THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY MAY LIE IN LINKING LIBRARIES WITH COMMUNITY NETWORKS
Democratic theorist Robert Dahl believes that citizens' ability to place their concerns on the public agenda is a cornerstone of democracy. With the Internet, inexpensive two-way communication is possible; potentially, everybody can become a producer as well as a consumer of information.
By providing free access to the world of ideas, public libraries are also at the foundation of a democratic society. In recent years, however, some people have begun to view the public library as an anachronism, an industrial-age institution in a post-industrial world. The reasons why some seem to doubt the relevancy of their libraries are political in nature - among them the apparent scarcity of public funds and taxpayers' free-floating distaste for anything governmental. Other detractors cite the increasing digitization of information and public librarians' outmoded role as peripheral, stodgy keepers and lenders of books.
Yet, public libraries have a natural partner in today's push to preserve a public sector in cyberspace: community networks. Now numbering in the thousands, free-nets, civic-nets, and other types of community networks owe their operational and philosophical orientation in large part to the public library model. Similar impulses sparked the imagination of the originators of both institutions: wishes for a democratic public institution that addresses the centrality of information access and communication to modern life.
Traditionally, libraries have primarily supported one-way information transfer, from writer to reader. (Two exceptions are library meeting rooms and various means of support for authors.) Yet, as a defender and upholder of democratic principles, the public library is the heir apparent to the role of defender of a dynamic Dahlesque public space in cyberspace.
While the need for new public space - inside and outside of cyberspace - is critical, the window of opportunity for creating new virtual town squares may prove narrow and elusive. For one thing, the commercialization of the Internet is proceeding at a disturbingly rapid pace, with for-profits' Web presence rising from 1.5% two years ago to some 70% today. Waiting on the sidelines for things to "settle down" or for an appropriate activist cyber-role to spontaneously appear is a risky strategy; such a course would leave public libraries at the mercy of others, and probably increase their marginalization.
Though public libraries were created when print was the only nonface-to-face communication medium, it certainly followed that public libraries would incorporate other emerging media, given the institution's underlying mission. Indeed, public librarians are pushing forward in a thousand creative directions, especially in regard to the Internet. For instance, Seattle Public Library has helped the Seattle Community Network (www.scn.org/ip/commnet/principles.html) in many ways, providing dial-up access, housing its computers, and distributing its brochures.
Community networks, in turn, typically offer free training, e-mail, and Web space to local organizations, small businesses, and individuals. In many cases, network organizers double as community activists, especially as advocates for public access to information and electronic resources. Community networks help focus attention on local assets and needs, and can provide an orienting function by aggregating information and communication resources into clear and easy-to-use services.
But the ultimate success of community networks is uncertain. Admittedly, community networkers are relative newcomers on the scene. They are usually amateurs with little experience in running public institutions, developing public policies, or understanding political realities. Volunteers currently perform most of the chores, and organizers are frustrated in their search for sustainable funding models. …