Level of Gvt: State
Problem/situation: While access to the Internet can provide important government information to residents of a state, most services are costly.
Solution: Maryland introduced Sailor, a program that allows Maryland residents to visit the Internet through the state library for free.
By David Noack
While state and local governments across the country continue to place information on the Internet, Maryland has become the first state to offer free access for its residents to the global collection of networks. The ambitious project, called Sailor, provides residents with the opportunity to tap into global, state and local libraries and databases brimming with information, news and research materials. Additional services, such as e-mail and file transfer, costs about $35 per year.
The system, developed by the Maryland Department of Education's Division of Library Development and Services, also offers access to more than a dozen libraries and research databases, community news, and state and local government information. Users can locate churches or child care centers in their area, find out if the book they're looking for is available and learn more about the Maryland Legislature or a particular state agency.
MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Residents - or anybody else with an interest in state government - can get historical, biographical and legislative information about the Maryland General Assembly using Sailor. There are also biographies of state senators and members of the House of Delegates. Information on a number of state agencies such as the Governor's Office, Public Broadcasting Commission and State Lottery Agency is available.
Sailor debuted last summer. The project was partially funded by a $2 million federal grant and officials are seeking ongoing state funding to maintain and improve the system. When Sailor is complete, it will be capable of handling 600 dial-in telephone lines and modems.
While library systems across the country are beginning to provide Internet access on a localized basis, Maryland offers statewide access for the cost of a local telephone call. Officials hope to have local phone access provided for the state's 3.5 million residents in 24 counties by this summer.
Examples of other libraries providing free or low-cost Internet access include the Morris County Public Library System in New Jersey, which last year inaugurated an Internet project called MORENET, and earlier this year, the Baltimore County Public Library began offering full service dial-up Internet accounts for a small fee, which includes e-mail, Telnet, File Transfer Protocol and access to the World Wide Web via a text-based browser called Lynx.
Because Sailor is overseen by the state Department of Education, many of its resources are geared toward education. "We are looking at how to get state budget and legislation action online," said Maurice Travillian, assistant superintendent of the state Department of Education.
Barbara G. Smith, Sailor project manager, said the system was designed with the public in mind. "Sailor enables Marylanders of all ages to begin to use the Internet. It is widely used in schools and many people dial-in from their home or office. Numerous colleges and universities make it available through campuswide information systems," said Smith.
Sailor grew out of a librarian networking project started in 1992 called Seymour, which was in response to a request from the State Library Networking Coordinating Council. In early 1993, the Computer Science Center at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP) suggested that a Gopher server be used to create a publicly-accessible Internet system, replacing Seymour.
Smith said that even though the name of the project has changed, the goals and mission statement - rapid, easy access to information - remains the same. "We learned a lot from the original Gopher at UMCP and that knowledge became the foundation for the current Gopher," he said. "We really like Gopher as a way to get this service started. It's friendly, most computers will work with it, our 56KBs network will support it, and we can load a variety of files we've begun to collect at the state and local level."
THE LIBRARY TREND
The continuing movement among libraries to offer Internet access is far removed from the original mission of the global computer "network of networks." The Internet initially started in 1969 as a defense and research networking tool to be used in case of nuclear war. The decentralization of the network - with no central access point or command center - made it difficult for a warhead to disable the entire network.
Over the last 25 years, however, the Internet evolved from its defense and research roots to where it's now used by an estimated 30 million people in a variety of ways, from e-mail and transferring files to accessing databases. What's attracting many new users, who usually gain access through use of commercial or fee-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs), is the vast amount of information and resources available.
While Sailor provides Maryland residents with a free peek into the Internet window of resources, some features common to commercial ISPs are unavailable unless an account is established. Travillian of the Department of Education said a main reason statewide Internet access was provided is to keep pace with the way information is rapidly being adapted to electronic platforms.
"The information used to be in books or in magazines and newspapers and the library collected them. It's now digitized," Travillian said. "The supply of our information is coming in a different form, [so] the library has to provide it in a different way."
One of the most popular features of the system is an employment database, which provides information on local, state, federal and private sector job opportunities. And as state and local government information is added to the system, localities view it as a way to promote their county or town to spur tourism and economic development.
"Some local governments are jumping on this," Travillian said. "Some counties have been eager to bring their information [online] and see it partly as a tourist thing that will help bring people in and also as an economic development tool."
Sailor project manager Smith said one of the advantages of providing access to the information superhighway is that people not accustomed to it are "amazed" by its capabilities. "Librarians have been organizing access to information for centuries, and now we are bringing those same skills to the Internet," she said. "At the same time, we are opening access for people who might not have the opportunity. We are leveling the playing field."
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