Public Librarians and Community Networkers:
A Marriage Made in Cyberspace?
Seattle Community Network
By providing free access to the world of ideas public libraries are at the foundation of democratic societies. In recent years, however, some people have begun to view the public library as an anachronism, an industrial-age institution in a post-ind
ustrial world. Is this view correct? Is it time to retire the public library?
Some of the challenges facing the public library are "political." An apparent scarcity of public funds and a free-floating distaste for anything governmental belong on this list. The increasing cyber-spacification of information is also perceived as
a challenge. To those who view the library as nothing more than a keeper and lender of *books*, the library seems irrelevant, peripheral, and stodgy. This essay addresses the second point only; How public librarians can work with new community network org
anizations to help do with electronic information and communication what the public library has done with print media.
Public libraries were created when print was the *only* non face-to- face medium of communication. With their underlying motivation, however, it certainly follows that public libraries will incorporate other media as they become available, and public
librarians are pushing this forward in a thousand creative directions, especially in regards to the Internet. Providing access to *information* is central to this effort. And barriers to cyberspace access come in many forms: costs, no physical access to
equipment, awkward and confusing user interfaces, lack of special- purpose user interfaces (for those with disabilities), censorship, illiteracy, difficulty in navigating in cyberspace, and, increasingly, lack of local, community, and non-commercial info
rmation. While we strive to overcome these various barriers, we also need to realize that providing access to *communication* in addition to information is as important.
Libraries traditionally have supported *one-way* information transfer, from writer to reader. (Two exceptions are library meeting rooms and various means of support for authors.) Democratic theorist Robert Dahl, however, informs us that the capabilit
y for citizens to place their concerns on the *public* agenda is one of the basic criteria for a democratic system With the Internet, inexpensive two-way communication is possible; everybody potentially can become a producer as well as a consumer of info
rmation. As a defender and upholder of democratic principles, the public library is the heir-apparent to a prominent role in a struggle for the type of "public space in cyberspace" that helps address Dahl's criterion.
While the need for new public space -- inside and outside of cyberspace -- is critical, the window of opportunity for creating this new "space" may provide elusive and too-brief. The commercialization of the Internet, for example, is proceeding at a
disturbingly rapid pace. 70% of the web is now devoted to commercial use while the figure was 1.5% just two years ago. Waiting for things to "settle down" or for an appropriate cyber- role to spontaneously appear is a risky strategy. Waiting on the sidel
ines would leave public libraries at the mercy of others. It would probably mean increased marginalization.
Community networks (including "Free-Nets," Civic Nets, and others) may be part of the library's push for public cyberspace. Now numbering in the thousands, community networks owe their operational and philosophical orientation in large part to the pu
blic library model. Community Networks typically offer free training and free e-mail and web space for community organizations, small businesses, and individuals. In many cases, community networking organizers double as community activists, especially ad
vocating for public access to information and to electronic resources. Community networks help focus attention on community assets and needs. They can provide an orienting function for communities by aggregating information and communication resources i
nto clear and easy-to-use services. The ultimate success of community networks is uncertain. Volunteers currently perform most of the chores and finding sustainable funding models has been frustrating.
While public libraries have traditionally focused on books, community networks focus on networked computer information and communication. Similar impulses sparked the imagination of the originators and practitioners of both institutions: the vision an
d dedication build a democratic public institution the addresses the key importance of information and communication to modern life. (See the principles of the Seattle Community Network (SCN)
[http://www.scn.org/ip/commnet/principles.html] for an illustration of this from the community network side.)
It must be admitted that 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. On the other hand,
community networkers are idealistic, motivated, imaginative, and, to a large degree, they understand cyberspace. In many ways the largely volunteer cadre of community networkers represent ideal allies for public librarians and a democratic information ag
Community networks activists are currently working with a number of civic institutions including public libraries, schools, and local governments on projects of astonishing diversity and creativity. These may address community environmental issues, e
ducation, political participation, economic development, social justice, or nearly any other issue. Thousands more of these projects, each representing a strand of a tapestry of democratic technology, are being discussed, debated, planned, and created in
communities all across America and the world.
Public librarians and community networkers can collaborate on short-term projects and experiments. Librarians and community networkers can develop training programs, public access approaches, forums and roundtable discussions, advocacy positions, and
policy recommendations. There are also important community needs that commercial enterprises are unlikely to adequately address including local history, neighborhood stories, and news. The Seattle Public Library has helped the Seattle Community Network
in many ways. It has provides some dial-up access, distributes SCN brochures at all SPL Internet terminals, and houses the SCN computers. Cooperation on long-range goals can also strengthen and energize both parties. At the same time, users of both in
stitutions can serve as formal and informal citizen developers; incrementally shaping the public institutions of the next century. Finally, universal access to electronic communications will be necessary in any society that claims to be democratic and a
public library / community network long-term goal should be to ensure free or inexpensive e-mail for individuals, non-profits, and small businesses.
Although many Americans feel disengaged from politics and from other forms of civic life, a strong civic impulse is still evident. Projects with Library Friends' groups, League of Women Voters, Community Network organizations, and many others, can he
lp the library extend its vision, experience, and influence. Thousands of grass-roots organizations nationwide are eager to join forces with public librarians. This is a time for building constituencies and creating new alliances.
The electronic age brings a host of challenges to the public library. It also brings new opportunities. Libraries are natural champions and defenders of public space in cyberspace and there is no shortage of work in this area. At the same time, libr
aries cannot forsake their traditional and hard-won competencies and responsibilities. Meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities directly and creatively will put public libraries to the test. I'm confident, however, that libraries will emer
ge, somewhat changed, but true to their mission, stronger and, even, more central to democracy in the next century than they are to democracy in this century. Speaking as an activist for community networks I extend my hand to public librarians. We're re
ady to help.
The Community Networking Movement web site
is a good
place to go for information on community networks.
Brief biography: Doug Schuler is a software engineer and computer
scientist yet is currently more active in developing social, civic, and
educational uses of the new technology. He is a long-time activist with
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and a founder of
the Seattle Community Network (SCN), a free, public interest community
computer system, which enjoys a rewarding relationship with the Seattle
Public Library. His book,
"New Community Networks: Wired for Change" is
being used in libraries, community technology projects, and universities
all over the world.