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Check Out the New Role of Public Libraries

July 15, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

While "Independence Day" movie audiences were watching aliens destroy New York, the city was actually being invaded by a far gentler crowd.

About 22,000 librarians were in town July 4-10 for the annual conference of the American Library Assn. I attended as a speaker on intellectual freedom and online censorship.

The theme of this year's ALA conference was "Equity on the Information Highway." Librarians are no longer just guardians of books, videos, CDs and other physical media. Many are now information specialists with knowledge of online databases, the Internet and, of course, the World Wide Web.

One new role for libraries is to provide Internet access for walk-in patrons. "Only 12% of American homes currently have access to the Internet or online services," said outgoing ALA President Betty Turock.

And that applies to all income levels. "When I talk about the information poor," said Turock, "it's not just the economically poor."

There were plenty of books on display in the conference exhibit hall, but many vendors were promoting CD-ROMs and online database services. Time Warner Electronic Publishing and Houghton Mifflin Interactive were displaying the same multimedia CD-ROMs and reference CDs that they market to homes and schools. Others, like Information Access, were promoting online databases, such as the full-text National Newspaper Index, that are aimed primarily at public, corporate and school libraries.

Microsoft ( was promoting its line of reference CD-ROMs, such as Encarta and Bookshelf, as well as its numerous Web sites. The company was also recruiting participants for the Libraries Online ( program, which is funded by Microsoft and administered by a division of the ALA. The program aims to research and develop "innovative approaches for extending information technologies to underserved communities."

For libraries, providing "equity on the information highway" means offering computer technology to the public. But it's more than just installing PCs, Macs, CD-ROM drives and Internet connections.

Librarians, as information specialists, have to learn--and teach--the finer points of computers and cyber-surfing. That means helping patrons use information-retrieval tools that provide indexes, abstracts and, in some cases, the full texts of thousands of newspapers, magazines and journals. In other cases, it means teaching people how to access the Internet and use Internet search tools such as Yahoo ( and Infoseek (

New York's Science, Industry and Business Library (, for example, has a public training center with 15 Macintoshes and 15 Gateway 2000 PCs. The day I visited, students were learning Internet basics. Another room houses 70 PCs and Macs that are all networked to the library's high-speed (T3 line) connection to the Internet. Even people who have PCs and modems at home can benefit from using the library's system. Accessing the Internet with a high-speed network connection, such as a T3 or T1 line, is many times faster than using a standard 14,400- or 28,800-bit-per-second modem.

There's also the issue of what you can access. Just as libraries have more books than you can possibly have at home, they also have access to more data. Sure, there's a lot of free information available on the Internet, but the companies that offer full-text information-retrieval systems don't give away their services. Far from it. You can easily rack up thousands of dollars of charges using such research services as Nexis ( or Dialog ( Many public, academic, corporate and research libraries pay fees for these services that they, in turn, pass on to their patrons.

The Los Angeles Public Library (, for example, subscribes to ABI/Inform, a database with more than 790,000 citations from more than 1,000 management, marketing and business journals, as well as 400 international titles.

The Central Library also subscribes to some full-text databases, such as Health Reference Center and Business Dateline. There is a database with citations from more than 1,600 general periodicals. Power Pages, a data service from University Microfilms International (, lets you print out the actual image of the full text and graphics from the pages of nearly 1,000 periodicals dating back to 1986. The library charges 25 cents a page.

Other library services allow you to view or download the full text of about 600 periodicals. The library permits its adult patrons to bring in their own floppy disks.

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