Service puts library's help at your fingertips Computer, Internet access allow queries by e-mail


Ever struck by the midnight urge to remember who starred in your favorite 1970s movie?

Fear not. If you own a computer with access to the Internet -- and have a Baltimore County library card -- the answer is just a few keystrokes away.

In a month-old service that county officials say is a first for tTC Maryland public libraries, users can query the Baltimore County library by e-mail through the library's World Wide Web site and get an answer within 48 hours.

Homework questions, sports trivia -- it's all there for the asking, at least for those with county library cards. People without library cards, including people who live out of state, still can get information about Baltimore County, its government and environs.

"This is the lifeblood of what we do," said Nancy Reger, information project development manager, of the traditional librarian's role of answering patrons' questions.

The service is the latest county library effort to guarantee the library system's viability as computers become more common.

"We also see this as an economic development tool," said Lynn Lockwood, library marketing director. Someone out of state can learn about the county school system or crime statistics before deciding where to move.

Since the service appeared on the county's home page Nov. 4, about 50 questions have come in, ranging from one seeking the amount spent on the Baltimore school system in the current budget year to the cost of snacks and decorations for a typical birthday party in 1917.

(The city is spending $653 million on schools, and in 1917, a quart of milk cost 8 cents, bread cost 10 cents and a phonograph record cost 65 cents.)

The questions are answered by librarians in all 15 county library branches as they have time. Some people are advised to visit their nearest library to do their own research, if that's appropriate. That, too, serves the system's interests, Reger and Lockwood say.

"We like a neighborhood focus," Lockwood said. The system is )) designed to keep the neighborhood librarians in touch with people who live nearby. That keeps the system's workers from becoming isolated and may encourage new people to use neighborhood libraries, Lockwood and Reger said.

People at home computers may send their messages to the branch nearest them, using an electronic map of the county that shows each branch location on the screen.

An electronic form asks whether the information is needed for personal, school or business use; when an answer is needed; and the topic, such as real estate information, elected officials' names, addresses or phone numbers or population information.

The form provides space for the user's e-mail address and library card number. The form for noncardholders includes boxes for a mailing address and phone number.

Inquiries have come from as far as the Philippines, Reger says.

As for the potential popularity of the e-mail services, Lockwood said: "We can't wait to see."

Baltimore County library's Internet address is http: //

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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