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Civic Space / Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Information Age

Author: Redmond Kathleen Molz, Phyllis Dain
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: December 1999

 REVIEW 1: Marylou Hale

Civic Space / Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Information Age by Redmond Kathleen Molz and Phyllis Dain is a summary of the history of large public libraries. It is an extremely detailed narration from the beginnings of public libraries in America as well as a lengthy description of policies and procedures of large public libraries today. This book is remarkably well researched, but glancing at the list of libraries in the Appendix reveals that none are small libraries. Four chapters are devoted to the history and policies of large libraries including federal legislation and funding; one is devoted to extending these libraries into the 21st century. None are dedicated to the small public library although funding for rural libraries is discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. The authors do mention in the introduction that they purposely avoided smaller libraries because most Americans live in metropolitan areas. An additional point to consider is that most rural libraries are not easy to visit simply because of where they are located. It is understandable within the context of limited time and travel expenses that rural libraries are not surveyed.

Although this may be true, not investigating smaller public libraries is one oversight that limits the use of this book. Any librarian or library board in charge of a large public library can look to this book for guidance on techniques for creating libraries that will reach well beyond the millenium. However, those in small public libraries that do not have the resources of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Newark might not find this book nearly as helpful. Furthermore, not many one-librarian public libraries in rural America will find much to help them plan libraries within cyberspace. While the large city libraries attract attention because of the masses of people they serve and the ability to provide many unusual services, it is the small library in rural America that is a community resource and truly civic space. It seems impossible to talk about civic space and cyberspace without linking it to the community space of rural America.

The pleasant surprise of this book is the history of federal legislation regarding libraries in Chapter 3 and the funding through federal dollars in Chapter 4. A detailed and timely discussion in Chapter 4 about the federally sponsored and funded e-rate is extremely interesting. Congress soon will mandate or already has mandated filtering on Internet computers because they tied it to the e-rate. In essence, if a library receives the e-rate, they must filter the Internet computers that children use. If they choose not to do this, they must return the e-rate money. Filtering and finances are issues that all libraries face at one time or another. Protests have been organized on both sides of the issue. Most librarians realize that any determined minor can defeat the controls of most filtering software given enough time and patience. Unfortunately, this is an issue that will not go away, and librarians are forced into some kind of action. Chapter 4 of this book details, explains, and defines federal legislation and how it may affect libraries. Several extremely valuable comments on the difficulty of imposing filtering are stated in the introduction. Those comments revolve around the federal government's desire to post all the details of the transcripts of President Clinton's impeachment proceedings. Some of the transcripts would have been defined as pornographic in other contexts. The authors' astute observations about this cannot be overlooked, although the book was published before the trial concluded, so the authors' concrete research and straight presentation of the facts is missing on this subject. That is truly unfortunate.

Also in Chapter 3 is a table that reflects federal aid for public libraries since the federal aid program started in 1957. What is significant about this table is that it is a summary of all federal legislation that has had any impact on public libraries at all. The table is clear and concise because it lists both the date and the legislative action taken including the specific Public Law citation. This makes it very easy to research and find the entire public law. This is very useful for any person interested in tracing the roots of federal support for the American public library.

In Chapter 5, the authors introduce and elaborate on an architecture idea. They express that "new library buildings become an instant . . . attraction" (209). They report large numbers of visitors to the openings of Los Angeles, San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix Public Libraries, implying that the unique designs of these buildings prompted the high visitation numbers. The fact that unique design attracts visitors should come as a surprise to no one. Las Vegas casinos have perfected the art of drawing crowds by offering unusual architecture. These casinos, usually each with equally original architecture, draw unbelievably large crowds. Perhaps it is human nature to be attracted to new buildings with fancy architecture no matter if the building is a library or a casino. However their comment does indicate that the traditional box-style library might not be what people expect of their libraries now or in the future.

In at least two sections, if not more, Molz and Dain make a point to mention the poor people using the public library. However, no procedures are given as to how these people were determined to be poor other than how they looked. Perhaps, this is a bit unfair. The use of civic space for cyberspace is an area in which public libraries can and do excel despite the income level of the people taking advantage of the services. Public libraries narrow the divide between the people who have access to information and technology at home or work and those who do not no matter what the income level is of the participants. Furthermore, just because the neighborhood appears to be poor or even statistically is poor, is no reason to assume that is why the civic space of the library is being used. In an otherwise well-researched and documented book, the lack of supporting evidence in the discussion of the poor using the libraries is a distraction.

In Chapter 5, the authors quote the Gates Foundation as to why that Foundation chose to give to public libraries rather than to school libraries. Such things as providing an environment for lifelong learning, facilities that are open to every person, and the quality of the staff are reasons mentioned by the Gates Foundation for their donations. If the authors had elaborated a bit more on each of these points and across all kinds of public libraries and civic space this book would be a basic "keep-on-your-shelf-what do-I-do next" type of book that every public librarian responsible for technology should have.

However, the aforementioned limitations allow recommendations for only large public libraries and those library school students interested in the history of large libraries and the funding of all public libraries. Scholars and legislators who might be interested in federal aid to public libraries will find this book a great starting place for their research because the book exquisitely and succinctly summarizes federal legislation. The authors have done the major legwork and present their research in an easy-to-read table. Librarians in charge of small libraries will be frustrated by the lack of relevant examples.

Marylou Hale:
Marylou Hale is a Public Service Librarian in charge of technology, reference and adult services at the North Las Vegas Library District in North Las Vegas, Nevada. She received her degree in Library Science from University of Arizona in 1995.  <hmhale@worldnet.att.net>

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