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Next time you point and click on a computer in a public library, know this: You're being counted.

The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is now keeping track of how many times users sign on to the Internet, information databases and word processing programs at all 52 branches in the system. The user data will show library officials which libraries have the most computer use, and how individual libraries increase or decrease in computer use over time.

That information will be a valuable resource, said Library Director Diane J. Chrisman at a Library Board meeting Thursday.

"It's going to show us how libraries are becoming useful and valuable to our communities in a different way," Chrisman said.

The library has counted other use patterns -- like book borrowing and enrollment in library programs -- for years, said Peggy A. Skotnicki, the administrator overseeing the effort.

The new measure is different, Skotnicki said, because it will let library officials tap into a whole new source of data: the kind that tracks people who use the library but don't take books home with them.

"This is our first little baby step in this direction," said Skotnicki.

So far, the data is being used to compare January 2001 with January 2000, when the data was first beginning to be collected. The initial January-to-January comparison shows computer use up significantly in both city and suburban branches and up 5.7 percent at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo.

But library officials caution that a small amount of data is not very reliable. The data will be more useful when it starts to accumulate in larger amounts, they said.

"I don't think it would be fair to have expectations yet," said Skotnicki. "It's a first-time assessment, so I can't really say if there were surprises or not. We didn't really have any expectations."

Chrisman, the library director, said the data will be the first of the new "performance standards" that the library promised to adopt when it scrapped a consolidation plan that would have closed 21 branches. At that time, last fall, library officials said new standards would be adopted to track usage patterns at all local libraries throughout the system.

"This is just a first step. There are a lot of other things we need to measure," she said.

In a related development, the Library Board voted to send to its planning committee a proposal by trustee James W. Burns that called for the creation of an ad hoc group to study a new proposal on the county's libraries by the Who Does What? Commission.

The commission, a task force led by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership at the request of County Executive Joel A. Giambra, has developed a plan that would allow local communities to buy into a county initiative to streamline the library system by building large new libraries and replacing older, cramped facilities around the county.

"This (proposal) strikes me as an opportunity to build a bridge into the future," said Burns, who suggested the ad hoc committee be formed of representatives of both the library and the commission.

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