ASSOCIATES (vol. 3, no. 1, July 1996) -

Table of Contents

                         _RANDOM ACCESS_
                        Pat Gannon-Leary
            Head of Circulation/Systems Administrator

Is it a librarian's duty to adopt a credo of equality and non-
judmentalness, and to try to enfranchise as many disenfranchised groups
as possible since all deserve access to information?  Should we take on
the challenge to empower community members by provision of that access
and, thereby, a path to lifelong learning?  If we fail, it is possible
that the gap between the few haves and many have-nots will widen to the
extent that a small percentage of "intelligentsia" will control and
dominate our culture.  The issues involved do not belong to one societal
group - gays, women, minorities - but are basic human rights issues.
For this reason, it seems essential that librarians lend support to the
broader task of directing attention to libraries and intellectual freedom
issues.  Those who are currently training to become members of the
profession should be aware of such concerns, as many libraries are
offering more and more access to information via electronic retrieval
While we live in a society that promises instantaneous retrieval of
information via computers and phone, there are many occupants of that
society without access to phones - even for emergencies - let alone
computers.  When the media offer perceptions of computer technology
reaching 'everyone", they conveniently forget about the 70% of the
U.S. population who neither have access to, nor can afford, a computer.
Libraries in those areas occupied by the have-nots are often struggling
to provide the basics, keep the doors open, and buy books.  Being able
to offer access to technology is not likely to be among their priorities.
Equal access to technology is dependent, before anything else, on keeping
libraries open, adequately staffed, and having collections strong enough
to support people's technological endeavors.  An inadequate library
service is true injustice against people, whatever their ethnic
background, age, gender, political persuasion or sexual preference.
When book budgets, staffing and information technology are cut, such
financial pressures impose a defacto form of censorship.  Budgetary
concerns result in the introduction of fee-based services, especially
when such options are available for Internet end-users.  What has
happened to the public library tradition of free access to materials?
In the emergent digital library movement, can the provision of general
public access to the Internet be regarded as analogous to the free
public library movement of the 19th century?  Is the provision of
Internet access to the community comparable with information access
for the masses?
If one's right to read comes directly from the First Amendment right
guaranteeing freedom of speech, surely this right extends to electronic
as well as print media?  If this is the case, then we need sensitizing
to the information needs of special user populations in information
services.  So much of what we librarians do presupposes a level of
ability among our library users - ability to read, spell, know the
alphabet sequence we use.  These days we are also beginning to assume
a level of competency with computers.  All these factors need to be
taken into consideration when planning user education, but how far can
we cover factors that are considered to be "basic abilities"?
Increased effectiveness of staff in interpersonal skills and additional
help provided by special programs are factors contributory to equity
of access, since they reduce the extra difficulties faced by some of
our clients - for example, the dyslexic, the visually impaired, and
the computer illiterate.
Censorship and stock selection is problematic at aiming at equity of
access because of the many and varied interests and beliefs of library
clients.  What one customer wants to read may well be considered
offensive by another.  Do you acquire a book which may be requested
by one sector of the community at the risk of alienating another group?
How do you decide whom to please?  Is it possible?
Public libraries should try to cover as many areas of interest as
possible, and collection development policies exist to help make
rational decisions.  For example, a public library might purposely
buy insufficient copies of a controversial book for all its branches,
adopting a very free (and well advertised) hold-placing policy and
expediting delivery of holds to a requestor's branch.
The Internet can remove or bypass the censorship/selection activity
and collection development policies.  Is monitoring what people have
on the Internet our concern?  If the library provides access, via the
Internet, to a pornographic magazine, this might be construed as
"pandering" in some statute books.  The legal responsibility here is
likely to be with the library for providing such material rather than
with the patron for accessing it, although we may feel that the onus
of Internet use should be placed on the client - for example, with
parents being responsible for what their children read/view!
Another dilemma is trying to resolve the problem of our commitment
to offering access to our resources versus our responsibility to
protect materials and machines.  Dissatisfied patrons may take their
protest underground, vandalizing, stealing, hiding and tampering
with library material to which they object.  How do we prevent this
without undue pressure on privacy and freedom of access?
Librarianship is based on the civil liberties, principles of freedom
of speech, equal access to ideas, and due process.  Attempts to
limit the provision of materials undermine the ideology of
intellectual freedom underpinning public and academic libraries.
Libraries have the potential to offer a diversity of electronic and
hard-copy content.  While we may still be better at distributing the
latter, we need to look forward to how we perceive our role in
connection with the former.  We can champion better ways to sift
through electronic information; to develop criteria for evaluating
such information; and to facilitate equity of access.