The single CD-ROM-equipped computer in the venerable Essex library has been a hit with the preschool set, but the best is yet to come.
Starting late next month, the children might not believe their eyes. Essex is getting seven new computers and thousands of dollars worth of software as part of a $256,575 gift to the county from Microsoft Corp. of Seattle.
Essex is getting the biggest slice of the county's computer pie because it is one of the hard-pressed, older suburbs targeted in the county's new Community Conservation Program. Microsoft was looking particularly for lower-income communities for its program, aimed at helping people get access to the information revolution.
Microsoft and the American Library Association chose Baltimore County's library system and eight others nationally for a $3 million pilot program. The others are in Seattle and northeastern Washington; Charlotte, N.C.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Tucson, Ariz.; rural Mississippi; South Dakota; and Los Angeles.
Although Essex will get the new hardware, the donated Microsoft Windows 95 software and CD-ROM equipment will transform the computers in all 15 county libraries from electronic card catalog machines to Internet-cruisers ready for anything from perusing an electronic encyclopedia to writing resumes, word processing and sending e-mail.
"This is a tremendous breakthrough for libraries," said Lynn Wheeler, assistant county library director. Library information specialists will be able to do incredible feats of trivia research to answer the questions posed by everyone from children doing homework to barroom bettors.
Business owners will be able to do accounting and write letters, and computer-illiterate patrons will be able to get instruction from librarians by Patrick Fell, the county system's Towson-based expert.
The national program was announced last month, and the county was notified a week ago of its participation, library Director Charles Robinson said, praising Microsoft.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates believes that libraries are in a position to become a central part of the information revolution, county library officials said they were told. Libraries in disadvantaged areas are a perfect entry point for people who might not otherwise get a chance to use computers, Ms. Wheeler said.
The county's new system should be fully functional and available by February, when a formal public announcement will be made.
Essex patrons have seen a few books being moved to make room, and soon, said Margaret MacLeod, the assistant library manager there, they will see signs saying, "Watch this space."
The new Essex Family Computer Center's Gateway machines will be able to access any of 14 CD-ROMs, covering subjects from art to sports, a world atlas, an encyclopedia, magazines and children's educational games.
With federal grants drying up and county budget support strained, county library officials said they hope to forge a relationship with Microsoft that will benefit the system for years to come.
"Oh, man, we'd love to do that," Ms. Wheeler said.