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Intellectual Welfare

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I have been dipping a few toes into cyberspace, and while I have to do it with DOS because my access point is state of the art 1970's with no Mac access (real soon now) and I actually get physically sick booting the c> box, I gotta share one of the best posts I have ever seen.

It is called "Top Ten reasons the Internet will not replace public libraries" and was left by Andy Barnett on the PUBLIB listserv on March 12, 1995. I have taken the liberty of summarizing his tremendous post and providing my alternative statements. If I did not have to compose online at $0.09 per minute I perhaps would have done it there, but the Pine spell checker is no better than Works. Andy's remarks are in bold quotations. My responses, although perhaps bolder in spirit, revert to plain old text.

1. "The Primary use of the Internet is entertainment"
Why should the Net be different? Currently the public library provides more entertainment than information. All the public librarian need do is look at their video collection. After grade eight the masses are not interested in education, but the other e-world.

2. "The net will become increasingly commercial...As a system it will more closely resemble cable"
Even in Appalachia, where we now have 35 channels, there is very little to watch, even less of it informational. I am not proposing that public libraries become the A&E of the Net. I am suggesting that where there is demand, that citizens have access to their library through the Net. I also feel that citizens ought to have access to the Net through their library. Some libraries are heavy into local access cable. It scares me that libraries have become increasingly more commercial. Fee for service operations abound. Citizen Net access through the local public library may indeed evolve in such a direction.

3. "Use will be meteredŠIf you want to see the future of net access, read your cable bill then multiply"
Andy's point, and Jean Armour Polly and I have been through this to some degree, is that the Net is not "free." Those who have access where somebody else is paying the bill may or may not pay for that access.

Personally, I give my organization $10 a month for the time I spend doing e-mail with my charming daughter Rebecca, a full fledged Hawkeye with a free account. That is an estimate of the time I spend online. My brief experience tells me e-mail is not the killer, timewise, and full fledged surfing could impact my ability to get my handicap under 10.

I also think where you live makes a difference. Where access is local there are one set of problems. Rural areas, that must dial long distance for access, have another set of problems.

This turns my concerns into an "access" not a corporate profit discussion. The reason rural areas don't have access is because there is not profit in providing the service cheaply and reasonably. The tech infrastructure of the rural areas of this country is pitiful because nobody can make the appropriate level of profit.

My concerns can be simply put -- if you got it great, and if not, you need to have access to it. If that access comes because the local public library has the resources for same, then far out. Plan B sounds like the postal kiosks. Where is Ramon Zamora when we need him?

4. "What the Net does best (communication) is not a threat to libraries"
I would argue that perhaps the communications aspect of the Net is the greatest asset public libraries might utilize to improve and expand their communications with their users. Use the resource of the Net to provide access to their local resources -- information-catalogs, CD-ROMs, local files and more. I think the Net is also a natural to improve provide local communication concerning community events.

5. "Ease of use...It is easy to find entertaining things but hard to find real information"
As stated previously, I have to condescend to DOS to make my Net connections. Chilton's in paper can be pretty tough as well. My theory is that the better front-ends will survive and some of us will still use VisiCalc.

6. "Due to persistent security problems, nothing on the Net is authentic."
Was The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster (excuse my not taking the time to verify but relying on personal RAM has always been a fault) where Richard Brautigan wrote about a library full of stuff that no one else would publish? Freedom from the barriers of "traditional" publishing may be a blessing. I am not so sure how much Howard, or Rush, or the CIA (according to Harry Shearer) are on the straight and narrow. Me sainted mother used to say "Consider the source" and if life is nothing more than opinion I only want to draw the line between hackers doing brain surgery. Libraries are used to security problems. Stuff gets stolen all the time and pages are continually liberated altering the true nature of text. Even more frightening is the ALA study where only 70% of the reference questions are answered correctly. Librarian heal thyself.

7. "Better than paper?...Internet Hunt questions are carefully tailored to Net resources."
Scissors, paper, rock. I am really pumped about library stuff being available 24-hour a day. Pray tell we might even reach a different clientele.

8. "Copyright...Stephen King's word processor is not a Web site...The 2nd editions of the successes will be copyrighted and sold"
I am not suggesting that public libraries liberate anything. We have book budgets. Why can't (as many already do) have data budgets? How many of us are religious about the Title 17 disclaimer and borrow six items from an old periodical a year and face bibliographic purgatory?

For the most part public librarians try to give the patron what they want when they want it. If the Net helps, that's cool.

9. "Data costs and good data costs more. The free information on the Net has reliability problems"
My response to number six also argues to this point. Is the use of public resources to purchase access to electronic data a wise use of public funds? I think many of us have crossed this bridge with ROM's. Hannah will be next.

10. "Surfing is the right metaphor. Surfing is fun, good exercise. It may be cheap but it is not free"
So we generate our own sunshine. Create our own good waves. Make the library as much fun as possible for those who want to find it via cyberspace.

The supreme pizza of my philosophy is the concept of free access to the folks as a provision of library service. They may play their games and pay for the best. They may find many paths to the mountain. The role the Net plays in the future of public libraries is intellectual welfare. Those who don't have it ought to be able to get it at their public library, not their post office. Public libraries will never be all things to all people, no matter how much the American Library Association wants Congress to believe it. We can be a productive participant in providing stuff for folks. To me, that's pretty much what the Net is all about.

Eric Anderson, aka The Wired Librarian, is Director of the Ohio Valley Area Libraries.

See Also