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Library: the most powerful tool on the planet

By turmeric in Op-Ed
Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 11:11:39 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

I used to live a 15 minute walk from a University Library. It had 2 million volumes and took several dozen newspapers, journals, and magazines from around the world. It had copies of the New York Times dating back into the 1800s. It had databases full of millions of articles from reputable peer reviewed magazines and journals, and 'summaries' of even more articles. Moving away from this library has drastically changed my ability to think about and reason about issues, for the worse.


Recently I tried to post a story on Kuro5hin. Someone told me I needed to go 'read Lewindon at Harvard'. I assume this means some professor named Lewindon at Harvard. If I were back in my University Library, I could look this up in about 5 seconds. But now, over this 28.8 connection to a crappy ISP, I have no way to look up this guy. If you add up all the time I have to wait for goddamn banner ads to download while hunting for information about this guy and what his theories and ideas were, it would probably add up to several minutes. In the library, everything was on a T1 line. In the library, I could have instantly looked up every book he has ever written on FirstSearch, an extremely expensive but extremely useful database of just about every book that has ever been published and put in the Library of Congress. This would have told me his full name, some summaries of his books, and maybe some other stuff. With this information I would have had alot easier time tracking him down and what he is all about. Furthermore, if his theories were famous or significant, it is quite likely that among the 2 million volumes within the library he would have had 3 or 4 of his books sitting on the shelf, not a 5 minute walk away. If the library did not have the books I could have done 'interlibrary loan', which would have automatically notified me via e-mail in about 2 weeks that the book had come in and that I could come pick it up.

If Mr Lewindon has written something in any magazine or newspaper such as the New York Times or Science or Newsweek or The Journal of Evolution Theory, or The Journal for the Student of Evolution, or Time, or anything, I would be able to look it up in the various library databases within about 5 minutes. I would either be able to print out the articles on the library printers for 5 cents a page, or I would be able to find the magazine itself on the library shelves/microfilm/microfiche, which would take maybe 30 minutes. I would be able to interlibrary-loan the articles which would be faxed within a few days if they were not immediately available to me.

By the way, all of this was 'no cost' or 'low cost' for students, it was somehow included in the overall 'end of semester' bills. Certainly much less than the average american pays for the french fries and sugar-water at the local McDonalds every day.

But at home, I have no idea who the guy is. I have looked on google and found basically absolutely nothing. If I searched for 5 more minutes I might have more luck, but I seriously seriously seriously doubt that any of his real articles are on the internet. Why? Well, Copyright fascsists of course, who want to let only rich people have access to ideas so that they can sit in their New York apartments drinking double moco latte and spending their whole lives shoving words around and making us 'country bumpkins' grovel for it.

This town I am in has a public library, in fact it has about 15 or 20 of them spread out in different branches. They have lots of books about home electrical repair, second rate novels, time, and national geographic. But they are nowhere close to a real university library, where the true and important ideas of the 'people who run the world' are layed out for the public to see.

Out here, I have no way to analyze the ownership relationships between companies, to dig up 10 year old articles on the beginning of an organization or the history of an individual, out here I have no access to the books that make revolutions, I merely have access to oodles of 'second hand material' off of the internet.

In short, I would like to say that perhaps I would be happier if I had never been to a public university with a proper library of 2 million volumes, with good databases and interlibrary loan. I would never know that I was missing anything, I would have no conception that the rich people in large cities have access to actual research facilities that the poor and the distant could only dream of. I would have no knowledge of the brutal and disgusting disparity between those who think it is OK for them to decide everything for the rest of us, who hoard the truth for thesmelves, and the poor schleps who must live with whatever goggle eyed elitist decisions they come up with, while we sit around blabbering with half baked ideas that we can only research so far before we run up against 'copyright: you cannot view this' or 'this material is unavailable to you'.

I am quite disgusted to think that the greater mass of people should somehow have 'less access' to the ideas that shape the very fabric of our lives, to the people and stories that run the world, it is sorely undemocratic, it is the most horrible crime committed by the elite against the lower class. Slave owners used to kill slaves for reading or teaching others to read, surely they knew the same thing that our corporate copyright fascists know in modern times: information is power, to control information is to control everything. Naturally the belief that the upper class must control the lower class extends to the current reality: a vast uninformed lower class whose access to information is relegated to dippy jocks and prom queens blabbering out whatever is on the teleprompter on the nightly corporately controlled news, the pathetic 'good old boy' local newspaper, and several dozen hours of TV advertisements a week.

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Poll
the library
o is extremely important when making an idea or argument 34%
o is sort of important when making an idea or argument 39%
o is pretty unimportant when making an idea or argument 25%

Votes: 43
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o Google
o Also by turmeric


Display: Sort:
Library: the most powerful tool on the planet | 34 comments (18 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
Tip (4.22 / 9) (#4)
by medham on Wed Feb 20, 2002 at 08:35:27 PM EST

Lewontin's The Dialectical Biologist, where he outlines his eugenicist theories, should be available at most good-sized bookstores.

I believe that local libraries have ILL, also. Your point about the importance of the research library and the poverty of internet resources in comparison is a good one.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.

Cost (2.00 / 1) (#10)
by Anonymous 7324 on Wed Feb 20, 2002 at 11:48:42 PM EST

ILLs in most public libraries cost the patron. All mine here at the uni are free...

[ Parent ]
Are they really free? (none / 0) (#13)
by TON on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 01:25:44 AM EST

I betcha pay a pretty penny to go to Dartmouth. Somebody pays for those ILLs; maybe you. You just don't get nickled and dimed to death.

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis

Ted


[ Parent ]

Not all libraries charge for ILL (3.50 / 2) (#22)
by Hillgiant on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 09:08:48 AM EST

Off the top of my head, neither Houston Public nor Dallas Public charge for ILL. If your library charges a fee for ILL, I can assure you that it is there to limit abuse rather than actually fund the actual ILL.
Patron: "I need the complete works of {obscure but prolific author}"
Librarian: "Okay, we don't have those here, but {big city} central does. Please fill out this form and we will contact you when they are in."
<time passes>
Librarian: "We got those books."
Patron: "What books?"
Librarian: "The ones by {author} you wanted."
Parton: "Oh, didn't I tell you? When you told me it would take {time} for them to get in I decided I would do my term paper on {foo}. Sorry."

-----
"It is impossible to say what I mean." -johnny
[ Parent ]

Enough ranting. (3.13 / 15) (#6)
by premier on Wed Feb 20, 2002 at 08:38:12 PM EST

For a few bucks a month you can subsribe to online services with the same capabilities as the service you describe being located in your campus library.

If you expect sympathy from me because you live in a "rural" area with 28. modem ISP access, keep dreaming.

It sounds to me like you are cockier, spoiled and more elitist than those who "sit in their New York apartments drinking double moco latte and spending their whole lives shoving words around .."

In short, quit whining about not being able to get copyrighted works for free off your home internet connection. If you would spend a little more time research the services available to you, you would have found the information in less time than it took you to write your meandering, whiny rant.

But that takes MONEY. And EFFORT. (4.16 / 6) (#8)
by mech9t8 on Wed Feb 20, 2002 at 09:28:22 PM EST

And it obviously doesn't take any of that to get world-class university-level research facilities. The only reason every pissant library in the country doesn't have 2 million volumes by Levontin is because the big city Illuminati are keeping the lower classes down.

[There are intelligent things people could say about information access in rural areas, or about copyright controlling the access of information. And, on the other hand, how the Internet is revolutizing the spread of information - try looking up from home ANYTHING on Levontin, or Palestine, or Afghanistan, or anything else even five or ten years ago. But, of course, this article says nothing intelligent on either. This article is a rant and a troll, probably caused by frustration after someone misspelled Levontin's name. How it's getting voted UP is beyond me.]

--
IMHO
[ Parent ]
Library of Congress (3.20 / 5) (#7)
by wiredog on Wed Feb 20, 2002 at 08:54:34 PM EST

at loc.gov

Peoples Front To Reunite Gondwanaland: "Stop the Laurasian Separatist Movement!"
Twilight Zone (4.50 / 8) (#14)
by Torgos Pizza on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 02:14:51 AM EST

Adapted from an old Twilight Zone episode: I'm the only one left. Now I have all the time in the world just to sit here at my computer terminal and do my online research. Yes, all the time in the world.

Windows Protection Error

No... It isn't fair! I had all the time in the world! It isn't fair! I had time now! It isn't fair!

I intend to live forever, or die trying.

Thank you... (4.77 / 9) (#19)
by yicky yacky on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 05:39:19 AM EST

...for correcting a misperception on my part.

I was labouring under the erroneous supposition that the most powerful tool on the planet was George 'Dubya' Bush.


yicky yacky
**************
'The actual reasonable Britons are correct, you're being a cock.' - Hide The Hamster.
Absolutely (3.50 / 2) (#24)
by epepke on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 12:17:35 PM EST

You know the "Cathedral of Books" sequence in Wings of Desire? That's how I feel when I go into a really good library.

I used to live near FSU and, for a hobby, went and researched "popular facts" to see if they were true (no surprise; they usually weren't). One concerned how much money men and women earned. I followed the trail to Series P-60 of the Curent Population Reports by the Bureau of the Census. I went down into the basement of the library, and there were shelves and shelves of the damn things, going way back. There were also a lot of related reports and one-time specials which were very interesting. The experience of getting lost in a really good library is something.

After doing this a lot, and realizing that most of the people I argued with seemed to be clueless, I wondered if maybe having access to these resources were unusual. To test out the hypothesis, I went to the downtown Los Angeles public library. This library is HUGE. I went looking for a Series P-60. The guy at the reference desk had never heard of it. "We have Stat Ab," he said. After traversing the hierarchy of higher-ups and getting them to root around for a while, they managed to produce a single issue, a couple of years out of date.

It feels like we are swimming in information, but our link to it is far more fragile than it seems.


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


Darn Tootin' (4.00 / 4) (#25)
by cannis on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 12:32:14 PM EST

All those books are great, plus in the cage you can find all the books about demons that Giles uses to help Xander, Buffy, and Willow. :)

Unfortunantly, all the local libraries (except for the one downtown and the Vanderbuilt library) in Nashville suck, with the youngest non-fiction books being from around 1992. But hey, budget cuts happen.
"you'd probably be the first to blame women for getting raped too.." - infinitera displaying his best debate tactics.
Lazy (Intra-library loan) (2.50 / 2) (#27)
by JJunken on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 04:37:28 PM EST

First of all, freedom of information in any context says nothing about convienience of access to the information. 1. Simply because your file trading activities make your browsing painfully slow does not mean you can't access information, it means you need to prioritize your time online. If you're on a crappy connection, then set up transfers of large files while you sleep. 2. You're not "cut off" for not living in a town in with a huge academic library. Meet the concept of "intralibrary loan." Most libraries can and will work to borrow books from other libraries, so basically, if your library doesn't have it, they can get it. 3. (2a) Most libraries are happy to take requests for books to consider purchasing. Obviously they're more concerned with ordering things the general patrons are interested in, but I've never had any real trouble talking them into picking up all kinds of esoteric maths and art books over the years. Conclusion: Information is accessible relative to your will to attain it. Because it's not handed to you gratis does not reflect a conspiracy. 3. There are sites a-gogo that sell used books on all sorts of topics... alibris, amazon, etc.

True, but not that inaccessible (2.00 / 1) (#28)
by vastor on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 04:54:50 PM EST

Some university libraries will let non-students pay for access to the books etc. I think it works out to be a few hundred dollars a year here or something like that and the numbers of books that can be borrowed are less than students get, but it'd get you access to plenty of things.

But I certainly agree, the resources at a decent sized university library are vastly more useful than much of what you'll find on the internet.

Here you could just walk into the university library and check things if you need to anyway, it's only if you want to borrow them that paying would be required (and if you just want an occassional 20 page journal article you can always photocopy it). Though I'm not sure this is approved of (certainly wouldn't be if lots of people did it, but I doubt anyone cares about the occassional person), but there is nothing to stop non-students just walking into the library and taking things off to read at the tables.


Try harder (4.50 / 2) (#29)
by Snookles on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 05:18:48 PM EST

turmeric-

I appreciate your lament of lost access. As a librarian, I fight for people's access to information every day.

Public libraries have to select their collections to meet the needs of a wide variety of users. As you noted, online databases are expensive, but so are the reference periodicals and journals that you were hoping to have access to. I am certain that a library system with 15-20 branches has access to FirstSearch, which is used by all libraries for cataloging, and I know that they have access to Interlibrary Loan, which is a national system. If you spend a few minutes with a reference librarian, I'm sure that he or she will give you assistance in finding information. In fact, if you want to send me your request (karl -AT- yoyology -DOT- com) I'll be glad to see what I can find for you.

Missing the point (2.00 / 1) (#31)
by rigorist on Thu Feb 21, 2002 at 11:24:25 PM EST

The folks talking about how easy it is to get ILL, etc. are missing the point. The point is the _ease_ of access ot information. Sure, if you know the precise book and author you are looking for, ILL is a breeze. However, part of the fun and thrill of a research library is going into the stacks to find something in particular and then finding all sorts of other interesting things on the shelf which you would NOT find looking in the catalogs. Or the fun of just paging through issues of some journal, reading the abstracts and seeing if the article might be interesting.

This is one of the things about being a student I miss. I miss it almost as much as having someone to make breakfast for me every day. Pop Tarts and coffee, anyone?

::bangs head against wall:: (4.50 / 2) (#32)
by DarkZero on Fri Feb 22, 2002 at 09:08:35 AM EST

People, you're completely missing the point of this article. In fact, you're missing it by about a mile. The point isn't that all of this information is inaccessible to people that don't live near a big library. Of course there are things like inter-library loan. The point was that the internet has created an opportunity to have a gigantic library of information available at almost everyone's fingertips, but instead of that happening, we have bizarre copyright restrictions that apply to the entire internet, but do not apply to libraries. Instead of getting all of the information that people and libraries can put collectively put together being put on the internet, we end up with things like Project Gutenberg, which is restricted to books that were made before 1923 (most books published before 1923 are no longer copyrighted). Because of copyright restrictions and extensions, as well as laws like the DMCA and several others that are twisting pieces of information into tools of federal crime, libraries are the only places that are allowed to hoard information and make it cheaply accessible to the public.

This article wasn't so much about small libraries being difficult, but instead about the missed opportunity that the internet presents for large caches of information that can be made available to millions of people, and that that opportunity is being missed because of copyright laws. Personally, I whole-heartedly agree.



Libraries (none / 0) (#33)
by ppettijohn on Fri Feb 22, 2002 at 10:47:42 AM EST

I would have to agree that you miss the point when you focus on how to overcome the barriers to information, and not the ways in which they are constructed to exclude, as turmeric rightly noted, the poor of all countries, and all poor countries. If you think turmeric has it bad in US public libraries, consider the condition of scientists and scholars in the developing world--they are at univesity libraries, and they can't afford the core journals in their field. At the inflationary prices of proprietary databases and journals, it is not too long in the future that only the largest, best endowed research libraries will be able to afford even a representative sample of what is out there. Yes, I know there are international programs that are working to help developing nations buy information, but that misses the point as well. Thanks, Turmeric, but watch out for that research library at a large public institution. When you read about state and federal budgets being axed, remember that no one wants to spend millions on libraries, because Hey, everything is on the Internet, isn't it?

hmm (none / 0) (#34)
by nomadic on Fri Feb 22, 2002 at 05:04:38 PM EST

Spelling it Lewontin might get you some hits...

Library: the most powerful tool on the planet | 34 comments (18 topical, 16 editorial, 0 hidden)
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