'Free Public Library' - Every Reader Owns a Share

Article excerpt

To a dedicated book lover, a library is a wondrous place. Walk through the door, and the pleasant, nose-tingling smell of paper and glue offers a silent welcome, a promise of the literary gold inside, waiting to be mined.

So many books and magazines! So many words filling printed pages and dancing across computer screens! So many ideas, waiting to inspire thought and provoke discussion!

No wonder those three little words, free public library, remain among the sweetest in the language - not only in English, but in any language.

Just ask the 5,573 librarians who traveled to Boston last week from 150 countries to celebrate libraries and to reaffirm the universal importance of free access to information. From Albania and Bangladesh to Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe, they came for the 67th annual conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

Wearing everything from Indian saris to African robes, speaking a multitude of languages, and toting book bags bearing the words Ex Libris, they filled Boston's huge Hynes Convention Center, a veritable United Nations of book lovers brought together by a shared passion for ideas and the written word.

To illustrate the growing universality of information, Alex Byrne, chairman of the federation's Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression, notes a milestone: In the last two months, the balance of information on the Internet has changed. Until now, the majority of that material has been in English. Now, less than half of it appears in English.

"English is still the largest language, but no longer more than 50 percent," Mr. Byrne says. He calls this "an enormous shift."

Yet, whatever the language, access to information, printed and electronic, can still be threatened. Last week, the committee issued its first world report on "Libraries and Intellectual Freedom," documenting the state of censorship in 46 countries.

Threats, Byrne explains, can come from people in political or commercial power who want to restrict access to information, and from religious and ideological leaders who want to impose their own world view.

In Kosovo and East Timor, libraries have been deliberately destroyed. Such destruction, he says, is "actually an attempt to destroy something that is a symbol of a community and tangible parts of culture - language, beliefs."

In France, political interference from French nationalists resulted in the removal of librarians in Provence. …