We had a telephone call from a reader recently. "I've got a blackbird feeding a cuckoo in a nest in my garden - is it legal?" she asked. Public librarians perhaps encounter this sort of inquiry with greater frequency than academic librarians, but we all grow adept at the mental gymnastics required to guide the searcher to the information which will put their mind at ease. Similarly, when it comes to Internet provision there is little point in setting up a few machines and letting the public loose on them. Intermediaries will be required who know their way around sources of information, and who can shape half-formed inquiries into something coherent. Some may call these wired-up intermediaries 'librarians', but I prefer the term 'bipedal search-engines'. I suppose as intermediary transmitters of information, we are only a small evolutionary twist away from becoming Teletubbies. Uh-oh.
But as yet only some five to ten per cent of public libraries are connected to the Internet, and my branch is one of the 95 per cent. Remember school trips to the seaside? A couple of show-offs would run full-tilt into the North Sea and splash about noisily, and you would shout out, "What's the water like?" and they'd reply, "Brilliant! Come on!", so you'd run down and plunge in yourself, and it would be absolutely PERISHING. But what did you do? You'd turn around and shout to the others on the shore, "Yes! It's great, hurry up!" until eventually every one was chittering in the water, clutching their nipples and swallowing jellyfish.
The public library experience with the Internet seems to me to be still at the stage where a few exhibitionists are plunging about like the nutters who break the ice on the Serpentine on Ne'erday, while the rest of us are wondering whether to take off our mufflers. But what a good time they look as if they're having! Perhaps, and sooner than I imagine, I'll be cavorting with the rest of them, but first they'll need to smear my naked body with a liberal coating of rancid chicken-fat.
Where's it taking us anyway? Here's an illustration of customer behaviour. A mother and her eleven-year-old daughter are examining our rack of videos. The daughter brandishes an 18-cert sex-and-violence box.
"Can I get this one, can I, can I?"
"Ask the man."
The man, vexed that his career should have come to this, says, "That can only go out on an adult ticket." The mother produces her ticket, I issue her the video, she gives it to the daughter and says, "Happy now?" Thick as stovies in a bottle. We all know that some parents don't give a toss, and we all know that there is plenty of sleazy material on the Net. In July's Which? magazine, a reader wrote "Looking for GCSE exam boards I put in 'examination bodies' and got nudes." Parental control software is available, sure, but operating blocking software may deny adult users access to research material. The USA hangs itself as usual with the First Amendment invoking Freedom of Speech and claiming that censorship is unconstitutional. Over here we have an unwritten constitution so bugger knows what you can't say. So as well as being the intermediary for some users, we'll have to be class monitors for others. Assuming the hardware works. The latest managerial jargon talks of taking a 'helicopter view' of developments (no doubt if you have a wonky global strategy you take a Mir space-station view). Taking a helicopter view, there are some developments which make me willing to pull on my bathing-drawers. One which cheers me up is the prospect of closer links with other bipedal search-engines as a result of the activity of the likes of Project Earl, which is working to bring public libraries into the Internet community. And with some clout at last, since society's developments will be heavily dependent on electronically available information. Undeniably, in the words of Chris Batt (Public Library Journal vol.11 no.6), Cinderella service though libraries may have been, "We will go to the Ball; in fact the Ball could be ours." Am I dancing? Are you asking?