On the Responsiblity for the Library Homepage

Note for the discussion on the networking of the library / 18 March 1995

This is a fairly brief reply to the responsibility question. The Library is an integral major participant in the development of the University's CWIS, including the development of a University home page. Anything posted thereto must be approved by the larger body. (quoted from a library-related mailing-list, March 1995)
The above statement clarifies the difference (in questions of responsiblity) between the university library and the general, public library. The former is a part of that semi-autonomous (in relation to the state) public institution, the university. Being only a part of the university, the university library is only, or at least primarily, responsible to the university. The university itself is then responsible to the rest of us (the society at large). Above all, the university is responsible for the quality and development of science, learning and higher education.

To whom, then, is the general, public library responsible? Certainly not to the university. The responsiblity of the general library is to the general public. The public library is the backbone of the public sphere, thus of the public itself. The public became one only when it started to read and write, i.e. the genesis of the public coincides with the coming of the book, the bookshop, the journal, the Lesegesellschaft, the coffee house, the newspaper - and then, finally, the public library. The public library system was born at the point in history when the masses began to read books and papers, i.e. when the people started to constitute itself as a public. This happened only during, say, the last two hundred years. (In my country, Finland, we actually celebrated the bi-centennial of the public library only last autumn.) The process I refer to is, obviously, parallell to the rise of political democracy.

Now, coming back to the question of responsiblity of what is said on the hypertext-pages and how these pages are edited, lay-outed etc, in the public library , I am of the opinion that the individual librarian is the basic operational and responsible unit. Please consider this person (the librarian) as a public figure, a publisher and editor who is responsible to the public for what she or he says and writes.

This figure (the individual librarian) should have a maximum of freedom of expression. There should be no committee or board who can intervene before she or he says or writes, or says, or shows, what she or he likes to write, say or show.

I don't mean that it is a bad idea to set up a supervisory board for the WWW-pages of the library, maybe with the chief-librarian as its head. What the policy of such a board should be is not so terribly difficult to see. It is summed up in "the ideal of making all information available without delay to all people" (I thank Michael S Hart of the Gutenberg Etext project for this formulation; he has in turn quoted it from The Software Toolworks Encyclopedia by Grolier Electronic Publishing 1990). The crucial word, here, is, of course, "information". (I suggest that, in the library, at least, we apply the semantic approach; information is "meaning". Thus, we skip, for the moment, the mathematical or "bandwidth" concept of information.) The point is, however, that the traditional 'ethos' of the public library, is providing both the necessary and sufficient platform for the organizing of the "electronic library". The problem, here, is not one of responsibility, but of the fast tempo of change, the very small scale of economic investments (public or private) in the library sector (compared with the investments in the so called information super-highway), the need for new skills, and even for the aquirement of new kinds of "literacy".

A note on our practical experience: The library in Helsinki, Finland, where I spend my working-day, (The Cable Book) in an effort to link the electronic publishing activities of various civil associations and cultural movements to the World Wide Web via the public library, was the first public library on a WWW-server (in the world). Our experience may not be the most relevant one (for the other libraries), but it just so happens that we have the longest experience of publishing international, public hypertext (WWW) in the public library. Of course, we started only a year ago (28 Feb, 1994) so maybe experiment is the right word, rather than experience! Anyway, our experiment/experience can be summed up like this: so far we have managed OK without committee and without chief editor! The librarians, actually all staff members including the book-binder and even the young guy who does his service as conscientious objector in the library, have proven fully capable of taking their new personal responsibility as organizers of the library without walls.

Let the librarian be what she or he is: a responsible person. Let her or him assume the new responsiblities which come with the Internet - to be a guide to information for the library's patrons, i.e. the public. Right now (spring 1995) the alternative direction of the electronic library seems to be towards becoming just one huge commercial advertisement.