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Practical Homeschooling® :

Online at Your Library

By Scott Somerville
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #1, 1993.

Scott Somerville visits the library while sitting at home.
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Scott Somerville

How would you like to be able to search through the card catalog of your local library without ever leaving your house? (And without having your two-year-old take all the books off the bottom three shelves of the reference section?)

Many libraries now have their card catalogs on computer, and many of those allow anyone with a computer and a "modem" to dial up and plug in to their system. If you have a computer already, all you need is about $40 (and some technical help) and you can join the high-tech world of "telecomputing."

Once your child is telecomputing, he or she has access to a limitless world of ideas and people, without stepping outside your home. Interested? Then read on.

Learn Computers By Doing

People ask me how home-schooled children can learn about computers if their parents don't know anything about the subject. Well, who teaches kids to skateboard? Certainly not the average parent! Kids learn to skateboard by getting a skateboard and hanging out on the street. All a child needs to learn to master a computer is to get access to a computer and to somebody who knows what to do with one.

The surprising fact is that the computer itself can provide access to the people who know computers. Somewhere in your neighborhood there is probably a computer whiz who spends most of his time talking to machines but who would love to spend some time talking to people like you or your children. This person may already be in your local support group. Lots of home-schooling dads are programmers, and a number of home-schooled teenagers know computers inside and out.

I am such a person. I started out as a teen-aged hacker. At 13, I sat down in front of my first computer. Without any instruction except for a battered manual on BASIC, I plunged into the fascinating world of programming. In my math class at sixteen, I taught the required section on computer science to my prep school class because I knew the subject and my professor didn't.

Some of you reading this article are teen-aged hackers already. Have I got a business proposition for you! The home-schooling community needs cheap hardware and software consultants. Any home-schooled hacker with a driver's license should be able to sell systems, software, and support services for a lot less than Radio Shack. (Have you seen the discount catalogs?) You teenagers can provide exactly what a non-technical home-schooling family needs to raise computer geniuses.

Bopping with a Modem

What if you live on the backside of a mountain in West Virginia, and nobody between you and the state capital even knows how to plug in a computer? Assuming that you have a computer and can plug it in, there is still help available, but now it gets a little more complicated. What you need is a "modem." A modem is a "modulator/demodulator." It takes computer data and "modulates" it -- that is, it turns it into audible beeps and boops that can travel by telephone. At the other end of the telephone connection, another computer "demodulates" it, which of course means that it un-beeps and un-boops it and turns it back into computer data.

So we can beep and boop computer data over the telephone. So what? Well, the computer hackers of the world have set up the ultimate electronic hang-out for anyone with a modem -- the electronic bulletin boards. If you can get a modem, learn how to use it, and find an electronic bulletin board, you will have all the support you need. That sounds like a good goal -- but how does the non-technical home-schooling mom do all that?

Online at the Library

Your local library's card catalog is the ideal starting point for telecomputing. It is immediately useful to the average home-schooling family, and if you can plug into it, you have the technology to plug into anything.

First, find out if your local library has its card catalog "on-line." (That is, they let you call up and log in with a computer.) If they do, even the least technical mom should be able to plug in to it. (If not, do the following. Ask your library to consider going "on-line." Then ask them to let you know when they do. Then show your local support group this article, and ask them to pester the library, too. Next, file this article in a safe place. When your library joins the Twentieth Century, dig this article out and proceed to the next paragraph.)

Getting Into the System

Here is an example of how my library's system works. I use my $25 telecomputing software to dial 777-0003, and this comes up on my computer screen:

                   Welcome to the
              Loudoun Public Libraries
                   Online Catalog

You May Search the Catalog Using Any of the Methods
Listed Below. Choose By Pressing the Corresponding
Number Key. You may Request Assistance at Any Time
By Pressing the HELP Key.

   (1) SUBJECT
   (2) AUTHOR
   (3) TITLE

Finding a Particular Book

I decided to look for a book to help me teach my 10- and 12-year-old sons to program some games. I typed in "1," which starts a "Subject Search."

SUBJECT= [This is where I type in what I am looking for.]
   BROWSE To See Alphabetic Listing of Subjects.
   KEYWORD To Find Your Word(s) as Part of a Subject.
   HELP for Assistance
   START OVER Completely.

I typed in the word "computer" after the words "SUBJECT=." That line of the screen then looked like this:

SUBJECT= computer

The computer then displayed the following message for about three seconds


The following screen appeared:

Computability theory
1. FOUND UNDER: Computable functions.  2
2. Computable functions.  2
3. Computational complexity.  1  
4. Computer adventure games-Juvenile literature.  1
5. Computer adventure games-Software-Bibliography.  1
6. Computer-aided design.  2

Press Line Number(s) to Select One or More Headings.
Then Press BRIEF to See the Matching References.

   NEXT Page. 
   SEARCH HISTORY (to Enter Next Search.)
   HELP (for Assistance)
   START OVER Completely.

I remember playing computer adventure games from years and years ago. They were always pretty fascinating, and, as I recalled, pretty easy to design. This would be perfect for my two oldest boys to get started on! So I selected "4" to find out more about the one book listed under this heading. I had to wait about two seconds while this came up on the screen:

Please Wait --
Creating Selected Reference List.

Then the following screen appeared:

TITLE: Creating Adventure Games on Your Computer
AUTHOR: Hartnell, Tim.

Page 1 of 1
Branch        Call Number  Status 

   SEARCH HISTORY to Enter Next Search.
   FULL Record.
   RETURN to the HEADING BROWSE screen.
   HELP for Assistance
   START OVER Completely.

Unfortunately, I don't usually go to the Lovettsville branch of my County library system . . . but our librarians will cheerfully transfer a book from branch to branch. If I had driven to the library to look this up, I would have had to wait a whole week, or drive across the county to the other branch. With a computer hook-up, I know what I want, and can make sure it is where I want it when I go to the library.

I decided to look at the "FULL" record on this book, just in case. Here I had to consult the brochure my library gave me to see what key I press to get "FULL." No big surprise -- the brochure said to press "F." I pressed "F."

                    FULL RECORD

                              Page 1 of 1
AUTHOR: Hartnell, Tim.
TITLE: Creating Adventure Games on Your Computer
PUB INFO: AUTHOR(S): Tim Hartnell.
EDITION: 1st American ed.
PUBLISHER: New York : Ballantine Books, 1984.
DESCRIPTION: xii, 196 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
SUBJECT 1: Computer adventure games-Juvenile literature.
SUBJECT 2: BASIC (Computer program language)-Juvenile literature.

   SEARCH HISTORY to Enter Next Search.
   COPY Availability.
   RETURN to the HEADING BROWSE screen.
   HELP for Assistance
   START OVER Completely.

So! The book is about creating BASIC programs! Now I was really happy, because that is the only programming language that comes with our computer. If the book had been about some other computer language, I would have been in trouble. As it was, this looked like the perfect book for my project with my boys, and all I had to do was call my local library and ask them to get it from the Lovettsville branch. Then when I went to my local library, it would be waiting for me.

First Steps to Online Independence

If your library has an on-line card catalog, ask them for their brochure on how to use it. If they don't have a brochure, ask them how they expect non-technical people like yourself to be able to use the system. This should make them so ashamed that they provide you with a free expert to hold your hand and tell you what to do. (This is a lot better than a brochure!)

You will need a modem. These can be ridiculously cheap. I have heard of some for as low as $19, but better ones run about $60. If you already have access to a computer whiz, he can set you up for very little money. If you don't, ask your local Radio Shack or other computer store what they would charge to install a modem in your computer. If they do it for you, hand them the brochure from your library and make them show you how to dial up the library card catalog. If you can log onto it from the computer store, you can log onto it from your school room.

How Useful Is All This?

My wife plans her unit studies while the baby is napping. She says it doesn't save her much time, but it saves an enormous amount of frustration. She always knows in advance which books are on which shelves of which branches of our county library system. If a book isn't on the shelf of the branch we normally use, she calls ahead and the librarian orders it through interlibrary loan and has it waiting for her.

When we first hooked up, our kids spent hours browsing through the card catalog. Since the novelty has worn off, there is still a big advantage.We make our children search on-line for several good books, using bibliographies like Honey for a Child's Heart and Books Children Love as guides. They used to get to the library, grab one brightly colored book off the shelf, and sit right down to read it. Now they are choosing books by their content, not their cover.

With a modem, and children who know how to use it, the world is at your fingertips. You'll discover database services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and Genie which charge around $7.00 a month for on-line access to anything, such as electronic mail to all subscribers, encyclopedias on-line, every newspaper article published in the last ten years, computer shopping, and so forth and so on. There are electronic bulletin boards, where you can log on and get free games, chat with other hackers, and find a computer pen-pal. (Key-pal?) Even college courses are available over the wires.

The home-schooling community needs a nationwide network of kids communicating with kids. Such a network does not exist yet, but it is coming. Each family that breaks into this new world of telecomputing brings us one step closer to a world where every home-schooled child is just a keyboard away from thousands of friends and all the tutors he could want.

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