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State's online library reference service may be No. 1

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By Bill Zlatos
Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008

Pennsylvania's online library service has more than 125,000 users getting information without paging through a single book.

"In less than two years, the program is on target to compete for that coveted title -- most used virtual reference program in the nation," Mary Clare Zales, state librarian and deputy secretary for libraries, said at a news conference Monday.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak showed how the program, "Ask Here PA," works during a demonstration at the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

By chatting online, Zahorchak asked a librarian, provided from among 70 libraries across the state, to send the text of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Within seconds, the document popped up on a screen.

Democratic Rep. Paul Costa of Wilkins said he used the digital service to solve a Thanksgiving dispute with his brother, Sen. Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat, about cooking chestnuts. An online librarian named Jen linked him to a Web site that explained the Costas cooked the chestnuts too long.

"It was nice how Jen stuck with me the whole time until I found the answer I was looking for," Paul Costa said.

Services such as "Ask Here PA" have caused computer use at the Carnegie Library to skyrocket, said Barbara K. Mistick, president and director of the Carnegie Library. She said 80 percent of its terminals are occupied.

The growing use of computers does not make librarians obsolete, she contended.

"The complexity of information is so great today you still need someone to guide you through that process," she said.

Libraries face financial problems. Pennsylvania ranks fourth nationally in the amount of money it gives libraries, but the state's libraries rank 46th in the amount they get locally.

In addition to libraries, Zahorchak discussed education issues, including mandatory graduation tests in math, science, English and social studies. The regulations would take effect with the class of 2014.

He said he, the State Board of Education and Gov. Ed Rendell favor tightening a loophole that allows school districts to offer their version of a state test for graduation. A study by Penn State University will examine how well such tests meet state standards and how scoring compares across the state.

Zahorchak said the preliminary study by Penn State should be released in two months.

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