Electronic libraries could be anywhere -- but not free

June 28, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Will America's public libraries survive the explosion of the Information Age?

Technology is the reason Atlanta was able to put libraries in public housing projects: a half-dozen cheap, portable electronic libraries where kids have been lining up after school to get in.

But technology -- and profit-minded publishers and information providers -- are also the reasons that Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library and the rest of the nation's public libraries may one day be "free" in name only.

The exhibit hall at the American Library Association's 112th annual conference here this past weekend was thick and noisy with talking encyclopedias, card catalogs dancing across colored TV screens, and sources of all the world's knowledge that looked as if they belonged in a video game arcade.

"Right now the public library is behind the technology information curve," said Sonja Gustafson, a Microsoft Corp. manager hawking the company's newest education software. "But there's still no single greater access point for information than the public library."

Such high-tech gizmos as Microsoft's "Encarta" software -- a 29-volume encyclopedia complete with sound, video, graphics and animation on a single compact disc -- sell for less than half the cost of an $800 set of traditional encyclopedias.

But where a neighborhood library would purchase a set of book encyclopedias and keep them on an open shelf for anyone to walk in and use, some electronic publishers -- fearing multiple access to one source of information may hurt their profits -- want to charge library users each time they use a computer terminal.

Ron Dubberly, a former Baltimore County librarian now in charge of the public library system in Atlanta, is thrilled that electronics allows him to put a library anywhere there are electrical outlets and telephone lines.

"We've put libraries in neighborhoods where children have no bucks," said Mr. Dubberly, who wants to put more of them in boys' and girls' clubs, senior centers and shopping malls and on the street corners. "We can't afford to build traditional branches, but suddenly we electronically expanded the walls of our system. That's equity and we couldn't afford it any other way."

But Mr. Dubberly sees a tough fight ahead to convince publishers of electronic information to allow libraries to pay for the product once and allow the public to tap into that information as often as it wants without charge.

"The companies want us to pay by the drink," said Mr. Dubberly. "What I'm trying to do is buy blocks of service for blanket access. The public library says that for the public good we'll buy the information and make it available to all, but the pricing structure for the new technology still has to be worked out. Right now, we're in the middle of the revolution."

At an exhibit of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (CARL), a group of Rocky Mountain libraries that sells access to its reference data base, Mr. Dubberly used a computer to call up an article from an expensive Washington intelligence publication.

At the bottom of the screen appeared an invoice: $11.50 for a service charge, a telephone surcharge, and the copyright fee; all of which would be billed to the library user if the user chose to print the article and take it home. The charge would be less merely to read it.

Mr. Dubberly wants to see libraries negotiate with companies like CARL to pay one-time fees so anyone could come in and print an article.

"As the library, I intend to pay for the article so you don't have to," he said. "If libraries are forced into a pay-as-you-go service, then we become a co-op for those who can pay instead of serving the public good."

Mr. Dubberly said that if governments which fund libraries don't move quickly to fight pay-as-you-go pricing private corporations will soon institutionalize the method as the only way to purchase information.

The public library is already a co-op, argued an official for UMI, a Bell and Howell company that acts as an agent between software publishers and libraries.

Because it is funded with tax dollars, the public library has never been free, said John H. Barnes, director of library automation development for UMI.

"The publishers are pushing hard for pay-as-you-go to keep from diluting their subscription revenues," Mr. Barnes said. "When anyone in Ohio can access a single copy of Time magazine from a central library, that scares the hell out of publishers."

Technology, Mr. Barnes said, is more expensive than traditional publishing and to keep up with that expense and still make profits, companies will pass the cost onto anyone willing to pay for it.

"The way to get around charging individual users is more funding from government taxes and that's unpopular," said Mr. Barnes, noting cuts in library budgets across the country. "Information will be provided less through taxes and more through individuals who use it."

As for the poor kids in Atlanta's public housing projects, Mr. Barnes said it would be wise for libraries to hold onto the books they have now.

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