Good news for library patrons: Paying a hefty fine for that overdue book soon may go the way of the rubber-stamped due date.
E-mail notification when books are overdue is one of many innovations to be introduced to patrons of 20 Westmoreland County libraries this year.
A countywide book and patron management database called Polaris took two years to design and install. The system brings Westmoreland in line with about 30 counties across the state that have installed book-sharing systems.
There are 34 federated library systems among the state's 67 counties. The systems share books and other resources, and many permit a card-holder from one public library to withdraw material from other libraries.
In the new Westmoreland system, there will be one card for all libraries.
Jim Hollinger, director of the Bureau of Library Development for the state Department of Education, said federated county systems have improved services for individual libraries.
"It makes use of the libraries transparent to the user," Hollinger said. "They can check out a book at any of the libraries, see what each of the libraries has and request the books -- all without leaving their house."
Denise Sticha, administrator of the Westmoreland County Federated Library System, said putting the database of library sources together was no small task -- and it remains a work in progress.
The information from the 20 participating libraries is stored on computers based at the Adams Memorial Library in Latrobe. All of the libraries access the database through high-speed Internet connections. Each individual library has been contributing its information to the database for the past year. Training in the new system is ongoing.
"In Westmoreland County we have a very diverse collection of libraries," Sticha said. "We have diverse communities. Most of our libraries are very small in size, and they have varied community support. Some of the systems were antiquated, and they didn't have a lot of features.
"We really needed to step up and embrace this new technology, but we couldn't afford to do it individually."
The conversion is expected to cost as much as $1.5 million over several years, paid for with a combination of state and local grants.
Sharon Peacock, director of the Trafford Public Library, saw that the library's 6,000 books were put into the Polaris database, which lists about 750,000 resources available from county libraries.
"We're totally ready for it," Peacock said. "We went live on Dec. 18. It's been great."
Peacock, who has been director at Trafford for five years, originally came to the library to assist with computer training and was immediately comfortable with the new system. That has not been the case at every library.
Public service desk assistants at the public library in Scottdale would only sigh when asked about the new system, but agreed that their concerns were more over start-up bugs in the system.
Past-due fines, for example, were listed as active fines in the system last week.
"That's one of our main problems is what's called database cleanup," said Sticha, who is based at the Murrysville library. "There's been a lot of inconsistencies in the records, and those inconsistencies are really apparent. One of our priorities is going to be doing a lot of data cleanup."
Patty Miller, director of the Scottdale library, said despite the glitches, she's excited about the potential for the new system. Scottdale also is building a new library building, a $1.25 million project expected to be completed in early August.
Miller said inter-library loans have picked up considerably since the new system went online.
"It's gone through the roof," she said. "We've gone from two deliveries a week here to one every day and we are just sending books out of here like you would not believe. …