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Surfers hit the stacks

As kids go back to school, more students will pass up free search engines available on the Net for paid-subscription services.

Department stores do it. Stationery stores do it. Even shoe stores do it. But an online library?

In our digitized time, when more students are turning to the Net to do their homework, companies are targeting the lucrative back-to-school crowd. Like those who work in government and business, what students need is information that's fast and reliable.

Today, Infonautics announced back-to-school specials with discounted semester and annual rates for its service. It also announced that it has polished its online database, Electronic Library, making it more user-friendly and providing free searches that allow users to read a summary of the information before subscribing for full-text access.

Online libraries with searchable databases will grow more popular as people get increasingly frustrated with the often cumbersome, fruitless searches conducted on free Web-based search engines. In other words, library experts say, you'll get what you pay for.

As of July 30, the start-up announced that it has about 4,000 paid subscribers on the Web. While the numbers are not huge, Infonautics spokesman Robert C. Palmer fully expects them to grow as people log on to the Internet.

"We believe we're a compliment to search engines," he said. "Some people like to go and browse and search. They find that enjoyable." But, he added, "sometimes they want to get an answer right away...[then] they'll come to a site where they can get an answer to a question in minutes rather than hours. And they'll pay."

But Infonautics is only one of a growing legion of companies expanding online library archives. For example, Lexis-Nexis recently made its foray into the Web and plans to expand its Web-based services to smaller business clients, according to Judi Schultz, company spokeswoman.

America Online, already a leading provider of real-time information to more than 6 million subscribers, also understands the value of quick, reliable databases. In a deal announced yesterday, AOL will use technology from Personal Library Software to build search engines that allow simultaneous searches of publications on the site, said Dominick Stirpe, AOL's group director in product marketing. "We would have dozens of publications that we could search simultaneously," he said.

The Electronic Library database contains magazines, journals, newspapers, books, maps, and images. Subscription prices start at $9.95 per month.