MEME 1.06

MEME 1.06

First...A little context.

This is the first issue of MEME to come out from its new home, a listserver at St. John's University. In the past ten days or so, MEME went from about 400 subscribers to 1400, a number I never could have managed on my own. Last Friday evening I was at the post office when a couple of mail-room workers from Jupiter Communications (a local high-tech consulting firm, I think) came in with a mass mailing -- bales and bales of pre-stamped manila envelopes in big boxes. It gave me a fleeting sense of what it would be like to actually mail MEME to 1400 people on paper. Apart from bankrupting me, it would also break my back. But the real significance of something like MEME and other Internet-based newsletters (as we all know) is that, for the first time, it is as easy to communicate with one person as with 1,400 or 14,000 or 14 whatever. In this new world of self-publishers/distributors/marketers and everything else, we can enjoy the freedom to create ideas without the commercial pressures of traditional media. But, lost in this celebration of intellectual freedom, is a sorry fact. There is one loser in this digital age. No, not the traditional publisher. The big loser is the public library and, if we don't start paying attention to the library's fate, you and I. So this MEME is dedicated to....


"I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing...They reach the aspiring and open to these chief treasures of the world -- those stored up in books".

Andrew Carnegie, 1900

"There is not a person in this room who would argue against the public library. They are good for our children, they are good for the country, they are good for our neighborhoods. But why does a public library work? It works because it is based 100% on atoms. When you borrow that book the shelf is then empty. Now, we take the library made of atoms and we convert it to bits. What happens? Two things. First we don't have to take our atoms down to the library anymore. But more importantly, when you borrow a bit, there is always a bit left. So bingo! You now have 20 million people who can borrow that same bit, and just by changing the atoms into bits you violate copyright law, and in countries without copyright law, you violate a sense of intellectual property."

Nicholas Negroponte, 1995

"The delivery of information to the researchers' desktops --wherever and whenever they need it -- from digital library resources. This is the essence of the Library without Walls."

Rick Luce, Library Without Walls Project Leader, Los Alomos National Laboratory, 1994.

Remember the old days?

In the 13th century, monks reproduced information by hand in a room called the scriptorum. Each book, a process of many years of labor, then went into the monastic libraries where they were chained to the shelves to guard against theft -- or unauthorized copying. In the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press, books lost their chains, and monasteries lost their monopoly on information. But it took several hundred years before libraries became what many take for granted today: public institutions which guarantee any citizen access to information without charge. In the 19th century, the United States led the way, guaranteeing its citizens access to information through public libraries.

Such access was seen as the essential foundation for an educated populace -- a necessity if one believes in democratic government. But now, this solitary link to information is being severed. As information goes digital, libraries no longer get access to this growing part of the human record. The great for-profit libraries of our day -- Lexis/Nexis , Dow Jones, Reuters -- feed the elite, without providing libraries with any access in paper form or electronic form to this ongoing record of human events, ideas and issues. For instance, the New York Public library, the second largest library in the United States, behind the Library of Congress , now offers the 8 million citizens of New York City one solitary Lexis/Nexis terminal. This it seems, is the future of the library in the digital age.

The Digital Library

When a library becomes a digital library, a lot of things change. In a nutshell, it starts to look just like a publisher. It actually becomes a competitor to the likes of HarperCollins and Random House. First of all, you no longer have to physically go to the library to get the information. You can read it on-screen. Second, there is no theoretical limit of the number of people who can "borrow" the same book once the book is in bit form. In such a world, a publisher has good reason to rescind the bond between publisher, library and reader. In the old days that bond meant publishers tolerated libraries on one condition -- that the library not charge for reading books. This guaranteed that the library's commercial impact on publishers remained negligible. But with a digital library, if the choice is or -- what are you going to choose? At you can read the same book for free. At they'll bill you. Both are a mouse click away, both have the same content you want. But one is free and the other isn't. So, it is no surprise that publishers are simply refusing to give libraries electronic rights; or, if the library is fortunate, it gets to lease the electronic rights on a renewable basis -- thereby gutting the library of another precious asset: its ability to build a collection.

In the dog-eat-dog world of the free market, public libraries can pretty much start digging their graves. Without government initiative, the public library will face an onslaught of negative pressures from publishers to disappear in the digital age. So what is the US government doing to support libraries in the future? Well, it turns out that money is being spent on this question -- unfortunately, these same monies may well wind up accelerating the destruction of the library by giving publishers the tools to become digital librarians. Known as the Digital Library Initiative , this project is led by a consortium of government agencies: the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (remember them? They created ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor). The Digital Library Initiative has this as its mission: to "dramatically advance the means to collect, store and organize information in digital form, and to make it available for searching retrieval, and processing via communication networks -- all in user friendly ways."

The Digital Library Initiative

America's universities were called upon to come up with proposals -- and they did, flooding the NSF with 73 proposals. Winners would be expected to generate their own funds by inviting corporations to work as partners, thereby matching the funds donated by the US government. In an era of shrinking research dollars, that made sense. And in 1994 the NSF announced that the six winners, (Stanford, UC Berkeley , UC Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan , the University of Illinois, and Carnegie Mellon University) would split a purse of $24 million in government money and another $24 million in matching corporate funding. Today the six universities are each tackling a different piece of the digital library pie, along with partners like Bell Atlantic, Microsoft and IBM.

After reading all the proposals, going through the home pages and speaking with some of the folks involved, a theme emerges. The government is funding research in the infrastructure behind digital libraries: indexing information, especially images and maps, get precedence; learning how to fuse disparate forms of information into one catalog is another question; creating search engines and software agents to roam databases, etc. By setting these standards, the government, as with TCP/IP in the late 1970s, creates an essential foundation for the creation of this massively heterogeneous, world-wide library. But strangely absent is a very important adjective which should modify the noun library -- "free". When Andrew Carnegie wrote "free libraries" he understood that essential adjective was the essence of the library. If a library isn't free, it just isn't a library. Otherwise it is nothing more than a repository for the elite. Sadly, the universities involved in the Digital Library Initiative are not exploring these essential social questions of how to structure a digital library so that publishers get paid while the people still have some means of getting informed regardless of income. If we don't lay down the ground rules for this new relationship in the digital age, the marketplace will write them for us.

Meanwhile, out on the Web, folks are just going ahead and creating their own digital libraries for free. Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alomos National Laboratory, may be one of the world's busiest librarians. Every day he, or rather his workstation, serves up thousands of academic papers in high energy physics, astrophysics, materials theory -- the list goes on. He is single handedly demolishing an old publishing industry: academic journals in the sciences. This free library where physicists can upload their latest papers and download their peer's work is indeed, as predicted, trashing the overpriced, undersubscribed traditional print journal business. If Ginsparg's library is a foretaste of what's to come, you can be certain that the real kings of publishing -- News Corporation, Time Warner, et. al., will be out there in the halls of Congress and the nodes of cyberspace trying to squelch your local library from upgrading to the 21st century.

So what can we do? One solution is to give libraries electronic rights on one condition -- that you still have to go to the library to read the information. By limiting it to in-house terminals, along with a printer, you essentially replicate the current situation: books and photocopiers. You are, in a sense, doing what the monks did in the 13th century -- chaining the information down. By limiting the number of terminals you put an artificial, but necessary, limit on the number of "copies" in circulation at the library. In return, citizens willing to travel to the library get access to a current and updateable version of the human record. It would be helpful to see these universities in the Digital Library Initiative begin to take a stand in this direction. If they don't they run the risk of destroying the very thing they are trying to build, because until the social priorities surrounding the future of libraries are resolved, all these technological innovations, elegant as they may be, will remain irrelevant.


This week's New York magazine published an article of mine on Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab and their own particular blend of Utopian musing and plans to re-engineer human beings. You will enjoy it. If you can't find it, my own humble digital library will have the (free) e-version sometime next week.

Meme 1.05 and its contents copyright 1995 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.

Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at