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Information At Your Fingertips

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Computer technology makes libraries more accessible to more people, says media specialist Patricia Cheek, who heads the school's center. Glancing appreciatively at the 15 or so students browsing through library files, she adds, "Students are so used to instant reinforcement; they're really turned on by how fast computers can be.''

In fact, the students like computers so much that many gather in the library during their lunch hour to spend extra time on them. Some do research. Others use the graphics programs to create drawings and artwork. Still others type papers using word-processing software. Some even know more about the programs than Cheek does. Once, a student interrupted her lesson on how to use the glossary of a Shakespeare database to point out a much easier way to find a definition.

Teachers across the curriculum regularly ask Cheek to teach units on research skills. Math teachers, for example, bring their classes in so Cheek can teach them how to use both computer and more traditional print sources to research famous mathematicians. She teaches them how to use key words to conduct an efficient computer search and how to use similar methods to dig information from books. But, she admits, "Students will choose a computer to retrieve things over a book any day.''

Cheek also teaches a one-semester class called Library Science. Attended primarily by college-bound seniors, the course covers research skills in depth. But regardless of whether students take that class, "you will not find a kid who graduates from this school who is computer illiterate,'' Cheek says.

In addition to bringing students to the media center, Cheek and Lathroum, the technology specialist for the Queen Anne's County public schools, bring the center to the students. The two have set up a network that links the media center to all of the computers in the school. (The school boasts a total of somewhere between 160 to 180 computers, some in classrooms, others in labs. "To be honest with you,'' Lathroum says, "I've lost count.'') Now, a student or teacher can call up library files and search through the card catalog or encyclopedias without having to walk to the media center. "It really opens up the library to the whole school,'' Cheek says.

Cheek and Lathroum are also trying to devise a way to bring the library into the students' homes. They have successfully tested a program that allows a student with a home computer and modem to access library databases. Unfortunately, Lathroum says, they still have to iron out potential security problems and devise a way to protect software copyrights. "If we can do that,'' he says, "then we'll approach the software companies about permission to do it.''

The media center has also opened new horizons for the school's rural students by bringing them into the fax age. Thanks to an agreement Cheek has with the state's interlibrary system, students who need articles that are not in the school's databases can simply fax a request to the regional library. And the articles can be faxed back; the school no longer has to rely on a courier system that, in the past, made the interlibrary process unreliable at best.

"Imagine a kid coming down here giving Pat the names of five magazines [to request through the interlibrary loan system],'' Lathroum says, "and then waiting two weeks and finding out that the articles didn't come in. Now, Pat faxes off the request and gets the article back in two or three days.''

The change, Cheek says, has really made a difference. "My kids don't have the option, like kids in Washington, D.C., to take their searches to the public library or local college,'' she explains.

Queen Anne's high-tech information system got its start six years ago, when IBM and the state of Maryland forged a two-year agreement to explore the use of networked computers in high schools. The county was one of five sites chosen to participate. The school district contributed approximately $70,000 to prepare the school and train teachers, and IBM supplied all the hardware--including 32 personal computers--and networking software. (For information about this hardware and software, call [800] IBM-2468, ext. 999.)

Since that project ended, the district has purchased more hardware for the school and participated in other IBM customer studies. Cheek and Lathroum are currently exploring additional ways to improve and expand their system.

And they're not alone. According to the American Library Association, school libraries have become increasingly computerized over the past three years. More than 20,000 use computers to handle book circulation, for example. But few have acquired the resources used regularly by Queen Anne's students. Indeed, Lathroum estimates that the school's library is among the top 5 percent most technologically advanced school libraries in the nation.

"Computers are here,'' Cheek says. School libraries that fail to invest in the types of technology that have revolutionized Queen Anne's High School, she adds, "are going to be places that are just not used.''

Debra Ladestro

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