Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 4: March 2004

Library Stuff Book Perspective

To Free the Mind: Notes at Twenty

I never met Eli M. Oboler. He died in 1983, and we would never have moved in the same circles. I certainly knew his name. He was one of those who didn’t job-hop much, spending more than three decades as University Librarian at Idaho State University, but his day job wasn’t what he was most known for. Oboler was a charter member of the Freedom to Read Foundation, served on ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, chaired the Intellectual Freedom Round Table, and was active in state and regional librarianship, as an officer, editor, writer and firm proponent of intellectual freedom. He wrote a lot (five hundred book reviews alone!), including major works on intellectual freedom and censorship.

I picked up To Free the Mind: Libraries, Technology, and Intellectual Freedom (Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1983) at Mountain View Public Library last fall. The brief book (110 pages plus bibliography), published posthumously, is a mixture of previously published essays and new material and an interesting (and worthwhile) read, particularly at a 20-year remove. I need to read more from the giants of the field; it’s always interesting and usually surprising.

Oboler gets on my nerves almost immediately by adopting Anthony Oettinger’s unfortunate term for telecommunications and teleprocessing, “compunications.” He uses that ugly neologism far too often in the book; fortunately, it never caught on. Oddly, as he introduces the term, he concludes that widespread electronic access to resources will increase the power of censors: “When every home has its own access to practically everything, via what is going eventually to be a ‘wired world,’ then the censor will really have a field day.” That unfortunate assumption is based partly on his belief that one set of communications satellites will be the means for global communications—and that whoever owns those satellites “will control what can be seen and heard on any individual viewer’s receiver.” That’s a great argument against relying on a single channel of communications; fortunately, that’s not how things seem to be working out.

Oboler deals in predictions and projections, and he’s no better than most in this area. It was the early 1980s; at that point, widespread use of microforms seemed like a safe bet. He calls some of those projections into doubt—but accepts as likely the idea that the GPO would “almost dispense with hard copy altogether within the next few years” in favor of micropublishing. He does speak of an “obvious ease of use” of microforms, and says microfilm was “a pain in the neck to use” until 1938 and Vannevar Bush’s rapid-selector. And, still discussing micropublishing, we reach “inevitable” as early as page 13—in this case, Paul Starr’s 1974 article assuring us that “inevitable technological developments” will solve copyright barriers to making fiche duplicates of books as readers desire them. Oboler is skeptical of many things, but fails to take issue with this piece of statistical garbage:

As far back as 1970, according to Starr, “a survey of major university libraries…showed that the ratio of total library expenditures to the volume of general and reserve circulation indicated a cost of about $4 per book circulated…The average book of 250 pages could be duplicated in fiche for 20 cents.”

To which one might reasonably say, “So what?” What proportion of that $4 represents the cost of the book itself? More to the point, without magic wands making copyright go away, how would the cost of fiche duplication, storage of masters to do that duplication, staff time to handle the process, and the per-copy fee to copyright holders compare to the cost of book circulation? My best guess is that duplication-on-demand would increase library costs if you did real comparisons of costs.

Oboler was down on bibliographic utilities and library networks, regarding them as needless expenses and institutions that would reduce local library autonomy. He assumed that “the single purpose of the library network is…the sharing of resources,” even though the bulk of network use has always been to share cataloging, not resources. He seems to believe that library networks would become computerized pools of resources themselves.

There’s nothing new about financial problems in libraries. Oboler saw the shortfalls of the late 1970s and early 1980s as so severe that “among the first public services to go will undoubtedly be those proffered by reference librarians.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Oboler quotes some of F. W. Lancaster’s “paperless library” prognostications without critical analysis. Here’s an odd juxtaposition, one that fails on both sides:

Lancaster has predicted that by 1990, from 85-90 percent of all scientific and technical information will be available only as machine-readable data. There will be no way for the seeker after such information to get it without using the reference librarian as intermediary.

Yet Oboler has already recognized the likelihood that many or most homes would have “terminals.” How does the second sentence follow from the first? It’s that sort of logic, perhaps, that brings Oboler to dismiss the remarkably prescient suggestions of Fay Blake and Jan Irly that public libraries could and should use the computer and information services similar to those used by business and industry. “Freed from the limitations of the profit incentive, the public library could become the single most important community information resource, calling on existing data bases when appropriate, creating additional data bases of its own and appropriate to its community, using technology for the maintenance and updating of current community information, and providing such extensive information without user charges as the right of all and not the privilege of those who can pay for it.” To a surprising degree, that’s what’s happened—but Oboler simply says, “the inevitable question of ‘who pays for the free lunch’ will have to be answered” and follows that with a remarkably dystopian comment: “With budgets inevitably diminishing, just how will the public libraries of the nation pay the minimums, search fees, and line charges that are the concomitant of database use?” [Emphasis added.] Why would public library budgets “inevitably” diminish? Oboler, an academic librarian, saith not—and, of course, the answer to “who pays for the free lunch” is “the people of cities and counties where library service is regarded as important.”

At the end of this chapter, Oboler undermines his follow-on to Lancaster’s prediction. He uncritically accepts another projection, that tens of millions of homes would have “control centers” (satellite ground stations, cable, and computer, although the latter isn’t mentioned), and that “it may well be the individual at home or in the office who will be doing his own reference work. And what will the reference library and reference librarian do then?” If the reference librarian actually has professional skills, the answer would seem obvious…although it’s a question that still gets asked all too often.

Later, Oboler seems to equate telecommunications with broadcasting. Once more, he views the ideal libraries as “not linked by any national network” (his emphasis). In his afterword, he seems to applaud Lester Asheim’s view of the library as “the mediator in communication exchange.” [Emphasis added] But “the librarian” was never “the mediator” and never can be.

After all this criticism, do I still recommend the book? Yes. To some extent, it’s a period piece. To some extent, it seems to show too much uncritical acceptance of badly flawed assertions. To some extent, it’s awfully gloomy. But it’s worth reading, as the great ones always are.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 4, Whole Issue 47, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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