Armed with the Internet's vast resources, modern librarians are evolving into "knowledge navigators," capable of guiding the public through an overwhelming landscape of data and separating information wheat from chaff.
Helping libraries cope with the changes means overcoming formidable obstacles, from lawmakers trying to pass tight Internet regulations to a public apprehensive about the new technology, the American Library Association's president said this week."Librarians used to just find information. Now, increasingly, we're making information into knowledge," said Betty J. Turock. "Electronic information is changing the foundation of what a library is."
Turock was in New York for the July 4-10 annual meeting of the 58,000-member association, which is fresh from a court victory as the lead plaintiff in a challenge to the Communications Decency Act.
A panel of federal judges in Philadelphia issued a temporary injunction earlier this month, barring the government from enforcing the act until lawsuits challenging it are resolved.
Once you've put information in electronic form, you've made a long-term commitment you have to stick with.
Betty J. Turock
The act, Turock said, was "very poorly written" and failed to define indecency. Its vague language could have made librarians vulnerable to jail terms and fines of up to $250,000 if children accessed indecent material through their libraries, she said.
"I think it would freeze us in time," Turock said. "We would not be able to provide what's needed. Libraries couldn't afford those kinds of fines."
Telecommunications law, she said, must also give libraries leeway by taking into account that a growing amount of data - especially from the government - is now available only online.
"It's government information. They've paid for it once," she said. "Once you've put information in electronic form, you've made a long-term commitment you have to stick with."
Until now - whether through books, newspapers, radio or television - the few were addressing the masses. The Internet now allows the masses to address the masses, and Turock says it's up to librarians to sort it out.
But she believes significant benefits accompany the challenges. Local libraries can now use the Internet to tailor themselves to community needs without purchasing thousands of new volumes they can't afford.
And recent telecommunications legislation that laid the groundwork for what the Clinton administration calls the National Information Infrastructure also made libraries "universal providers," entitling them to discount rates in using high-speed transmission lines.
That, Turock says, means Congress won't be able to dismiss what she considers libraries' legitimate needs - multimedia, sound and high-speed access - as bells and whistles.
"We need color. We need graphics. We need speed," she said. "Just putting computers and modems in libraries isn't going to do it. It's absolutely essential for the American people to have information in a form that's accessible, affordable and available."
Most of all, Turock worries that sheer volumes of data will make information retrieval so overwhelming that people won't be able to discern what's accurate - or even useful - amid the static.
Librarians, she said, can shepherd Americans into this new age and help chart the course of the Internet - but only if government doesn't act as an impediment.
"We have a medium here that can enhance the opportunity for Americans to have information," she said. "We don't want anyone getting in the way of that. These laws are going to define the American public's access to information for the next 100 years."