The Virtual Library: Kiosk or Community?

Canadian Library Association

June 19, 1997.

by: Heather Menzies

Last Friday was Vicki Gabareau's last day on CBC Radio. Three Fridays ago was Peter Gzowski's last day. I wonder how many of you listened to that last show, or wanted to, or taped it. It was a memorable historical moment. There were singers like Connie Kaldor, writers like Sharon Butalla, W.O. Mitchell and Guy Vanderhague. And listeners. Peter spent minutes listing some of the regular Morningside correspondents -- part of why Morningside epitomized the best of what public radio was meant to be. It wasn't culture as business. It was culture as conversation, as shared social bonds and community.

For me, the silencing of Morningside therefore highlights the crisis facing public culture in this country, and why it's important for people like you to be holding this conference. Why it's important for you to step back and ask how can we re-invent and renew ourselves as cultural institutions given the new realities we have to work with. You're part of the crisis and part of the response because culture isn't a private matter. It's public. It's constituted through the institutions which frame the thoughts and values of a civic society. Schools and libraries, along with public radio and television, are core institutions of this public culture. We lose ourselves if we lose them along the road to the Global Village.

I hope to be of some service in helping you get your bearings on what's happening, what it means and, even, what you can do about it so you can renew libraries as vital institutions of public culture.

The context of this crisis-cum-challenge goes by many names: downsizing, deregulation and free-trade, plus technological restructuring and digital globalization. All four of these headings are interconnected, and can be best understood as part of a simultaneous dynamic of under-development plus redevelopment of our public institutions. Under-development through downsizing, deregulation and freedom-of-corporate-investment agreements such as NAFTA and the multilateral agreement on investments.

Re-development through globalization and related technological restructuring.

In a nutshell, what's happening with globalization is that national machine-based economies are being restructured into a global systems economy.

Two elements here: 1) digitization: Much of the information underpinning work and the management of work in industrial societies is being digitized. Transformed into the dynamic state of electronic bits. 2) The second thing to understand is that this digitization/computerization is now in its third phase: the networking phase where all kinds of automated service modules and information sub-systems can be linked together both within institutions and between them, creating the network of inter-connecting networks called the information highway.

That's the core convergence going on. The others are arrayed around it: (Overhead) publishing of books, newspapers and data bases; interactive games and computer graphics; tele-services from banking to shopping; radio and television broadcasting; and film and cable.

Networks and digitization aren't just the key technologies involved. They are also the key to the transformation going on with restructuring: making it possible to merge all kinds of previously separate institutions. Also making it possible to de-institutionalize all kinds of activities: to contract out work through a new global and local div. of labour constituted through at-home teleworkers and call centres or agile factories, to transfer countless functions to self-serve customers, and to manage all these modular bits through the networked organizational structures of virtual corporations and virtual libraries.

That's why it's vital to grasp what Marshall McLuhan meant by the phrase "the medium is the message." It means that the structures of communication strongly determine what can and cannot be said and done inside them. New media create new environments, he said. And environments, as we know, can enable and they can disable.

So we need to pay attention to the fact that the new environment is constituted not by local bricks and mortar institutions and embodied local relationships but increasingly through global information networks and the software running them. We need to know that these networks and the business of running them are a business. It's a business dominated by multi-media multi-billion dollar conglomerates in the fields of telecommunications, computers, information systems, power utilities and the media. We need to know too that with deregulation and privatization and free trade, these corporations can now operate almost exclusively on business principles, which include being able to offer, and even impose, global economies of scale, scope and speed in bidding for parts of anyone else's business.

We need to read the messages of this new medium because these global networks are becoming the new environment for going to the store, the bank or the library. They represent a new meta-institution in which de-institutionalized work or other activities are re-constituted and re-institutionalized -- as shared electronic files and access protocols, through chat groups, user groups, virtual consumer clubs etc. The drive-through library is merely a visible prototype of this. The whole library is being lifted off its bricks and mortar foundations and shifted into cyberspace. As Catherine Quinlan, director of libraries at the U. of W. Ontario [now University Librarian at UBC] puts it, the library is a service, not a place. But who defines that service if the library of the future is everywhere and nowhere at once?

Which brings me to the under-development side of the picture. At the same time as corporate money is generously funding the digitization of libraries, government cutbacks are undermining the traditional form of these institutions. This under-development is happening throughout the public sector -- ostensibly in the name of deficit cutting. In libraries, there's less and less public money for traditional holdings, and for traditional library services. Jobs are disappearing. 2) full-time jobs are being replaced by part-time jobs and short-term contracts, and workloads are rising to the breaking point; and more and more work is being transferred from paid employees to unpaid library users through the digital self-service everywhere from book renewals and inter-library loan requests to high-end reference searching. And, finally, gaps are being filled by volunteers. I.e. all three trends that are contributing to so much unemployment and under-employment in the general economy are happening in libraries.

In Ontario, Bill 109 threatens to make this a whole lot worse. Not just because the province is terminating its partial funding of libraries in the province, dumping the whole $30-million cost onto individual municipalities -- which either can't afford to pick up the difference on their own, and Karen Harrison's Thunder Bay is an example here, according to a conversation I had with Michael Gravell last week. Or in cases like Ottawa, city officials are offering no guarantees to people like Barbara Clubb, chief librarian of the Ottawa Public Library.

Equally, if not more importantly in terms of the under-development dynamic, the legislation will also end the requirement for independent citizen library boards -- and this is critical to the preservation of libraries as autonomous cultural institutions accountable to the civic community in particular geographic places. Chatham and Peterborough's example where the library is now run by a city administrator, are also prescient. Libraries could lose their autonomy as cultural institutions and be absorbed into municipal Parks and Recreation depts. -- with management in libraries ending at the systems manager level, as has happened already in Peterborough.

Put the two dynamics together now: the development of libraries as multi-media digital information and service-delivery systems plus the under-development of libraries as constituted by public funding for real people in real places, and what have you got? Potentially, the privatization of libraries from within. Or, as I put it in Whose Brave New World, the colonization of these cultural institutions by the logic and values of global information systems. By this, I mean the inexorable eclipsing of culture defined as conversation, social relations and community by culture framed more as business: the business of managed information systems -- systems increasingly geared to economic rather than broad social and cultural priorities.

That, I suggest, is the context of the crisis and challenge facing us. Now, what does it mean and what can we do about it -- To ensure that the global village is a global extension of local cultural diversity, and not a local extension of a global monoculture -- multi-media multiple choice cultural product packaged by Disney and delivered by Microsoft, Stentor, AT& T or Rogers to a library kiosk in your home, office or local shopping mall, at those irresistible economies of scale, of multi-genre scope and speed to which I referred earlier.

Now I want to make it clear: It's not a case of being for or against digitization and multi-media services. It's a case of being for the new technologies on your own terms. It's not a case of taking Bill Gates' money and Microsoft's systems in the "libraries on line" project, or spurning corporate partnerships. As Barbara Clubb who's negotiated a successful Canadian test bed for the libraries on line project here in Ottawa, put it, we're not selling our soul.

The challenge is to know the difference between the original Andrew Carnegie, whose money had no strings attached because he had no business interest in libraries, and the new virtual Carnegie where there are definite vested interests involved, but the strings can be as invisible as Microsoft's networking software. So we have to know what questions to ask ourselves. We have to know what we want for the communities we serve. And working in solidarity with those communities, we have to know what we want to resist. Then we can do business with the people at Microsoft, Clearnet, Cellular Vision, Rogers, Stentor, Thomson, Time-Warner Turner and even Disney without "selling our soul."

By now, I think it's clear what we most need to guard against. That is, a move away from universal standards and universal services in the tradition of public culture, and toward a two-tiered form of service. In the first tier, a high value-added level of digitally accessible services available 24 hours a day through the Web, with various fees for access to CD Roms or to a reference librarian's time in assisting in searches charged according to use. Meanwhile, in the second tier, those who don't have the technology, the skills or the self-confidence to navigate the virtual library could end up getting poorer and poorer service in dingier and dingier bricks and mortar libraries: shorter hours, more self-service, longer waits to speak to harried staff, who might be library technicians and not actual librarians.

The trend in this direction is clear in Ontario's Bill 109, which will allow user fees to be charged on any non-print materials. But equally, it's there in the fact that the corporate sector has served notice that library-net and school-net will likely no longer be free when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31st., 1999. It's been a great loss leader. Get schools and libraries into the new digital operating environment. Then, start charging. But when users have to start paying, the technological divide could really widen -- into a gulf: The technologically enfranchised and the technologically disenfranchised. Insiders and outsiders, the haves and have-nots. The wired and, as Michael Williamson of the National Library puts it, "the great unwashed and unwired."

As early as 1994, a polling firm was quantifying this new class-like polarization emerging in our society and concluded: "This upcoming information age is going to be dominated by the haves."

But the threat to public culture isn't just in a move toward a two-tiered library service. It's in the fragmentation of time and space that's happening with the shift to digital libraries, which could turn them into self-serve digital kiosks so subtly and incrementally that no decision will have been made for it to happen. I want to step outside the library sector to illustrate what I mean here, and invite you to consider where the future of libraries and even your job might fit into the two examples.

The first example is something called virtual surgery. I heard it being touted at a talk on new technologies in health care given by someone working for an IBM subsidiary in Toronto last month. He showed a slide of the globe, with a set of inter-connecting boxes laid over the top. The first box, placed in the U.S. somewhere showed the patient about to have surgery. The second box was in Scandinavia and featured a specialist called in as a consultant on the surgery. A third box, located somewhere in India contained the doctor who would actually do the surgery, by remotely controlling robotic instruments in the operating room back in the United States.

The example is prophetic because it illustrates how much professional work is now being industrialized. We've already seen it happen in engineering, and literally we now have a global division of engineering work, with a lot of programming work now concentrated in countries like India. It's just beginning to happen in medicine, and in teaching and elsewhere in the knowledge and cultural sector.

And it makes you wonder: Going back to the virtual surgery scenario, you have to ask yourself: who will be involved enough with the real body in the real hospital bed to care about the real person involved? Extrapolating for libraries, even without the frontal lobotomy of losing your chief librarian and citizen library boards, who will be involved enough in the digital networked on-line library to care about the people in the community who haven't got access, or don't have the skills or the self-confidence to serve themselves to all the new digital services? Who will even notice that they're not being served anymore, and that the public which is being served is a narrower subset of the broad community -- the new elite of knowledge workers?

The second example is at the opposite scale of the new division of labour emerging with the global digital economy: The example is Carol Van Helvoort, who processes orders for Pizza Pizza from a computer and modem she rigged up in the bedroom of her one-bedroom apartment on the fringes of Metro Toronto.

It doesn't really bother her that the computer monitors everything she does. It bothers her more that what she does is so little worth monitoring. She talked about the inconvenience of having the family phone line taken over for 2 four-hour chunks of the day, as Pizza Pizza turns her home into a virtual workplace. She talked about how young mothers have had to get their kids to keep quiet. "But why should they? What does it do to family life?"

She also worried about women's increased vulnerability in abusive relationships, being trapped inside the home all the time.

For herself, it was working alone -- being confined to a silicon work cell -- that bothered her the most. She used to do her hair all the time; now she doesn't bother. She used to do her nails, but now why bother? "You don't even bother getting dressed half the time," she told me. And I thought: how much she's disappeared as a social being.

Consider what this is saying about the culture of the new digital environment: Fragmented work functions managed and monitored by computers, with pay-per-unit earnings. Isolated phone-booth-like, kiosk-like work environments. Loss of community and continuity with others. Fragmented people and families. Social isolation, the dumbing down of work, silicon ceilings on involvement.

Consider too what this might mean as part of the future of library work -- and with the 1991 census reporting a 40 per cent increase in the number of people listing the home as their primary place of work, with clerical, sales and service occupations as three of the biggest work areas. Home-based telework could well become a major form of work and employment in the future. Technically, with electronic networks, almost any information-based work can be de-institutionalized, contracted out and reconstituted anywhere at any time. So research/reference librarians might end up working out of call-centre kiosks, or at home, self-employed or on contract with an information-service provider. Ditto for people in acquisitions and cataloguing...Skeleton staff could take on a whole new meaning as the flesh and blood, and just possibly the soul of public libraries as institutions that care about an inclusive public culture are fragmented away?

Who will constitute the library as a whole cultural institution anymore? Not only is everyone fragmented structurally and spatially. They're also fragmented in terms of time. Ursula Franklin talks about this as a-synchronicity. Now, it's certainly convenient to be able to communicate with people through email this way. You can fit this part of your life into the rest of your schedule without friction. But what if your whole schedule is made up of this asynchronous time Ursula asks? What is the thread of continuity, with other people, with a particular place?

It's part of the irony of "instant global connectivity." In fact, it's only machines that are synchronous in time and space -- machines that can span the globe and make decisions in a nanosecond. We're getting to be more and more in touch and in sync with these global fastforward machines, and more and more out of touch and out of sync with each other.

And that's why public anxiety is so high these days. Part of this is stress and burnout, which has been described as "the occupational disease of the '90s."

Partly it's because living these fragmented, fastforward lives makes it difficult to get a coherent sense of what's happening and what it means. It's the condition of post-modernity in a way: where the textual reality of life is increasingly divorced from actual material reality. And so we go through the motions -- i.e. we respond to all our email before we go to bed, and we get a report in on time. But it doesn't seem to mean anything. Nobody will likely read the report, or act on it. As Somer Bodribb put it in her critique of post-modernity, Nothing matters. And yet we know that things do matter. It's just that we all seem to be divorced from what matters, or the ability to do anything about it. It being, here, the move into a global digital public space managed and controlled by global corporations and governed by what Tom Naylor calls the "invisible government" of the World Bank, the OECD and the World Trade Organization, with local governments, like our own national government capitulating to the role of enforcer.

I don't think it's possible to be an intelligent, thoughtful person these days and not be anxious. And that's perhaps why Nickleson Baker's books are so popular these days. The old-fashioned card catalogue -- those enduring beige cards in those solid hardwood cabinets -- have tremendous nostalgia appeal. At a time when our jobs seem to be disappearing into the digital etherspace of remote service providers or local self-serve digital services, at a time when all that is solid is truly melting into air, these things represent stability.That's also why Dilbert is so popular. For me, anyway, Dilbert cartoons speak to this twilight zone of unreality we seem to be living in these days.

One of my favourites features a typical staff meeting where Wally announces it's time for his "Wally report." He lists off various things -- I've forgotten precisely because I neglected to clip the thing. Corporate loyalty -- 15 per cent. Productivity -- 13 per cent. Then -- morale -- 20 per cent.

Dilbert: Hey, that's up from last week.

Wally: Somebody left the supply cupboard open.

Meanwhile, these very real things are happening. And we need desperately to get our bearings. In getting our bearings, it helps to realize that behind all the technical choices facing us these days, we're really talking about values. Values that can be articulated usefully in terms of two models of communication: the ecological or social-bonding model of communication and the economic, commodity-transmission model.

The ecological model is an organic living model of communication, grounded in relationships. In fact, it views individuals not in the dominant economics terms as social isolates but in terms of their physical and social bonds with others -- from the original parental bonds in gestation through birth and childhood onward. In other words, as Herman Daly and John Cobb put it in For the Common Good, "people are constituted by their relationships." Their relationships are not external to their identity, but central to it.

I have an overhead that lists some features of this model, but that's the gist of it: this model focuses on culture as relationships. As such it's compatible with public culture -- culture as conversation, social bonding and community.


- communication as extension of actual social relationships and local communities.

- communication as conversation and culture;

- communication sustaining life, and living institutions, over time;

- it's a growth model of communication (after Ursula Franklin)

-it foregrounds the social/natural process of communication (over any mechanical means that might augment and enhance it.)

- it lends itself to holistic management, user control & related reciprocity and autonomy;

The second model of communication, the transmission model, is more compatible to a business model of culture. It views communication as a species of transportation: moving packages from point A to point B. as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The key element of this model, as Robert Babe puts it, is that it takes the classical liberal economic view of people as self-interested individuals who seek out and acquire information anonymously.

Again, there's an overhead which lists some of its characteristics, but the key differences are that one focuses on the anonymous & the inert -- information products -- while the other focuses on people in touch with each other.


- it disembodies communication from face-to-face communication.

- it foregrounds the mechanical means of communication over the social process; With this, it treats content as a commodity, subject to the laws of commodity exchange -- economies of scale, scope and speed.

- It transcends the natural limits of time and space (i.e. it lends itself to scale up plus speed up, simply because it treats content as separate from the social context);

- it's a prescriptive production model of communication (after Ursula Franklin)

Not surprisingly, the economic model of communication has predominated in modern commercial society. But democratic values have prompted governments to actively promote the more culture and community-building model by subsidizing it. And so in Canada, we've had a mixed-model approach to communication. In fact, it's been a defining feature of Canadian society . It has given us universality in telephone service. Also, institutions like the National Film Board, the CBC, community-access cable, public education and public libraries.

In recent years, however, the government has actively withdrawn from that mixed-model tradition. This can be seen in an amendment to the Telecommunications Act in 1994, shifting the initiative in communication from public service to market forces, and opening the doors to deregulation and privatization. It can also be seen in the Info. Highway Advisory Council's report -- in its general recommendations that the private sector should create and manage the infrastructure and operating systems of the information society free from public-interest interference. The retreat from the mixed model can also be seen in the cutbacks to cultural funding we've witnessed since 1984, which are resulting in the loss of our collective memory -- the shadows on the wall that anchor us to our particular place and time.

These developments can also be mapped in terms of the polarizing dynamic I referred to earlier: the active under-development of the ecological, social-bonding model of communication and the hyper development of the transmission model of culture as business.

Now, the final question: what can we do about it?

I guess the first thing is to realize that with government having abdicated the public interest it's up to us to take the initiative -- as has been done before to create public radio and other institutions of public culture in this country.

A second challenge for librarians is to refuse to see these approaches to communication and culture as an either/or dichotomy. Similarly, the challenge is to refuse to be divided against each other within libraries and within the library community: the holdings and systems people who have traditionally focused on information as product sometimes in isolation from users, and the "relationships" people who focus on fostering reciprocity between what the library has to offer and what the local community needs and wants, and sometimes take the holdings, systems people for granted.

In re-inventing and renewing libraries so they can extend themselves into the digital universe on their own terms, as an extension of a pluralistic public culture, it's important for both groups to endorse this mixed-model approach -- in everything you do from budgets to staffing and promotions to negotiating joint ventures and partnerships with other institutions.

I have an overhead which sketches out what such a model could mean for overall library policy:

-digitization as an extension of existing library communities and community services. This means consulting with the user community as well as the business community -- and involving diverse users on the planning team.

- promoting equitable, accessible participation -- again, in the process of restructuring you're going through now.

- enhancing interactivity as dialogue on an ongoing basis-- which would mean people being in touch with real people, not just digitally assembled voice clips.

- balancing computer power between information providers and information users., between margin and centre. -- to actively counter what Harold Innis called the "bias of communication" : namely the tendency of fast, space-binding communication media to centralize control and power while decentralizing activity.

It's equally imp. to examine the words you're using as you develop policies and practice. Because the meaning of words changes with the different models, and those differences have to be negotiated. Take access as an example.

In the transmission model, access is defined as access to the technology: timely, affordable access to the Internet, to the digital card catalogue, CD Rom data bases etc.

In the ecological, social-bonding model, access is defined with engaged social relationships as the focus: so it's access to meaningful participation (as the overhead suggested). Then, with an equity focus on difference, it is further defined as access to meaningful participation in terms of the particular participants in particular social and geographic communities. And so, through the community-outreach efforts of people like Joan Brown Hicks at the Halifax library, that city's black community see the north-end branch as an integral part of their community.

With a mixed-model focus in your discussions about access, then, you wouldn't just talk about fast access to the Internet via Clearnet and Microsoft's systems. The second meaning of access would give you a mandate to care about whether the fastforward rush to multi-media knowledge services etc. was leaving too many people in your community behind, due to lack of technology, lack of skills or lack of self-confidence.

It would also mandate you to support people such as teacher librarians whose work has been demonstrated as essential to the culture of education. Not only do students achieve more academically -- through teacher-librarians who get students to actually partake in the knowledge and culture of libraries -- not just walk into the door every week in the technical fulfillment of access. They also develop greater self-esteem, which I think is the measure of literacy in a multi-media world.

I also think it's important for libraries to bring this mixed-model approach to discussions of joint ventures and partnerships with other institutions -- and it's important to develop those partnerships not only with private industry, but with other institutions dedicated to public culture: not only local schools and community nets, but the National Film Board, the local CBC -- or what's left of it, and organizations of writers, film makers and other artists.

Bricks-and-mortar libraries could become multi-media centres in their communities, responding to what film critic Sue Ditta has called the crisis of public screen space for Canadian movies in this country, by using their theatre spaces more. But equally, promoting the oral medium, which is still the most accessible and inclusive medium of communication. Libraries might become sites for the public discussions we need in this country about globalization and what we can do about it to bring social justice to bear on it. Perhaps, in partnership with other cultural institutions plus non-governmental organizations like the Council of Canadians and local labour councils, they could sponsor a new version of Radio Farm Forum, using CPAC, the CBC or Clearnet as the medium for networking discussions occurring in local libraries.

Other partnerships and consortia arrangements might revolve around developing local knowledge bases with multi-media versions (as well as old-fashioned print versions) of local stories and knowledge which can then be shared through a public digital network.

And finally there's the work of building that public network and ensuring that public culture -- both as product content and as inclusive social relationships -- is preserved and enhanced through it. This is why it's important that the Canadian Library Association is part of the Alliance for a connected Canada and to be part of the project which Andrew Reddick has been instrumental in putting together, called Public Space Community Networking.

This is an example of policy-making in the '90s: policymaking through extra-parliamentary initiative, and policymaking as practice. That practice is both local and national: locally, it involves continuing to build community nets as extensions of institutions of public culture and civic society. And at a larger level of policy, it means striking deals with Clearnet, Stentor, Cellular Vision through which they agree to help build a mixed-model infrastructure by guaranteeing bandwidth for a public network of networks in which public culture in this country can continue to grow.

In the absence of leadership from our governments, it's up to us to articulate democratic cultural policies for the new digital age, and to hold our governments accountable for supporting and implementing them. It won't be easy., but it's a job we must undertake -- for the sake of the generations who haven't grown up taking Morningside, Farm Radio Forum and public libraries for granted.

Thank you.

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