By Jim McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 17--For centuries librarians have focused on organizing information. databases, videotapes, specialist magazines and other new media that debut almost daily.

``This is probably the most rapidly changing field in the world...What we're doing really is allowing people to communicate with each other around the world,'' says Toni Carbo Bearman, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Library and Information Science.

For many librarians the prospect of leading the public through the growing electronic maze and onto the Internet has recharged their careers. And as with most change, there is some grumbling.

``There are a lot of librarians out there who are grimly setting their teeth and saying I only have five more years to retire and then I can get out of this hell,'' says Randy Pitman, a former librarian from Bremerton, Wash., who publishes a newsletter for library video collectors.

Computer technology rapidly invaded university and specialty libraries like those found in hospitals and corporate research facilities, and generally speaking is coming more slowly to neighborhood and school libraries.

Today's librarian is as likely to tap on a computer keyboard, hand you a printout or computer disk, and click you into an on-line discussion group as to scour dusty stacks of books for the right call numbers on a book's spine.

``We're on the cutting edge,'' says Patricia Wand, head librarian at The American University in Washington, D.C. ``We're out there ahead of most of the population in terms of understanding how information is organized and how we can get at it through electronic networks.''

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is leading the way to computerize public library services in this region, electronically connecting its collections to Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and 50 community libraries in Allegheny County. This year the library made its first paperless transaction, locating an electronic issue of the Congressional Record on a commercial database and dumping it into a patron's home computer.

For librarians to lead the uninitiated onto the electronic superhighway, they first must learn themselves. To help them do that, The Carnegie has opened a basement computer laboratory where it gives classes to its employees and other interested librarians about using e-mail and about such things as navigating on-line news groups.

``It's stressful for everyone to move over from traditional sources to computer sources. Your job changes. The tools change. It changes what you do. We don't really know what all this means, in what directions we're going,'' says Don Wentworth, a reference librarian in the humanities department. ``Our primary concern is the patrons. It changes for them and it changes for us. We need to make the transformation as smoothly as possible.''

The Carnegie first computerized more than a decade ago with a system designed to help track and circulate its more than 1.5 million books available for checkout.

It is now looking for a vendor to supply a $12 million system that will expand the connection to other libraries in the county and allow patrons more access to catalogs, commercial databases, the Internet and a new local information service, the Three Rivers Freenet.

``The world opens up for everybody potentially,'' says Bob Croneberger, The Carnegie's library director. ``We can go into my computer now to take a look at cave paintings recently discovered in France or into the Vatican Library to look at some of their treasures. Before long, everybody will have that same access. It's all kind of incredible and it's changing overnight.''

The cozy C.C. Mellor Memorial Library in Edgewood with its ceiling fans and comfortable leather chairs seems about as far away from cyberspace as you can get. Push buttons not long ago replaced the rotary telephone and an electric typewriter is new equipment. There's no need to bring your library card because the librarians know their customers as well as the collection.

There's one lone computer terminal, however, on a desk behind the checkout counter. It connects Edgewood to the Carnegie's on-line card catalog and allows librarians, when they have time, to experience ``surfing the net.''

``If you don't get on the bandwagon with computers now, you'll be outdated pretty fast,'' says Sally Bogie, Mellor's head librarian. ``We'll have to know more about it and educate the public.''

Some resources are less costly to libraries in computer form than on paper. Joel Minnigh, the Wilkinsburg librarian, says it is cheaper, for example, to buy a national database of telephone numbers than to purchase the individual books from phone companies. Less precious shelf space is given up too.

But book lovers, have no fear. No one in the field predicts that books will disappear. For one thing, it would be prohibitively costly to transfer all the printed words on the shelves now into computer format. For another, who would want to doze off reading a computer screen.

``I don't think books will ever die, even though there's a way to get a full text on the computer screen,'' says Minnigh. ``There's something about being able to curl up in bed with a book.''

Younger librarians, of course, are way ahead of some of their older compatriots who grew up reading books, not operating computers. Jeffrey Trimball, a 33-year-old librarian who manages databases and controls bibliographic information for Slippery Rock University, sees a library generation gap and worries that he too could fall behind.

``It scares me as a librarian who is young and in this field. What's it going to be like in 10 years? Am I going to be outmoded and outdated like some of the older librarians?''

Librarians are overwhelmingly female and in many instances low-paid, although the American Library Association says starting salaries for librarians are comparable to those for public school teachers.

The Carnegie pays starting librarians with a master's degree $20,500. ``It's abominable, except that it used to be a hell of a lot worse,'' says director Croneberger. ``We lose an awful lot of people from the Pitt library school that we would like to keep because other places hire at a higher rate.''

A typical advertisement in the ALA's monthly magazine seeks a librarian experienced in administration and computer technology to head the cataloging department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The minimum starting salary is $25,000 and a master's degree is required.

People who choose the administrative side of the field often earn higher salaries - more than $100,000 at some of the largest libraries, according to the ALA, which predicts strong demand for librarians to replace a ``larger than average'' number of librarians who will reach retirement age this decade.

Men have traditionally held top jobs, but women are making slow but steady progress into managerial spots, according to Joanne R. Euster, head librarian at the University of California at Irvine. She describes her administration as an ``all-girl band.''

Salaries are a little better at so-called special libraries that serve the specific needs of corporations, hospitals, research facilities, government agencies and some academic institutions.

The median salary of the 14,000-member Special Libraries Association is $40,465 in the United States and $34,800 for the Pittsburgh-Johnstown-Altoona areas, says spokesman Mark Serepca.

The ranks of special librarians are growing as the proliferation of databases makes information more available.

Jim O'Connor was an engineer before he became a special librarian or, more accurately, director of an information center at Kennametal Inc., the Latrobe-based maker of industrial tooling.

O'Connor's department does more than manage and provide access to such information as internally generated sales and technical data. It also manages computer system technology.

More often than not, O'Connor says, he's asked to help solve a business problem rather than just provide information on demand. ``If I tell the corporation I provided 1,000 documents, that doesn't mean anything,'' he says. ``But if I tell them we participated in half a dozen major sales programs or that we helped solve five manufacturing problems which are going to yield X millions in sales - that's the difference between a library and an information center.''

Information technology helped turn the tide in a multimillion-dollar patent dispute involving Kennametal and a competitor. The case hinged on a book written in the late 1930s in Nazi Germany, and O'Connor figured he had little chance of ever finding it. But an on-line search located a copy - apparently captured war material - at the Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio.

``The book had never been borrowed. Ours was the first date stamp,'' says O'Connor. ``That book was worth millions of dollars. It turned out to be pretty important for us.'' END!B$3?PG-LIBRARY

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