Libraries and Access

A talk delivered at CFP '95
by Karen Coyle, University of California, Library Automation

Libraries are entirely about universal access, and have been for at least 150 years since the beginning of the free public library system.

Access to electronic resources has the potential to greatly expand the scope of libraries to materials beyond their own physical collections. This is particularly important for small and rural libraries with limited collections. We now have what the library world calls the "library without walls."

But electronic information also has the potential to be detrimental to universal access.

Nature of ownership of information changes

The free lending library is a product of the print world. Libraries purchase materials; and because of our copyright laws and the "first sale doctrine", libraries are free to lend the physical materials without limitation. The limitation is only on the copying of materials.

In the electronic age, rather than owning a "unit" of information (book, journal,article), the library typically leases access to information. The use of leased information is governed not by copyright law, but by the contract with the individual information provider.

This endangers the ability of the library to provide free access when electronic information is leased on a "per use" basis. A well-functioning public library lends the equivalent of two times its entire collection each year. Now imagine if the library purchased each use, rather than each book or report.

Even if the cost of individual materials should be less in the electronic future, it means that libraries no longer have fixed budgets, but pay based on the amount of access, something they can't predict at the beginning of a fiscal year. This makes it very hard for a public institution that is strapped for funds.

Where charges for access to particular materials are high, libraries may need to pass specific costs on to the patron, thus limiting that access to those who can pay - and that is not universal access.

The delivery mechanism for information changes

Electronic information is delivered to a computer in the library, not to the person. Except for isolated quick factoid, most library users want their information "to go." As soon as computers and CD-ROM workstations arrived in libraries, users insisted on the ability to print what they saw on the screen.

How should we deliver electronic information to the library user?

The Archival Function of the Library

Libraries are our archive of past and current intellectual output. Once information is released to the public by being stored in libraries, it becomes part of this archive. Our large libraries (university, research and state libraries, as well as the Library of Congress) specifically see their mission to retain copies of everything that has been published. This effort is coordinated through nation-wide databases so that libraries share the burden of archiving the "last copy."

In the age of "contract information", it is the publisher or information provider who retains the data: libraries are only temporary stations through which individual units pass going from the provider to the library user, and libraries do not/cannot retain a copy. So they can't perform the archiving function.

I'm not comfortable relying on the publishers to perform the archiving of their information: it is a costly and quite unprofitable activity. We lost much of our early film heritage because the producers of films did not archive their own works.

"Freedom to Read" or the anti-censorship function

Once an item is published and purchased by a library, it is in the hands of an institution that believes fervently in the public's freedom to read. Libraries fight censorship attempts by their communities, by their governing boards and by their users.

They also believe that patron privacy is necessary for intellectual freedom. The American Library Association considers patron records, the lists of what books a person has checked out, to be absolutely private. ALA instructs librarians who receive law enforcement (even FBI) requests for patron records to refuse to turn them over unless presented with a proper court order.

Will electronic information providers be as staunch in their defense of the First Amendment? This is doubtful. The library is the only institution that provides a full range information on a non-profit basis. The pressure to eliminate "controversial" resources from an information service could well result in censorship of a whole range of unpopular ideas if retaining these information resources threaten the profitability for an information provider. If libraries don't own the materials, they can't take the responsibility to fight the forces behind censorship.

What's needed?


I remind you that the library provides not only access to information, but also access to the library. Summer reading programs; literacy classes; a place for people to go that is public, quiet and supportive; community meeting rooms; story hours for children; after school programs; and, most importantly, a safe place to ask a question.

Whatever we do in the future,
whatever technologies we employ,
whether libraries are physical or virtual,
we must continue to provide that safe place.

©Karen Coyle, 1995
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.