Sal Amuquandoh sits on a high stool inside the Enoch Pratt Free Library and prepares to take a ride along the Internet. He is using the state-organized computer network called SAILOR that will provide him free access to information from around the world.
SAILOR was one of four innovative projects that yesterday received James Madison Awards presented by the Coalition on Government Information. Since 1989, the awards commemorating Freedom of Information Day have been given to "champions of the public's right to know."
SAILOR provides access to dozens of databases as well as to Internet, the global network that includes 130 countries. For additional fees, the user can send and receive electronic mail or transfer information files to a home computer.
The Maryland Department of Education and the state's public libraries used a $2 million federal grant to develop SAILOR. Named in honor of Maryland's maritime history, it took two years to get the program ready for its public unveiling at Pratt library last June.
SAILOR has since been expanded to eight other library sites around the state.
"It's real easy," said Mr. Amuquandoh, who as a first-time user of SAILOR said he had no problems getting on-line. He said he worked for a telemarketing company and was using the Internet to find models for a computer bulletin board idea that he has.
Michael Alan Goodwin, who was also at the library using SAILOR yesterday, said he had been using the link to gather information about potential subscribers to a magazine that he would like to publish aimed at the hip-hop music culture.
"It's not hard to use," said Mr. Goodwin, a graphics artist. "One of the library employees showed me the basics the first time, but I haven't had any problems. I've been here every day the last three days and stay on the system about an hour, an hour and a half."
But you don't have to go to the library to use SAILOR.
Anyone who has a computer equipped with a modem, telecommunications software and access to a telephone line can dial into the system through the public libraries in Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Cecil County, Harford County, Howard County, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County.
Barbara G. Smith, the state's SAILOR project manager, said the program is on schedule to have local access available in all 24 localities within the year.
"Installations have gone slower than expected, but I believe we will end up on time," she said. "We're pushing the envelope by using some of the local libraries' automated systems.
"Some had never planned to connect with the Internet. We had a lot of education to do."
Ms. Smith said receiving the James Madison Award was unexpected. "We're delighted," she said. "It's indicative of what we can accomplish. But while we're proud of what we already have made available in terms of public information, people haven't seen anything yet."
Arthur Curley, president of the American Library Association, said the award meant Maryland was ahead of the nation in having so much information available to the public.
"We're not going to see in our lifetimes everyone able to afford computer systems or have the skills to access the broader range of information. SAILOR helps provide equity on the information highway," said Mr. Curley, who is also director of the Boston Public Library.
The other recipients of the James Madison Award are the federal Government Printing Office, the Seattle Public Library and the Internet Multicasting Service.
The Coalition on Government Information grew out of an American Library Association project and includes 50 organizations, including the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Consumers League.