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Bookworms curl up in front of PCs

In a move that points to the demise of physical libraries, Singapore's National Library Board allows any Net-enabled individual to read a book on loan online.

SINGAPORE--If the television doesn't turn you into a couch potato, perhaps the Internet will.

In a move that points toward the demise of physical libraries, Singapore's National Library Board (NLB) is allowing any Internet-enabled individual to read a book on loan online. This is possible through the board's newly launched eLibraryHub, which, like the National Digital Library Program at the U.S. Library of Congress, is designed to place works in a digital format and deliver them electronically.

However, the online initiative is not meant to replace, but rather, complement the physical setup, noted NLB senior director of development Chan Ping Wah.

A $2.29 million development, eLibraryHub's digital catalog does not offer fiction titles. Its lineup includes some 10,000 reference books and 13,000 electronic magazine titles; in contrast, the U.S. Library of Congress offers more than 7 million items online, according to its Web site.

The NLB's online initiative is aimed at bringing convenience to Library-goers--many of whom are Web-savvy--as well as reach nonvisitors, Chan said Friday. As he put it: "If you don't go to the library, it now comes to you."

At eLibraryHub, registered users do not have to install any special software to read the 10,000 e-books, with topics ranging from gardening and health to business and finance. All they need is a Web browser. The loan of books is also free, although a maximum loan period of three weeks applies as it would at a physical library.

Besides reading books online, people can download some 13,000 electronic magazines and journals, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review and Harvard Business Review. Magazine downloads will cost about $1.40 each, and journal downloads will run about $2.80 each. Payments can be made via cash cards or credit cards. People also can set up an online debit account with the virtual library.

Another key feature of eLibraryHub is personalization. For example, someone could search for a certain title and park it on a virtual bookshelf so it can be easily retrieved when that individual accesses the site again. People can also check their offline and online loan status and outstanding transactions through eLibraryHub.

The NLB plans to eventually stream some 900 educational video and 700 CD-ROM titles, such as Discovery Channel programs, onto users' PCs through a broadband connection, Chan said. He could not provide a time frame or pricing details but said that multimedia services are offered at the physical library branches for about a penny a minute.

NLB embarked on the online project in March 2000 with information-technology solutions provider National Computer Systems, Web-services firm Aretae and community applications service provider CoolConnect.

Established in September 1995, NLB oversees the management of the National Library at Stamford Road as well as 20 community libraries and 45 children's libraries. It handled 25 million loans last year.

Staff writer Irene Tham reported from Singapore.