Computerized information, videocassettes and other new technologies are available for a fee at a growing number of U.S. public libraries, spurring fears that the charges may be keeping low-income people "information poor."
"By charging for services, they are creating a dual citizen hierarchy," information scholar Jorge Schement said. "The library is enriching those who can pay and leaving poorer those who cannot."
Public libraries have long offered free use of books and magazines to people who could not afford them. But the tradition of free public use of information is being threatened as libraries across the nation look for ways to pay for electronic media and reference sources.
Citing tight budgets and new technology costs, librarians in Pasadena say charging fees was the only way they could add such up-to-date services as computerized indexes of magazine articles and statistical sources.
'Overly Concerned With Equity'
"Some libraries have had to choose between books and computerized information. By having a fee, we haven't had to make that choice," Pasadena research librarian Elaine Zorbus said. "I think the library profession is overly concerned with the equity issue."
Critics say fees for new technologies can lead to public libraries' offering two levels of service.
"I'm of the old school that if we have a public library, it's the responsibility of the public treasury to cover those costs," said California State Librarian Gary Strong, who thinks that free public access to information is "basic to our democracy."
But former librarian Peyton R. Neal, now a Washington, D.C., information consultant, thinks that public libraries should "re-examine the concept of total support from budgetary funds and seriously consider shared costs of support" from patrons who choose to use electronic reference sources for a small fee.
American Library Assn. head Thomas Galvin said his group thinks that "fees for services in tax-supported libraries are inherently discriminatory against the person who doesn't have the money to pay."
Pasadena users pay $10 to have computers search for electronically stored information, plus whatever the library pays for computer time. Most searches run between $30 and $45, Zorbus said. But fees could run as high as $400 for a custom directory, such as a listing of businesses in a certain ZIP code.
People doing electronic searches talk to reference librarians who scan lists stored in a central computer and communicate with the computer via a terminal hooked to a phone line. The computer quickly displays lists of sources, data and other information that could take days to locate by hand.
Reference books like the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, a magazine index, are used free once libraries buy them. But libraries pay private companies for "on-line" time searching their computer indexes. Some pass the charges on to users.
Since electronic sources often have more recent entries than print indexes, computer searches may yield better information than reference books on the shelves.
"Those who can afford to pay get the most up-to-date information. Those who can't are left with traditional library sources and get information that is oftentimes old and out of date," said Schement, author of a new book on information's social effects.
But Roger Summit, president of DIALOG, a company offering more than 300 data bases, said libraries never used a fund offered from 1976 through 1979 to reimburse them for use by low-income patrons. He called information discrimination "kind of a non-issue."
$12 Average Cost
Searches cost an average of $12, generate 10 to 20 citations and take five to six minutes, Summit said. DIALOG has spent about $300 million since 1972 to index, abstract, store and maintain electronic information, he said.
"What they are doing is offering a new service and it's private industry that is generating the data bases," said John Vasi, a university librarian who heads the Santa Barbara Public Library trustees. "People who spend the money to package it have to be paid."
In Minneapolis, public library users pay for custom computer searches, just as they do in Pasadena, but in Philadelphia they do not, Summit said.
The Los Angeles County Library may ask for approval to charge for custom computer searches at its 91 branches this fall.
"Being a public library, we don't want to create a situation that creates an information rich and an information poor," county adult services chief Winnie Allard said. "My recommendation will be to subsidize a portion of the search for the general public."
Allard's $50,000 annual budget for on-line searches pays for about 300 computer searches a month with no fees charged to the public.
California public libraries are prohibited from charging for library cards or other basic services. It's not clear whether access to computerized sources is a basic service.
"If it is a means of answering a reference query, like opening an expensive reference, our position is that this is a basic service," Strong said. "Where a person is asking for extensive personal services, it is far above what we would expect from a public institution."
Some California libraries get around the fee prohibition by renting books and records donated by local support groups or charging "insurance" fees for audio and video tapes. "That is an area that is very gray at this point," Strong said.
"Access to audio cassettes is especially important in cities like Los Angeles, where people spend long amounts of time alone in their cars," Schement said. "They could be listening to books read to them."
Although he doesn't think that the new fees threaten the existence of free public libraries, Galvin said, "I'm worried because the demand for information is growing at the same time the tax funds to support providing information are declining."