Astor Library's computer catalog system helps you find a book and so much moreOnce upon a time, when manual typewriters were King and computers (gasp) hadn't been invented yet, there were such things as card catalogs. Found in every library, they were ponderous wooden cabinets whose labeled drawers contained alphabetically arranged index cards with information about every book in the building.

Fast forward to 2005, and find the Astor Library's card catalog in cyberspace, as close as the nearest computer that has access to the Internet.

"It's a whole new world. We are so excited," Astor Library Director Jane Tucker said of the library's new Web site and integrated automation system.

ON THE WEB (www.astorialibrary.org)The most exciting thing, she said, is that library patrons "are able to talk to us when we're not open and manage their own accounts." They can do that by logging on to the system at the library's Web site, www.astorialibrary.org, any time of the day or night in the comfort of their home or office, or anywhere else on the planet with an Internet connection.

There's even an option to e-mail the librarian with questions and comments and a special site for children, called KCweb, with access to thousands of pre-selected Web sites that are continuously monitored for safety.

Patrons can renew a book if it's renewable, browse the library's collection to see what books are available, see when a book is due to be returned, and even place a hold on it so they can be the next to check it out. They can conduct searches based on author, subject, title, publisher or series, and further refine the search to, for example, new items, books in a certain language, or books published in a particular place.

Tucker said it will probably take six months for library staff to explore all the capabilities of the new system.

'A really good deal'The city purchased the new system, called Library.Solution, from The Library Corp., a West Virginia-based company that's been selling library management products for more than 30 years. TLC beat four other firms that responded to the city's request for proposals.

"It turned out to be a really good deal," Tucker said. "For $63,000 we got a lot."

What the library received included hardware, software, two servers, four work stations, new printers and lasers, Web site development, data base management, installation and training, a next-day, on-site warranty for repairs and 24/7 support from the company.

Tucker said the Astor Library chose TLC over four other companies that responded to a request for proposals because its product, Library.Solution, was competitively priced, consumer-friendly and capable of being expanded for a potential cooperative arrangement with other libraries.

In addition, the company is committed to customer service. TLC staff came to Astoria several times to demonstrate and work with library staff, sent a technician to install all of the equipment and sent a trainer who stayed for four days to be sure there were no problems.

"They were willing to travel and answer questions," she said. "They were very responsive."

Because of that level of support, transition last month from the old system to the new one was graceful and relatively quick, and TLC's system has dramatically lightened the load for library staff.

"We dropped from 300 annual tasks to three tasks per week," Tucker said. The system also instantly solved a number of problems that had been identified by the library's board of directors. The board had written goals, Tucker said, and "TLC accomplished five years' worth immediately."

Kid-friendly systemThe bright green robot that's the icon for KCweb (KC stands for Kids Catalog) may be the most popular animated character since Sponge Bob. Little kids just love him.

Tucker said one father told library staff that when his little boy says he wants to go to the library, he actually means the Web site, where he can enjoy the robot's antics.

Clicking on KC's animated figure leads children to their own page, where they find five options, each with its own descriptive logo - Explore, Type search, Best stories, Find it and Events. Because search subjects are identified by pictures as well as words, the site is easier for young children to use.

Senior Library Assistant Patty Skinner is enthusiastic about KCweb. A certified teacher who holds a master's degree in information technology, Skinner's mission is teaching children of all ages to love reading. KCweb helps her accomplish that objective and is also a boon to classroom teachers and parents.

The ability to tailor searches to just the children's collection is a big plus, Skinner said.

In the future, Skinner expects local teachers to post homework assignments on the library's Web site, where students, parents and library staff can access them. Having that information will improve staff members' ability to recommend helpful books and reference materials.

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