Who Gets to Use What (and How All That Is Changing)

Article excerpt


Making the materials we collect available to all current and future users is one of the core values of librarianship. Librarians build and maintain collections to meet the research, teaching, educational, and recreational needs of our users. We have developed a wide range of services to maximize use of our collections, and we continue to develop new services as needs emerge or as technology permits.

What ensures that our users will receive equal access to our collections and services? Access is not just a collection or a set of services but a patchwork of interrelated elements that are linked to form the core concept of equity of service. What are those elements? What are the pressures on those elements?

Building collections, reporting holdings

Access to recorded knowledge and information requires that a library collect, organize, store, and preserve a wide range of material in all formats. The type and format of materials and the period for which libraries retain those materials vary by type of library. Research libraries build collections for current and future scholars. Public libraries more commonly collect materials that reflect their local constituencies and respond to demands for popular literature and audiovisual materials. Materials in school libraries reflect local curricula. Special libraries often build very modest collections and

respond to local demands by obtaining materials just in time, rather than just in case.

Acquiring materials is just the first step. Libraries share information about their collections with other libraries by cataloging in a timely manner and reporting their holdings to state, regional, and/or national union catalogs. In addition, many libraries are increasingly making their catalogs accessible via Z39.50 searching and/or the Web. However, some libraries are re-examining the need to promptly report their holdings to national union catalogs. The recent expansion of regional and consortial virtual catalogs may suggest that librarians are viewing timely cataloging and reporting to union catalogs as lower priorities, thus diminishing access to their collections.

Circulating our collections

Libraries acquire materials once for use by many. Access begins with a user being able to enter the building. Special libraries are more likely to be closed to the general public than any other type of library; but over the past decade many research libraries have also reluctantly limited access by unaffiliated users. At the other end of the spectrum, public libraries are designed to serve anyone who lives or works in their service area. In our increasingly electronic environment, many libraries are reporting decreases in circulation statistics and increases in onsite usage, probably because they offer readily available Internet workstations and access to full-text/image databases.

Circulation policies may be one area in which access to all is an unrealized goal. Does equity of access extend to any user, in any format, at any time? Many research libraries permit unaffiliated users to use materials on-site. However, academic libraries have long-standing policies that either refuse such users circulation privileges or charge a significant fee for them.

Should borrowing be free? Why do some public libraries charge a fee to check out a videotape but not a book? Why do libraries levy fines for overdue items? Does "equity of access to materials and services" translate into "freely available to primary users"? The ALA Library Bill of Rights notes that "the American Library Association opposes the charging of fees for the provision of information by all libraries and information services that receive their major support from public funds."

With the explosion of distance-education programs, libraries are being challenged to provide access and services to physically distant users and to make them equal to those available to on-site users. …