Another form of cheap, public transportation on the Information Highway is coming to Baltimore next month through the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
For a few bucks, you'll get to use the Internet, jammed bumper-to-bumper with data, from scientific treatises to every Monty Python script ever written. And you'll be able to exchange electronic messages with people all over the world -- from President Bill Clinton to Microsoft's Bill Gates.
The Pratt's pioneering program is part of a plan to expand access to the Internet throughout Maryland's libraries, although statewide accessibility is at least a year away.
The Pratt will sell electronic mail access to the Internet for $35 a year -- a discount below prices charged by most commercial vendors -- according to a plan approved this week by the city Board of Estimates.
That service, which allows users to dial a local phone number to access the Internet from home as well as from 112 terminals in Pratt branches, should be available by July 18.
The $35 subscription provides one megabyte of e-mail space, about 250 typewritten pages. For $100, the Pratt will provide five times that space, as well as the ability to transfer complete files from the Internet to home computers and to log onto other computers.
"This is boundless," said Patricia Wallace, head of the Pratt's information access division. "This is a rich, lush paradise."
Minimal, no-frills e-mail service can be had for as little as $15 a year from some local electronic bulletin boards. High-end Internet service -- with enough space to send and receive e-mail the size of Moby Dick every day as well as full access to a global network of electronic data bases -- can cost as much as $25 a month.
"People are shopping around for [Internet] service and now the Pratt is another option," said Ms. Wallace, an avid bird-watcher who discovered a treasure of ornithological goodies at the University of Pennsylvania over the Internet.
Craig I. Nordin, a support technician for a commercial Internet provider called Charm Net, said it's too soon to know if government-subsidized access to the network will hurt the market.
(He was reminded that the advent of the American public library after the Civil War did not put book sellers out of business.)
"The Pratt's putting itself on the same table as us with quite a smaller cost than you'll get from just about anybody," said Mr. Nordin, adding that users are less likely to get a busy signal trying to phone into the Internet with more expensive private services.
"At the same time, this whole thing is exploding without slowing down. It doesn't hurt to get the whole world connected so everybody can ride," he said.
Part of the ride waiting at the other end of the Pratt's 24 off-site Internet lines is SAILOR -- free, state-subsidized access to the Internet available through Maryland libraries for the price of a local phone call.
The Pratt, whose Cathedral Street headquarters houses the SAILOR hardware, will be the first state library to hook the public up to the program. Libraries in Carroll and Baltimore counties will be close behind. Western Maryland is shooting to bring SAILOR on-line by the end of summer, with the Eastern Shore connected by the fall.
"You can travel all over the Internet through SAILOR without having an account, just wandering from menu to menu to look," said Barbara G. Smith, chief of the state library network for Maryland.
To do more than just look, however -- to grab information from the Internet and copy it onto a home computer, and perform a host of other electronic tricks -- will take an account.
The Pratt's $35- and $100-a-year subscriptions are considered cheap; each library system will set its own price.
Because the experience of most library patrons is almost exclusively related to books, the public will need some hand-holding to take advantage of a technological revolution, library officials say.
At the Pratt, two employees will devote most of their time to users of the Internet at 396-INFO.
Ms. Smith said it's not much different inside the library profession. "I spend most of my time explaining all of this to people."