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$87K grant boosts library technology
GARY PULEO, Times Herald Staff April 02, 2002
CONSHOHOCKEN -- Maxwell Smart would indeed be proud.
The Cone of Silence, once a running gag in the bumbling fictional secret agent's satirical 1960s TV show, "Get Smart," is now a reality and will soon get a tryout at several Montgomery County public libraries.

The original Cone of Silence consisted of two plastic bubbles that lowered from the ceiling to rest over the heads of Smart and his boss, Chief, allowing them to exchange presumably top-secret information without anyone else being able to hear.

At least that was how it was supposed to work, theoretically. In practice, any outlandish thing could happen, and the cone provided a longstanding gag for the sitcom's five-year run.

The new high-tech library cones, however, are no joke, being financed by an $87,000 federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant.

"It's a really neat idea," said System Administrator Maryam Phillips. "They're hemisphere-type clear plastic, almost like an acoustical device that you hang over a work station, which allow the sound to be contained almost in a vertical pattern, just where you're standing."

The cone is designed to deliver stereo sound and audio content to users without disturbing other library patrons.

The irony of the cone's presence is that "when you think about libraries, you typically don't think about work stations with lots of sound and speakers and people watching movies or videos, or anything that would deter from someone else's use of a computer right next door," Phillips mused.

Revolutionary gadgets notwithstanding, most of the grant money will be used to replace about 100 apparatuses of a relatively old-fashioned nature - computers, under the auspices of the Montgomery County Library and Information Network Consortium (MCLINC), founded in 1997.

"MCLINC is comprised of 22 public libraries throughout Montgomery County, and its primary mission is to provide a library automation system and automation services to those public libraries," Phillips explained. "We're looking at enhancing our public services, so the first thing the public comes into contact with is the public computer work station, where the online catalogue is found. Equipment gets obsolete after several years and needs to be replaced. What we're finding is the limitations of the older work stations complicate things and slow things down."

The Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library will receive the largest number of computers, 20 in all, with fewer being distributed to its smaller branches - Conshohocken Free Library, Royersford Free Public Library, Perkiomen Valley Library and Upper Perkiomen Valley Library.

As generous as it is, the current grant is only the second largest to be bestowed on MCLINC, Phillips noted.

"We actually received another LSTA grant in 1998 for a technology grant for $156,000," she said.

High on MCLINC's agenda is establishing a visual identity with its patrons, Phillips explained.

"Right now if you walk into a library and walk up to a work station you have no idea what it can do. Does it go out to the Internet? Does it just serve the catalogue? Is it just a word processor machine?"

In response to the confusion, the grant will help the libraries create color-coded custom desktops.

"Because our consortium goes across the county, so do our patrons. So patrons who go from MCLINC library to MCLINC library will be able to say, 'Oh, I was in Abington yesterday, and a green desktop got me to the Internet, so the same will be true here in Jenkintown,'" Phillips said.

"Part of our mission is to make sure that our libraries are continuing to meet the needs of our users and meet the needs of users who don't have computers at home."

Phillips would like to meet the needs of disabled patrons as well, with enhancements such as software for the visually impaired.

"If a Web site is coded for this, someone can touch a mouse over a link or word, and the mouse can actually read the page to the person," she explained. "It's really remarkable, and for the next level of technology we will have to in some way accommodate sound as part of all people's Web experiences."

Gary Puleo can be reached at gpuleo@timesherald.com, or at 610-272-2500, ext. 207.

ŠThe Times Herald 2002