Everything's up-to-date in the library

June 30, 1996|By Elise Armacost

BALTIMORE COUNTY'S soon-to-be-retired library director and legend in his own time, Charlie Robinson, abhors sentimentality. So he won't like it when I say that I can't help feeling a twinge of nostalgia when I visit today's state-of-the-art, technology-laden, Bibelot-like public libraries. Why is that, I wonder?

It must be something irrational, connected to fond memories of growing up, of ''story times'' and whispered conversations with school friends across study carrels. The little Carroll County branch library that saw me through countless term papers and gave me my first real paycheck was pretty pathetic compared to the automated wonders of the mid-'90s. It was a long, narrow storefront, with pressboard shelves, stained yellow carpeting and a laboring air conditioner.

I went to work there in 1978, my junior year of high school, shelving books, writing overdue notices and pointing patrons toward the Harlequin romances. At that time we were still using a wooden card catalog and keeping track of which books were checked out by filing slips of paper stamped with the borrower's card number. In the early 1980s, soon after Mr. Robinson began the automation revolution in Baltimore County, we started putting bar codes on all our books, too. I didn't realize what a watershed it was.

Because libraries are information, no other public institution -- not even schools -- is affected as profoundly by the changes in how we receive and transmit information that have occurred since I helped carry that wooden card catalog to the back room. Educators are still arguing over the extent to which information technology should be integrated into the classroom; librarians know that, in their business, there is no argument. Technology must be integrated into libraries, or libraries no longer will have reason to exist.

Forget nostalgia. As the notoriously pragmatic Mr. Robinson says, libraries have to be run ''in response to what people really use libraries for.''

Besides good, old, old-fashioned books (which are more popular than ever) that means technology. People expect to be able to walk into a library and pop a CD-ROM into a computer. They TC expect to find someone who can show them how to navigate the Internet. All of this entails enormous difficulties and challenges for public libraries.

Why? For one thing, librarians are experts in the traditional library of books and periodicals, but not in the new electronic library. Their background and training has not prepared them to handle the latest electronic equipment and software with the ease and speed required to serve hundreds of adults and children daily. Libraries need training and/or an infusion of techie types who know more about motherboards than ''Moby Dick.''

Both cost money, which, of course, is the real problem public libraries face. Technological training, equipment and services are expensive. A single computer station, with terminal, printer and library-card reader, costs about $6,000. And the expense of being on-line to access the electronic reference materials is astronomical.

''When we were sold the Encyclopedia Britannica [as books] we were never asked how many people looked at it. They just sold us the book,'' says Linda Mielke, Carroll County's library director. Now, libraries are being asked to pay for such materials based on the number of people using them. ''It's breaking the bank.''

With governments strapped for cash, some systems, including the Enoch Pratt, are hiring fund-raisers to rekindle Andrew Carnegie-like philanthropy. The hitch is that private money often comes with strings attached and is not dependable from year to year. Gutting the traditional library is unthinkable, since most library business still involves books.

Unpopular answers

Charlie Robinson says the only answers are unpopular ones: cutting costs by eliminating under-used branches and increased imposition of fees. The sentimentality he detests makes the former politically untenable. It's why Baltimore has been unable to close any of the 28 Pratt branches, despite continuing shrinkage of the city population.

Fees are a different story. Many counties already charge for video rental, a move that has not discouraged video borrowing. Mr. Robinson thinks eventually libraries will have to charge out-of-county users, and perhaps even repeal the state law banning book rental. He sees nothing wrong with this, if it's a choice between funding libraries or, say, police. ''There are an awful lot of things government should do, and I'm not sure libraries should be at the top of the list.''

Others in his profession disagree. But Mr. Robinson has always had a knack for seeing in advance where libraries had to go. Government already asks people to pay extra for services they want, from trash pickup to senior-center activities. If reasonable fees are the price of adequate, up-to-date libraries, they'll pay.

I would. There's a time for nostalgia about libraries as they used to be. Not, however, when my daughter has a report due the next morning, or I'm desperate for a book to take to the beach.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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