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
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. …