In my neck of the woods, the general consensus seems to be that the Internet, and the sudden explosion of the Web, is going to be great for libraries and for those who use them. "Resources will be virtually limitless," the trusting voices say. "We can access anything we want."
I can't count the number of wide-eyed Web enthusiasts who have proclaimed within my earshot, "Even the Library of Congress is online!" Well, that's nice, but many people still misunderstand and imagine that this means they can read at will from the Library of Congress' extensive collection. They can't. If they want to read much more than a list of titles, they have to drive or fly to Washington.
Yet here in the States, the hysteria continues. Libraries are falling all over one another to put computer terminals where the card catalogues used to be, and to offer free 'Web access' to their eager patrons.
"Now that people can visit the library and find information on virtually anything," wired librarians gush, "everyone will come!" There are at least two problems with that statement. The first is that it has always been possible to find information on 'virtually anything' in a library, if you look in the right places. The second? Well, if the Web does eventually become a decent, reliable research tool, people won't need to come to the library at all. If they have a computer at home, they can find the same information, more quickly, without bothering to shave or put on a clean shirt. What television has done to movie theatres is evidence enough that most people will stay home if they have the choice.
Right now, the 'Web access' section of my local library is a haven only for those who have yet to buy a computer, but experts predict that we will all have computers at home soon enough. So who will go to libraries?
The homeless. In New York City, they already do.
And any human being with normal eyeballs can point out one more problem with all of this. The computer screen is no place to read, at least not for any length of time. Instead, the monitor is a great place to view vivid, snazzy graphics. There is a poignant section of Philip Roth's novel Goodbye Columbus where a young child sits in Stack Three looking at an oversized book of Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti. It is not at all clear if the boy can read, but it is obvious that he would prefer not to. Gauguin's sensual pictures are far more enticing than any text.
It seems somehow less poignant to see the same activity being performed in front of computer screens in my library, by Web-sters. But all of these objections can be answered well enough, I suppose. What really frightens me is something else. What really frightens me is Market Forces.
Eventually, if all information goes online, as is predicted, who will determine which information resources are accessible? Who will be the gatekeepers of information in the year 2050? I'm worried that it won't be my librarian, but rather the marketing team at Microsoft-Disney-Compuserve.
Market forces will determine what information gets packaged, what information gets dangled before the public, and what means will be utilized to make that information extravagantly seductive.
Wait one minute, you might say, that is true of the book industry today. Except that, when a book is no longer attractive, popular, or making money for the publisher, it has a second, long life in the dusty stacks of a library somewhere. But when a 'digital information resource' is no longer popular, making money, or holding market share, who is to say it will not just be erased from the master hard disk, freeing up those valuable electrons for something newer, brighter, more appealing to the consumer? If the corporate entities that maintain online resources aren't making money from certain information, where is their incentive to keep it available? Truth? Public service? Don't make me laugh.
I don't care how people get their information, I only know that the availability of this information is what makes us free. Turn over the availability to the wrong people, and it's Goodbye not just to Columbus, but to all of us.