THE Regional Council's public library automation project is well under way. When the last library is computerised at the end of November, it will be the end of a project that will have lasted five years and cost $92.7 million. ''We started to look at computerisation in 1988, when we set up a working party to investigate whether we should have such a system,'' said Lee Yuk-man the librarian responsible for computerisation. ''With five million transactions a year throughout the Regional Council's libraries, we had to explore ways of improving reader services.'' The working party was looking for a package that would cope with the large number of transactions, as well as the bilingual requirement. After preliminary investigations, the council asked computer vendors to tender for a contract to undertake computerisation and, in March last year, awarded the contract to Hewlett-Packard (HP). ''We were looking for an integrated system that included the hardware, software and maintenance,'' said Alex Ng the chief librarian. ''The system had to deal with circulation control and open access cataloguing.'' There are several obvious benefits to the public, including the reduction of time spent checking whether a book is available, and time spend queuing to take out or return a book. Other hidden benefits include better management information, which is passed on to the public through improved planning, and a more cost-effective service. For example, books may be returned at any Regional Council library once the system is fully operative. The project was undertaken with the minimum disruption to library operations. The mainframe computer was installed in the Regional Council building in September last year. Conversion of the 360,000 library catalogue cards to a computer bibliographic database was completed in January. The installation of the network linking all 25 libraries began last January and the first library, at South Kwai Chung, became operational a month later. During the same period, the library labelled its materials with bar-codes, and linked them to their records in the computer bibliographic database. Eight libraries have so far joined the network and the last of the 25 is due to come on stream at the end of November. Tsuen Wan Central Library is the first one to provide the on-line public access catalogue (OPAC), and it will test public reaction. Once any snags have been ironed out, OPAC will be installed at the remaining libraries by next March. Readers were asked to start re-registering for new computerised borrowers' cards in September last year, and nearly 200,000 people have already done so. Courses, comprising training by the software provider, professional in-house staff, and on-the-job training at libraries that have been computerised, have been set up for the library staff. Similar orientation workshops have been planned to acquaint the public with the new system. So far, the general response from the public has been good. The Urban Council has only just signed a turnkey contract with HP. However, it is likely that the two councils will co-operate in a number of areas, the most important of which will be the ability to use a library card in any library in Hongkong.