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The American Public Library in the Information Age
Civic Space/Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Information Age. By Redmond Kathleen Molz and Phyllis Dain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. xii, 259 pp. $30.00. ISBN 0-262-13346-6.
Redmond Kathleen Molz is Melvil Dewey Professor of Communications at Columbia University, and Phyllis Dain is professor emeritus of Columbia's defunct library school. They are both luminaries in several areas of library scholarship, and this book is another testimony to their achievements.
The writers do not state a thesis but take us on a journey through time and cyberspace. "We focus on major trends and issues and take a broad national view of the public library as an American institution," they write (viii). More, they seek to "illuminate" certain aspects of the public library: "the public library as a local institution empowered to sustain itself through taxation" and the public library "as nationwide phenomenon, strongly identified with the national ethos of equality of educational opportunity" (ix).
The book has a comprehensive scope and is divided into five chapters. "The Mission: Consensus and Contradiction" focuses on collection development, although it has many other trenchant points to make. The authors utilize the classical allusion of Charybdis, a whirlpool in Sicily, and Scylla, a sea monster whose dwelling place was on the opposite shore, to capture the dilemma between books of a high standard (Charybdis) and trash (Scylla). This dilemma will continue to haunt librarians, or, as they so eloquently phrase it, "the present-day Scylla is enshrouded in mist while the eddies of the Charybdis continue to swirl" (44). Still, they remain optimistic about "the library faith"--the ability of the library to act as the bearer of culture and as an educational institution. If anything, computers, CD-ROMs, and the Internet have enhanced the faith.
Chapter 2, "The Institution: Governance and Funding," reviews the governance and funding structure of public libraries. Local control and local monies are still the basis for library support. Again, the authors radiate optimism. At a time when some writers invoke the silly idea of libraries without walls, Molz and Dain tell us that branch and central libraries have been reinvigorated. And how many people know that public library visits topped by more than 60 percent "the combined attendance at baseball, basketball and football games, art museums, and classical music concerts" (46)?
Chapter 3, "The National Perspective: The Federal Role in Library Development," traces the library's role in the legislative process from the post-World War I period to the present. Due attention is given to the Library Service Act, the Library Services and Construction Act, and the Library Service and Technology Act as well as state and local support for public libraries.
Chapter 4, "The National Perspective: The National Information Infrastructure," considers "initiatives, both positive and negative, dealing with information [End Page 529] that have been stimulated by the federal grant" (123). Among these initiatives they include Cold War culture, the Internet, the Communications Decency Act and telecommunications rates for public libraries and schools, and "Community Networks and Information Kiosks."
Chapter 5, "The Institution: Science, Technology and Community," explores how libraries have integrated technology into larger and traditional goals. They also evaluate the pros and cons of the Internet on library service, library services to children and multilingual populations, and the library as a symbol of culture and place in American life. They seem to say that the book and book culture are alive and well: "Doubtless this precious liquor (books) will continue to flow, but, perhaps, in altogether different channels and test tubes" (216).
Secondary sources include books and periodicals from library and public policy literature. The authors promise a "historical perspective" (viii). Still, the book seems to be shorn of historical sources. Yes, there are references to Poole, Dewey, and other historical persons and historical sources, but there are no references at all to the many fine articles in Libraries & Culture when there would have been...