The Economist, August 27th, 1994: p. 14.: "Keeping libraries alive."
Modems should not completely replace shoe leather on the road to knowledge
WHEN Thomas Jefferson built an "academical village" in the rolling greenery of his native Virginia, he put a white-porticoed pantheon at its centre and filled it with books. The library's prominence proclaimed his revolutionary faith in learning and truth. In today's University of Virginia, a new revolution can be glimpsed. A modem and password let both faculty and students peruse thousands of volumes of literary, historical and philosophical works as well as reference texts, bibliographies, and even the manuscript papers of Jefferson himself. The texts are in a state-of-the-art database system; the readers are wherever they want to be.
The explosion of available electronic text (see page 71) may be the greatest change in learning since collections of books displaced oral traditions of storytelling. As such, it might seem to spell the end of the library. A world's worth of huge, digitised, downloadable, searchable databases will eventually be available anywhere you can get a dialling tone. All the contents of all the libraries, say some visionaries, will be everywhere. And the library itself will be nowhere.
As visions go, this is myopic. Just as there are storytellers in an age of reading, there will be libraries in the electronic world. Old traditions will live on, old paper will be stored until it rots. The thoughtful and the quirky will still want to convene in reading rooms. But libraries should not just be pleasant relics. They should have an active role as a place to get information -- particularly for those unable to afford computers, modems and the rest. There are several ways of trying to prevent the electronic age from widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Public libraries offer one of the better ones.
After all, forcing information providers to make their wares freely available to everyone would give them no incentive to put anything at all on to the network. The cables that bring pay-per-view films into the house will bring pay-per-view learning, too. And some people will not be able to afford to pay. For these people, a public library system should remain a basic resource for learning. It cannot provide access to everything; but it can provide access to a lot.
A network Monticello
The paradoxical point about this computerised world is that if access is not to be rationed by price, then another bottleneck is required: the need to go somewhere. People who want information badly enough to go out of their way for it should be able to get more free material than those willing only to click a switch at home. The journey is, in effect, a simple and workable means test -- as it has always been. Copyright holders have been willing to have their books available in public libraries, provided that nobody can copy them in their entirety. Walking to a library and being ready to wait to use a library book were, they thought, sufficiently inconvenient that those who could afford to would still buy their wares. So it should be with information on line.
It will not be possible to let people consult every part of the information network for free. Libraries will have limited money to spend on electronic data, just as they have limited money to spend on books. But by clubbing together to get good rates for unlimited access to a body of basic information, public libraries could provide a public collection available to all without fee. It would be no meagre thing -- probably, in time, far bigger than the current contents of most libraries. And it would be more than just a safety net for the have-nots. It would be a shared commons in cyberspace, available to anyone prepared to go to a library. lt would be the sort of useful democratic monument that the Jeffersonian spirit demands -- despite its lack of graceful porticos.
This article is copyrighted by The Economist, and reprinted here with permission.