Access to Digital Information In a Networked World
PUBLIC LIBRARIES IN THE INFORMATION AGE
If Andrew Carnegie came back to tour the nation’s 8,929 public libraries, he would observe the following:
- Users of all ages exploring not only books, but small discs called “CDs,” double reels called “videos,” and something called “the Internet”;
- Library rooms filled with pre-schoolers at day care and adults in continuing education classes;
- He’d find a select group of high school students spending up to 14 hours a week learning “information literacy skills”;
- And in his beloved city of Pittsburgh, he’d see a program designed to enhance school curricula through a “cybertour” of city neighborhoods.
At each of his stops, the journalist in Andrew Carnegie would prompt him to ask for the local newspaper. Among the stories he might find are the following:
- A recent report that half of America’s youth are at risk of not entering the mainstream of American life;
- An alarmingly high drop-out rate of high school students in inner cities;
- Continued violence among urban youth;
- A segment of America which can afford online services, numerous entertainment options, and a variety of new phone services; and another segment which is forced to choose between basic telephone service and cable, or neither;
- A poll of New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents demonstrating they know more about the mayor of New York City than they do their local politicians;
- A growing segment of the workforce compelled because of downsizing, mergers, and other corporate restructuring activities to learn new skills mid-career; and
- The “Internet goldrush”; i.e., the recent surge of Web advertising and appeal to the Internet’s large population of users with money to spend.
Given this mixed picture of America — its demographics, economy, education/literacy levels and labor market — one matter would be very clear to Carnegie: that many forces are transforming U.S. society and, therefore, the ways in which public libraries will play their traditional roles. These roles are: enhancing education, providing access to information, serving as a center for recreation, and building community.
Today, libraries nationwide are capitalizing upon new technologies and striking new partnerships with both community groups and government agencies to provide a wide variety of services. In pursuing these activities, however, public libraries face significant constraints. Public sector financing for all social services is being squeezed; new competitors are angling to provide, and charge for services public libraries provide for free; and technology is changing so rapidly that today’s investment is becoming tomorrow’s burden. Given these obstacles, the fact that public libraries continue to push the envelope is a tribute to Carnegie’s belief that information must be accessible to all.
On December 8th, 1995, experts in communications, economics, information and library sciences, public policy, publishing, and technology gathered at the Library of Congress to discuss the significance of these developments for the future of public libraries. The first-of-its-kind symposium was sponsored by: The Library of Congress, The Coalition for Networked Information (“CNI”), The Council on Library Resources (“CLR”), The Public Library Association (“PLA,” a division of the American Library Association), The Urban Libraries
Council, Libraries for the Future, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. These sponsors plan to continue and broaden the conversations begun at this symposium, thereby facilitating the efforts of public libraries to serve their communities in the Information Age.
This summary provides an overview of the day’s proceedings, including the interaction between panelists and over 100 attendees from the library community (public and private), education, foundations, and other interested groups. The summary is organized as follows:
- Implications of the transformation for the future of public libraries as well as society-at-large and why libraries are uniquely positioned to “grow” from the transformation and also help citizens benefit;
- Background and context for understanding the transformation (technological, institutional/market, social and political forces);
- Lessons learned by public libraries, including a few case studies; and
- A beginning agenda for promoting public library efforts.
PUBLIC LIBRARY CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES
In opening the symposium, Deanna Marcum, President, Council on Library Resources, noted how Americans, when asked about their view of the public library, have a “warm and often sentimental response.” Few citizens, however, think of public libraries as “keepers of democracy,” though it is a function public libraries have quietly served for decades. According to Jorge Schement, Rutgers University, “libraries are at the heart of the American conceptualization of democracy.” In fact,
as the nation enters the Information Age, libraries are one of the few (perhaps the only) local institutions raising consciousness about those who do not have access to information: the have-nots, the children whose schools lack computers, and those without information literacy skills. Public libraries are also attempting to provide some of the solutions.
The fact that U.S. public libraries are not only a product of American democracy, but are also an essential agent for democracy, sets them apart from libraries in other countries. In fact, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington identified four factors which make U.S. libraries distinct: the dynamic use of an ever-expanding body of knowledge; open access to that knowledge; libraries as expressions of communal unity around pluralistic collections; and libraries as public “shrines” to the culture and values of the book. These factors help us to assess the performance of public libraries. An analysis of these factors today, however, reveals a threat to that performance.
The dynamic use of knowledge in our society, said Billington, is challenged by “the flooding of miscellaneous unsorted, unverified, constantly changing information.” Instead of “rising up to wisdom and creativity,” he suggested, we may be “sinking down.”
Open access to knowledge is today tested by “the constraints” of public institutions and the fact that more people are coming to depend upon “highly priced equipment and highly priced services to deliver information.”
Libraries, as expressions of communal unity amidst the “pluralism” of both collections and users (i.e., the one place all citizens used to gather, no matter what church they attended, or which school they selected for their children), are “apparently threatened” by the idea that one can access everything without leaving home. As Billington noted, it is “a kind of deformation of the whole idea that there is a gathering place where people of different backgrounds seeking different answers, nevertheless come together.”
Finally, the public library as a “shrine” to the culture and values of the book is challenged by a culture which values the “passive spectator sport” of television-watching; or, as Billington observed, the substitution of the “bumper-car of emotion for the train of thought” upon which “the advancement of human intellect and society has been based.”
In this regard, it is important to note that many public libraries have already risen to the occasion through the provision of Internet access. This access is enabling libraries nationwide to offer an interactive alternative as powerful as the book itself: networks and networked information.
Why are the nation’s public libraries uniquely positioned to meet these challenges? Symposium speakers provided a range of answers:
- James Billington: Profound democratic instincts and a firm belief in the importance of knowledge is more deeply embedded in the library profession than any other.
- Joey Rodger, Urban Libraries Council: By providing access to new technology, libraries are in a unique position to create equity in accessing information.
- Hal Varian, University of California-Berkeley: Given the information overload (as well as material that is unwelcome or unwanted, such as cyberporn or fraudulent retailing material), public libraries can become “better bit bureaus” by evaluating and organizing information.
- Roscoe Brown, Center for Urban Education, CCNY: By providing access to the tools of language, public libraries help empower urban youth.
- Andrew Blau, Communications Policy Project, Benton Foundation: Public library strengths as public spaces and manifestations of the ideal of access provide a balance for the changes being generated by the digital transformation. And, public library involvement in creating audiences for information is even more important.
THE TRANSFORMATION IN CONTEXT
Amy Owen, State Librarian for Utah, observed that “the transformation in the public library context can best be understood as an unfolding process; something that is occurring within a broad social and institutional context. This is not a one-time event,” she pointed out, “there will be no finished product; certainly not in our lifetime.” In fact, it appears those who study such matters are only beginning to understand the many, interrelated technological, institutional/market, social and political forces now underway. A snapshot of those forces, as identified by symposium participants, is presented below.
The digitization of information (that is, the encoding of information in ones and zeros) and the ability to send that information virtually anywhere via the networked environment have particular consequences for libraries. The potential availability of information to a user regardless of his/her location calls the geographic franchises of individual public libraries into question. In other words, anyone who can reach a particular public library might be considered that library’s constituent.
The networked environment also calls into question whether the current paradigm of geographically-based public funding is sufficient, and how to interpret and apply legal doctrines in the copyright arena; i.e., first sale and fair use.
A second consideration, as several speakers observed, is the rapid pace of technological change. As Robert Croneberger, Director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh observed, public libraries which automated during the last decade now find themselves in need of client-server technology.
Another area of technological change relates to the dynamic nature of information products. Like consumers, public libraries must make judgments about investing in products and related equipment that might soon be overtaken by the latest product and equipment (e.g., tapes and cassette players vs. CDs and CD players). For the individual public library, the question is complicated by the ongoing need to make available a range of equipment that allows users to access any information product already in the library’s collection. Thus, the archiving function of public libraries, as Hal Varian pointed out, is made more difficult.
Further, as Brian Kahin, Director of Harvard University’s Information Infrastructure Project observed, technological change brings with it a type of paradox: “It overcomes barriers of distance, and overcomes personal handicaps.” Kahin also noted that the technology seems to “create new barriers of skill and the kind of equipment you can afford. It recreates very visibly a problem of information haves and have-nots.”
Finally, the relative ease of creating a home page on the World Wide Web enables virtually anyone to be a publisher or distributor of information, and thus a competitor to more traditional publishers and distributors.
Many of the technological advances described above are distorting what William Arms of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives calls the “strange equilibrium” of “complex motivations” among authors/creators, public libraries and members of the information industry. This equilibrium is in danger of breaking down, Arms asserted, because technology reduces the cost of distribution and the marginal cost of reproducing information to nearly zero.
In referring to the consequences of this unraveling of institutional and economic relationships, many symposium speakers used the term
“disintermediation”; the idea that one can deliver information, or obtain information, without an intermediary (such as a publisher or library).
Increasingly, success in the information marketplace may depend upon “re-intermediation”; that is, adding value to services rather simply focusing on producer/distributor chains.
George Needham, Executive Director, PLA (a division of the American Library Association), observed that the “technology revolution is creating a whole new way of looking at our society.” Echoing this theme, Jorge Schement identified “three overwhelming tendencies” facing public libraries in an information society: interconnectedness, fragmentation and community.
Increasingly, Schement pointed out, interconnectedness is achieved through impersonal interactions mediated by some form of communications technology. The typical household now has many types of devices designed to receive and/or process information, but no way to integrate the separated bits which stream into the home. Consequently, the information received is fragmented and without organic unity. Further, citizens know names and details about politicians in other cities or parts of the country (for whom they cannot vote), but know little about politics in their own community. The threat, said Schement, is that these three forces will move citizens away from informed democratic participation.
Public libraries are generally perceived as being institutions of local concern. However, the cornerstone document of the Clinton Administration’s National Information Infrastructure Initiative, Agenda for Action, implicitly pushed public libraries onto the national policy agenda. Kahin noted that the document appeared to merge the longstanding policy of
universal service (from the telecommunications industry) with the notion of access to information as institutionally embodied by the public library.
Another Administration publication, White Paper on Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure: The Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights, has fueled the debate on other issues of perennial importance to public librarians such as fair use, first sale and general copyright issues. (However, as Lois Wasoff, an attorney with Houghton Mifflin suggested, the copyright and licensing issues may really be the “scapegoats” of the larger debate over funding.)
CASE STUDIES: CREATING INFINITE RESOURCES IN FINITE SPACES
Generally speaking, public libraries nationwide are wrestling with two major issues:
- obtaining funding at a time when all public resources are stressed; and
- providing the type of local information and services needed by their constituents.
Referring to Pittsburgh’s “luck” in planning years ago for the automation of its library resources, Carnegie Library Director Robert Croneberger asked the following: “How will other urban libraries, how will other rural libraries, how will libraries across the country — many of them facing serious financial problems because of the extra burdens placed upon cities as the role of government changes — how will they get the funds and the expertise they need to meet this challenge?” Another concern is whether libraries will continue bearing these extra burdens alone, particularly as they relate to education.
Nationwide, public libraries are being asked to provide more services to schools, and to do so without increased funding. Further, as Los Angeles Public Library Director Susan Goldberg Kent noted, public libraries are reaching out to the educational community (e.g., deposit collections in classrooms, school visits), but receiving little support from schools in return. If public libraries offer public schools access to their electronic databases, she asked, who will fund and support these activities?
Organization of Local Information
Toni Carbo Bearman, Dean and Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Library and Information Science and a member of the U.S. National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council, observed that, “like politics, the information highway is local.” Yet, ironically,the gaps in the information network (e.g., information pertaining to bus schedules, jobs, food stamps) are largely at the local level. According to Croneberger, local governments lack the “expertise, funds and most importantly, the vision to produce, coordinate, collect and present local information for use on the network.” The importance of such information is underscored by the recent experience of the Genessee County (Michigan) Freenet. In developing the Freenet, the volunteer organizers focused their energies upon being first to offer up-front Internet access, and did not devote as much time to digitizing local information. With the arrival of commercial Internet access services, the Freenet is now struggling to compete.
Despite the funding issues and problems introduced by the networked environment, many public libraries nationwide are developing new partnerships and capitalizing upon the benefits of a networked environment to educate, inform and improve community relationships.
Diantha Schull, Executive Director for Libraries for the Future, noted how, in planning the symposium, it was difficult to select only a few speakers from the numerous examples of public library innovators nationwide. Schull also cited additional examples of public library projects as represented by members of the symposium audience: Newark, NJ, which is using grant funds from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) to connect residents to networked information through both its main library and branch libraries; Seattle, WA, which has created a new paradigm for organization of the public library around three interrelated Centers (the Center for Technology, the Center for Literacy, and the Center for the Book); and Newport Beach, CA, which is organizing forums on public access to culture through public media and new communications technologies.
Below are examples represented and discussed by speakers at the symposium.
Financial and political backing were key to the success of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s automation plan. The city raised $10 million from the foundation community and also received critical backing by local politicians. In fact, noted Croneberger, the Library’s plan to connect all 50 libraries within Allegheny County was a major selling point.
One of the most important lessons learned by the city, said Croneberger, was discovering the importance of tying the delivery of local information to the social services delivery system. As he pointed out, knowledge that there are 300 jobs in the suburbs is virtually useless to a city resident who cannot afford transportation to attend even an interview.
Los Angeles, CA
On the West coast, a partnership between the Los Angeles Public Library and the Los Angeles Unified School District is providing information literacy skills to 120 high school students who spend 12-14 hours weekly at the library. Now in its second year, the Los Angeles Unified School District Electronic Information Magnet High School is housed at the City’s central library.
Additionally, the Los Angeles Public Library has been working to create a virtual electronic library in each of its 66 branches through the provision of free public access to the Internet and to a wide area network linking all of its electronic resources. According to Susan Goldberg Kent, fundraising through the Library Foundation of Los Angeles has been key to supplementing public funding with private sector support. Corporations, she said, were impressed with her theme of “creating infinite resources in finite spaces;” i.e., the concept that children could find resources at the library that would enhance their school activities. This type of support from the private sector, she said, is key to leveraging support from the public sector, and vice versa.
The State of Utah
Three years ago, the state of Utah began providing Internet access through its statewide public library system. Today, 85 percent of the state’s population is served by a library that has such connectivity. As Director Amy Owen observed, “access to networked information resources is a great leveller of the playing field for public libraries.” In other words, the smallest library in Utah (serving a population of 2500) is not constrained by what it owns locally in providing information to its constituents.
The state is also experimenting with commercial licensing for various information products. Borrowing from a familiar advertising slogan (“just do it”), Owen stated her belief that libraries cannot afford to wait for the perfect model.
In a city suffering from an 11% unemployment rate (30% in the black community), the Flint Public Library is working to strengthen “fraying community relationships” by serving as a “mediator” of information. “We can, in fact, go out the world backwards, or we can move forward with a sense of community,” said Flint Public Library Director, Gloria Coles.
For example, with support from the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS) at the University of Michigan, the library has been working with four city agencies to provide networked, local information. These agencies are: the Salem Housing Task Force, the Flint Arts Council, a health agency and an agency assisting small and minority businesses. This effort has included the creation of individual agency home pages and courses designed around agency connectivity needs.
In the coming months, noted Coles, the library will be working with the city government in reaching out to urban youth in block clubs or street clubs. By providing laptops to these youngsters, the
library is “going to try to kick this to the streets,” she said.
TOWARDS AN AGENDA
According to CNI Executive Director Paul Evan Peters, the purpose of the symposium was threefold:
- to raise the visibility of public library capabilities nationwide;
- to place those capabilities into context with the global information infrastructure; and
- to develop an agenda to promote future efforts. With regard to this third goal, the day-long symposium provided many theoretical as well as practical items for such an agenda.
The sponsoring organizations developed this agenda (based upon the symposium proceedings) after the December 8th meeting.
All players in the networked environment debate — public librarians, government officials, members of the information industry — need to understand each other better. For example, the symposium itself generated a dialogue between an engineer and an attorney regarding the changed economics of the publishing industry.
Another task is to expand the perception of the public library as simply a place to borrow a book, and to change the notion that transforming the public library is merely a matter of automating what libraries already do.
For example, with matching grant money from the NTIA, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is working with local public schools and universities in producing a cybertour of early Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The Carnegie Library’s project, “Bridging the Urban Landscape”, means the library has assumed the additional roles of publisher, distributor and presenter of information.
Finally, the public library community must be willing to take on the “big” issues (e.g., what equitable access to information really means; defining the roles libraries can play in relation to particular constituencies). In this regard, a question posed by Croneberger was especially challenging: “What makes us think that this time we will have more success in providing information to that group of have-nots we all talk about than we’ve had success over the past fifty years putting books out there, putting information out there — what has made a difference?”
The symposium participants felt that networks and networked information do indeed offer a significant difference, and agreed that more work needs to be done to articulate and promote that difference.
Jorge Schement observed that public libraries are caught in “an ironic tension”: never before has information been so important,yet the experience and expertise of librarians do not generally figure into the debates which are shaping the information society. Libraries, said Croneberger must be part of the coalition that defines the next wave of issues (e.g., content, liability). The question then, is how to capture policymakers’ attention at time when other issues are equally pressing? As Lewis Branscomb, Chair, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University observed, influencing national action begins at the local level. “There is a constituency sitting out there which needs to be engaged,” said Branscomb. Selling those issues, said Roscoe Brown, may require tying them to issues already on the national agenda. “I urge you to think about the development and transformation of the public library in terms of the crisis that now faces our youth in society,” Brown said.
Keeping current with existing national initiatives is
another component of strategy. For example, the U.S. National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council will soon release a resource guide titled Kickstart, replete with public library case studies. In April, the NTIA is sponsoring a conference on barriers and solutions to providing access to public library services.
Also, libraries should keep posted regarding the Library of Congress’ ongoing National Digital Library program. With some assistance from the private sector, the Library is now “digitizing” existing resources for electronic distribution to public schools and libraries nationwide. “In delivering these materials by electronic means,” said Billington, “our purpose is to reinforce learning in the local communities; public libraries being the heart of the information system, having deep ties in the community, having a specialized knowledge of the communities’ particular information needs, particular knowledge base…the particular focal points at which the system will continue to work or will fail.” Billington sees the Library of Congress’s role as “a kind of wholesaler to local institutions which will retail knowledge and information in a variety of ways.” The Library will also soon be receiving new material in digitized form (films, music, encyclopedias, scientific papers, legal records).
New Economic Models
Joey Rodger noted that public libraries are often in positions of having demands exceed supplies for their services, most of which are free as a matter of principle. The libraries’ use of queuing and rationing to address these situations favors users with more time than money. They would rather wait than pay. Creating fee-based services which allow busy people to “buy” convenience ensures continued services for all. A key task for public libraries in the coming years will be revisiting the underlying economic assumptions of their service menus.
Another issue is whether libraries should simply try to cover the costs of providing those services where fees are assessed, or whether they should also use such fees to generate funds for services where fees are not assessed, as suggested by William Arms, Lewis Branscomb, and others.
Perhaps, as Rodger suggested, each community should script its own policy regarding which services are provided free, and which services are provided for a charge.
New payment systems might include pay-per-use, subscription, the Web model and other alternatives such as “view for free, pay to print.”
As an overall strategy, suggested Paul Peters, public libraries must continue to give and take with other, competing social programs, no matter how difficult and one-sided those relationships might be. It is also important, as Andrew Blau stated, that public libraries recognize they no longer have the exclusive local franchise on distributing information or providing electronic connectivity to their community. Freenets, cable television public access channels, local technology centers, and other outlets now provide similar services.
Several symposium speakers noted that as government responsibility for social program continues “trickling down” from the federal government, local governments must explore new financing alternatives. For example, citizens may prefer paying directly for certain library services as opposed to paying taxes.
Public libraries, as Joey Rodger noted, need to seek private funding beyond the one-time (single shot) nature of corporate grants. Further, the definition of what constitutes “private” should be expanded to include local business groups such as rotary clubs.
Throughout the symposium, speakers reiterated the need to retrain current library staff. Daniel Atkins, Dean of the School of Information and Library Studies (SILS), University of Michigan, discussed SILS’ four-year old program to address the
“reinvention” of “professional education for librarianship and information professionals more broadly defined.” Finally, Joey Rodger reminded the symposium that as new strategies are considered and models tried, library personnel must be retrained in a manner that “values” each person.
Though the challenges before public libraries are formidable, the opportunities are great. Said Susan Goldberg Kent: “I think that we are at the most exciting time in our profession; I think there are the most possibilities open to us.” “If,” as Robert Croneberger observed, “everyone agrees that libraries are the logical and best organizations to meet these challenges…then now is the time for that national commitment — now is the time for the funding, developing the expertise and pronouncing the mandates at the national level that will have to be done to make it so.” This symposium, and its follow-on activities, are first steps towards that commitment.