Maryland opens first cyber-library: A US state is giving free access from home or work to the Internet. Tabitha Powledge reports

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WE KEEP HEARING about the coming commercialisation of the Internet, the vast network of telecommunications networks that links an estimated 20 million computer users around the world instantaneously to thousands of electronic information storehouses, and to each other via electronic mail.

But some of its most interesting new developments tend instead to reinforce the Net's own strong cultural tradition that its information should be free. This month, for example, Maryland - one of the states that surrounds Washington DC - will become the first in the US to bestow upon its citizens a free connection to the Internet. The idea is that anyone with a computer and a modem should be able to get on the Net - from home, office, wherever - for the price of a local telephone call.

This project, known as Sailor, has created an enormous stir, including lots of jabber on the Net itself. But in fact Sailor simply fuses Internet custom with an equally vigorous, but much older, tradition of free information - that of the public library.

Sailor is a project of the Maryland library community, which sees it as simply an extension of its traditional task of making information available free to all comers. Maryland's is the first but, it turns out, by no means the only, state library system that is proceeding on that assumption.

Massachusetts hopes to launch a Sailor-type project in the fall. In fact, with the help of money from the electronically savvy Clinton-Gore administration, more than half the 50 states are exploring ways of connecting their local library systems to the Internet.

Of course, unsuspecting library patrons eager to experience the new world of electronic information are going to find that cyberspace is not much like the cool quiet of the local library, with its carefully organised shelves of exhaustively classified books. True, you can get books on the Internet - everything from two different versions of Aesop's Fables to Winifred Kirkland's The Joys of Being a Woman.

In fact, little-known Internet services such as the Online Book Initiative and Project Gutenberg, which lovingly scan and upload this eclectic array of free reading matter, so epitomize my notions of the best kind of volunteer labour in a democracy that I plan to leave them some money if I ever have any money to leave.

But the differences between the electronic and paper worlds begin to reveal themselves in that list of books. As in a conventional card catalogue, the list is organised alphabetically by author. Well, more or less. Computers like to sort a list on the basis of entries in columns, beginning on the left. Which is why Winifred Kirkland comes last, in the Ws, not the Ks.

But she is in good company - just after William James. You will find Oz books under L (L Frank Baum). Conan Doyle does not reside in the Ds, or Cs, or even the As, but under S, because he is - or was - Sir Arthur.

The truth is, of course, that even this disorienting form of alphabetising is pointless obeisance to an anachronistic card-catalogue tradition. An electronic list need not be sorted at all. If what you want is there, and spelled the same way you are spelling it, the Search command will unfailingly find it in a moment.

The irrelevance of alphabetising is not the only jolt in sight for library users who take up cybersurfing. On the Internet, resources mutate from moment to moment. Sites open and close, appear and disappear, for no discernible reason. There is no card catalogue. Authoritative, in-depth, highly reliable knowledge sits side-by-side with trivia and sometimes drivel.

On Sailor, for example, you can check the US Department of Commerce's Economic Bulletin Board for statistics: current business statistics, employment statistics, energy statistics, industry statistics, monetary statistics, regional economic statistics. Or you can check the Maryland Public Television schedule to find out which episode of Dr Who will be broadcast next Saturday night.

Even helpful information is likely to turn up in unexpected places. Navigate to the Internet site of the National Institutes of Health and you can learn how to apply for a federal grant to do medical research, hunt up an expert in the agency's telephone book - and get a weather forecast.

The Library of Congress's Marvel service offers, in addition to the Library's incomparable catalogue, a database of pending Federal legislation, plus connections to the offices of Sam Coppersmith (Dem) and John Kyl (Rep), two members of Congress from Arizona. Why only Arizona politicos have so far embraced this taxpayer-supported conduit to the voters is just one of many mysteries on the Internet. But Marvel is also a gateway to help-wanted adverts all over the Net, as well as to information about openings at the Library. When last I checked, the Library was trying to fill four jobs and the King of Thailand was reportedly seeking 120 mechanical engineers, some of them to do robotics research.

This has its charms. Who would not want a list of kosher restaurants in Sydney, Australia, or to download pictures of poultry from Texas A & M University? But, despite public libraries' desire to bring their long-held values to the Net, capitalism certainly lurks there, hawking its values too.

My commercial Internet provider was purchased last fall by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian tabloid-and-satellite-broadcasting magnate. When I logged on the other night, the official welcome message on the opening screen invited me to cast my ballot, yes or no. What were we voting on? Whether former football star O J Simpson was guilty of slitting his wife's throat.

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