Switched-On Books

Need a copy of Intro to Modem Lit? Look no further than Valleycat, Phoenix Public Library's latest shelf-help acquisition.

An offshoot of the computer card catalogues that popped up in several branches of Phoenix Public Library last winter, the Valleycat system allows computer owners to gain access to library listings right in their own homes.

In operation since July (during regular library hours only), Valleycat is similar to on-line catalogues already in use at the Tempe and Arizona State University libraries.

"It's the card catalogue for the entire library system, not just one physical branch," explains Ross McLachlan, technical services administrator for Phoenix Public Library. "It will tell you if a book is on the shelf or if it is checked out; if it is checked out, it will tell you when it is due." After determining what's available at which branch, high-tech bibliophiles simply call the appropriate library and request that the desired books be pulled from the shelf. The material will then be held at that location for several days or, if desired, can be sent to a more convenient branch for later pick-up.

Out-of-town and out-of-state computer jockeys will even be able to use the system to arrange interlibrary loans. "If you have our phone number, it's conceivable you could dial this up from downtown Rome," says McLachlan.

Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, library officials admit they have no idea how many people have the hardware to use the system, which was funded by a federal grant. "We think it's a high percentage, though," says McLachlan, pointing to one survey indicating that 40 percent of the employees of one branch own computers with modems. "Obviously, that figure may be a little high," he says. "Still, the number of computer owners who use the library can only go up over time." Computer jocks can pick up brochures at the library for information on Valleycat's telephone numbers and modem settings. (For the uninitiated: A modem is a device that uses your telephone line to link your computer with others.)

The computer catalogue currently lists over 1.7 million books, audio-video recordings and other material housed throughout the library system's 11 locations. And although not currently on-line, data on the library's collection of magazines, newspapers and government documents are expected to be added to the computer catalogue in the future. Currently, the Valleycat system can handle ten calls simultaneously, with an additional two lines reserved for users with Braille terminals. (In the latter setup, users listen to an electronic voice synthesizer "read" information off the screen.)

To prevent users from inadvertently monopolizing the catalogue, Valleycat automatically disconnects whenever a user's keyboard has been inactive for several minutes.

The service is virtually free to anyone who has the hardware to use it. "The only time this would cost you anything is if you happened to be calling from outside the library's dialing area," says McLachlan. Because the system operates over telephone lines, calls from beyond the metropolitan Phoenix area are billed to customers as toll or long-distance telephone calls. If you're one of those computer hackers who likes to burn the midnight oil, forget it. "Right now we don't have the staff to maintain the computer room 24 hours a day," McLachlan says. "After hours, the staff runs repair and management programs necessary to keep the system running on a daily basis. As we are able to increase staff, hours of operation may also increase." --Dewey Webb