patrons who want a hard copy, the new computer printers will accept WOW cards only, and each printed page will cost 10 cents.

Within the next few years, the new system will allow the library to offer its data base to home computer users over telephone lines, but Mr. Robinson said the library hasn't decided how it will charge for remote access.