When Information Stops Being Free

Article excerpt

LET'S GET one thing straight: I am not a computer Neanderthal.

I've used a computer at work for years. Well, OK, it's a word processor, not a computer. That should prove I know the difference between a real computer and a mere word processor. I also have a computer at home, on which I process words and play Carmen San Diego.

I thought that made me computer literate.

Then I talked to my friend Simon Igielnik. Simon is a nuclear physicist by training, director of medical computing at Washington University by trade, a Hood's discount shopper by avocation and hands-down one of the best brains I know.

Simon is one of those people - you meet them, now and then, at lumberyards, and (hardly ever) at universities - who can explain complicated subjects in clear, simple English without making you feel dumb. At least I have never felt dumb during one of Simon's boiled-down explanations of complex subjects: the S&L crisis, how air conditioners and H-bombs work or who's got the best deal in town on surplus toilets.

This time, he was talking about public access to information, the information highway and the place they intersect: libraries.

As a librarian, computer nerd and smart person, Simon is worried. He is worried about people having to pay for information that should be free. He is worried about democracy. He is worried about people who may never find the on-ramp to the information highway - Neanderthals like me.

In a nutshell, the problem is this, he said. Many books and government documents, once stacked on library shelves, are now found only on computer disks or in on-line databases that charge users subscription and/or hourly and/or per-item fees. Big computer companies (Mead, Apple, etc.) are taking what was once considered public information, adding convenience features and selling it. Government agencies may soon follow suit.

As more and more information becomes accessible only by computer, if you do not own one or the money to tap into on-line services, you ARE a Neanderthal.

Until the 1960s, there was a widely held notion that information was - and should be - free, Simon said. Anybody who wanted it could go to the public library and get it. It wasn't really free, of course. All those leather-bound books were expensive, but someone else paid for it. "Free" public libraries were the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh philanthropist (1835-1919) who put millions of his steel fortune into books.

But during the Reagan era, the era of privatization, that strongly held notion of public information began to weaken. …