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[Edited version of a speech given by Lorne Bruce at Kitchener Public Library, Monday, Oct. 16, 1995]


The Information Age: what is it?
The Public Library's Role: what is it?


It is a pleasure to be here today to help celebrate Ontario's Library Week. Although I have been an academic librarian for many years, I fondly remember working in and using public libraries. Just recently, I returned to King City library this past June to observe the twenty-fifth anniversary its opening. King City was one of the first smaller public libraries to open in York Region after the 1966 Public Libraries Act consolidated the older association libraries. We must remember it is important to have celebrations, to mark anniversaries, to promote and to market public library services. In this area for example, we have three of the oldest public libraries in Canada--Guelph formed in 1883, Kitchener in 1884, and Waterloo in 1888. Certainly, the Kitchener library has been prominent in Ontario circles for a long time. We recognize the outstanding contributions of Mabel Dunham to Canadian librarianship. We can look back sixty years to the Great Depression when the first national library study, Libraries in Canada, noted that Kitchener possessed one of the best collections of lantern slides and German books in Canada. So a tradition of fine service to the community measured by provincial and national trends has long been a standard in this community.

As for Library Week in Ontario, we should remember that 1995 is the one hundredth anniversary of our first provincial Public Libraries Act. Previous to 1895, free libraries coexisted beside mechanics' institute libraries and literary society libraries. These organizations received grants from agriculture and education departments up until 1895 and have a complex history in their own right. But it was exactly a hundred years ago when our provincial legislature consolidated and combined a number of acts into one under the Dept. of Education with the result that the public library concept and terminology that we are familiar with today was first established in Ontario. Much has changed on the municipal and provincial scene over time, but the public library which is managed locally and normally does not directly charge for services has continued grow throughout this century as we can see from the following logarithmic graph on population served, circulation, and books held.

So much for progress and advancement. What is the public library doing today? Right now there are many challenges, perhaps too many for comfort. Management challenges, e.g. budgets--they are always a problem. Technological challenges, e.g. computers--they are always being upgraded. Educational challenges, e.g. learner centred environments created by the proliferation of information. There are, of course, other challenges, but I want to speak about the incredible growth of information that seems at times to engulf us and to submerge libraries. We are familiar with the general trends surrounding the universe of information. After all, it is the subject of many popular books and magazine articles such as the recent October issue of National Geographic on the information revolution. Currently, we are undergoing a synthesis of scholarly/popular interpretations of the time and society we are living in. I am sure many of us are familiar with Alvin Toffler's Third Wave and its predictions for future change, but he is only one of many seers. For a moment, I would like to link some of these societal conceptualizations with books we may remember from the past half century in the following table. Many of these contemporary accounts seem to suggest that we have entered into a new era in which information about societal political/economic structures is the key ingredient in our lives. To some extent, we are overwhelmed with the enormous quantity of material that touches on this subject.


The Information Society or Information Age is a new phenomenon since 1950 which brings with it new challenges as we seek to integrate an expanding universe of print and multimedia sources into our daily lives. The two terms often are used to describe a cybernetic society in which there is a great dependence on the use of computers and data transmission linkages to generate and transmit information. By contrast, our familiar reference frame of an industrial society relied on machines to augment human physical labour to produce goods and services. Now, through a process of continual change, geographic barriers are being dissolved, businesses are more interconnected, and relationships between workers and workplace are changing more rapidly.

However, information (or data, or ideas, or knowledge) has long played, in one way or another, a significant role in human culture and society, and has shaped, over a long period of time, the way in which we behave and think. I think what is now proclaimed to be the Information Age is terminology that can be applied in to all stages of human development. We must recognize that improvements in communications during the industrial period since 1800, and I am speaking of the telegraph, telephone, postal delivery, radio, television, and modern printing presses, have been in part a response to the need to process more information. For example, just think of one historical period taught in school, the Renaissance. It is regarded as a rebirth of knowledge, the rediscovery of and transmission of ideas and texts about classical authors which transformed European culture and thinking in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries. In a historical context, Information has been with us a long time. One can illustrates themes in information by looking at literacy, censorship, the organization of knowledge, the economics of information, and roles which institutions such as the public library and schools have played.

The definition of Information varies incredibly. It is often used interchangeably with terms such as data, knowledge, understanding, messages, wisdom, and ideas. I am not going to discuss the lexical nuances at length. Instead, I prefer to use the term broadly in the way it is used across many disciplines and in many countries today. We talk and read about consumer information, management information systems, information technology, information overload, the information highway, and so on, all the time. In the past fifty years information has assumed an important new meaning. In a new sense, borrowed from the sciences, Information has come to express whatever can be transmitted through a channel connecting a source with a receiver. What is being communicated, a message, is information. Considerations about the character or quality of what is being transmitted--a legal live broadcast of the judgement in the O.J. Simpson trial or the latest evening hockey score in the newspaper--become less relevant in this sense. The older distinction between information as mostly specific data with a potential usefulness and knowledge as aggregated thought that is applied usefully has eroded. In this process, information has almost come to subsume knowledge.

In the twentieth century there has been a radical transformation in the role of information in society as well as in the technology used in its production and dissemination. At the turn of the last century, printed information reigned supreme in Europe and North American communities. This, of course, is no longer the case. New electronic forms of communication have multiplied, reducing the primacy of the print medium, but not yet displacing it. Instead, each new form of communication has supplemented printing and publishing (we must remember that more than two billion copies of books are produced in North America alone each year). Whole new industries, such as television and cable networks, each with its own set of directions and organization, have grown up around each of these new forms of communication. The proliferation of communication technology has also brought with it a situation in which the content of these various forms of communication are merging as forms of digitalized information which combine print, voice, video, and graphics for educational and recreational purposes.

Just as the printing press served as an agent of change in the nineteenth century, so have telecommunications given us the capacity to transfer information instantaneously across vast distances in the twentieth century. The advent of the telegraph in the 1830s, the telephone in the 1870s, radio, which came into being in 1901, and television shortly afterwards had by mid-century led to the slogan "Global Village." Thirty years after Marshall McLuhan, the computer has effectively established itself as the dominant means of handing textual material as well as numeric data. Combined with telecommunications systems, the computer appears to have created a major turning point in the history of information. It is this amalgamation of new systems, and t he emphasis, perhaps even devotion, that is placed on information, that have brought into being the phrase "Information Age."

Today there is a significant new approach to the production, storage, distribution, and use of various types of information. Previous information "systems," such as the book, were based on the process that the message that entered a system was the message that was received. This is no longer the case: the newer communication technologies on the Internet are interactive, that is the capability of modifying messages and creating new messages exists within the system. As well, in the new systems, such as electronic bulletin boards, information is controlled to a greater extent by managers who store and transmit information. In older systems, the original creator or supplier of the information was in control. Thus, a new set of relationships and responsibilities is emerging but has not yet been clearly established, witness problems with copyright and censorship on the Internet under proposed new American legal regulations scheduled for 1996.

The evolving electronic information systems also pose new directions for issues that have been around for some time. Take literacy as an example. It is not longer sufficient to be print literate, i.e. to read and write, and the idea of audio or visual literacy has in turn been supplanted by stress on computer literacy. Literacy has come to be seen as the ability to use information in various forms that it is presented in and to master the skills and techniques necessary to use the systems involved in managing information, a.k.a. computers. Most commentators seem to see this new literacy not only as an expansion of traditional literacy but also an expansion that requires the development of new skills and new ways to deal with information.

Another issue for reexamination is the economics of information. Information in many forms has a high economic value and indeed it is said the information industry is becoming the engine driving our economy. We have become an "information economy" with "information workers" taking their place beside manufacturers, industrialists, steel workers, and cab drivers. In fact, as Alvin Toffler writes in his Third Wave , we have entered a new post-smoke stack economy. Whenever someone watches television, rents a video, or reads a magazine, they are substituting information in place a manufactured product such as a tennis racket or automobile created by the traditional production modes we have known. Information normally is language (radio, TV, books, tapes, magazines) or image (TV, movies, videos) and the information derived from it is relatively inexpensive to replicate. One can verify this by looking in stores at prices for tapes, videos, record albums, cd-roms, and so on. This fact makes for economies of scale since most of the business investment is devoted to developing the first copy.

But from the individual citizen's perspective on information resources, there seems to arise a major issue from this economic transformation. Within a print and broadcast culture the typical user is not expected to invest significant amounts of money into information systems hardware (e.g. books, radios, portable television sets, videos, music recordings). Purchases were made for an item, such as a record, or for a right, such as admission to a movie theatre. However, with the growth of personal and business computing enterprizes and new home games after the mid-1980s, a fundamental alteration is occurring. With computers and telecommunications systems, the user, not the manufacturer, publisher, or broadcaster, becomes responsible for significant financial outlays in the investment in information systems equipment and peripherals, such as Nintendo and modems which require frequent upgrades. Obviously, there is a danger that economically disadvantaged families--indeed whole countries--will not be able to take complete advantage of our information rich universe which is dominated by the English language. This perspective was most recently voiced in the August issue of Scientific American which dealt with foreign language coverage in North American reference sources.

A third area of concern deals with control and freedom of information. Increasingly on a local, regional, national and international scale the regulation of the free flow of information becomes more difficult. A host of issues might be dealt with here, such as censorship in networks, copyright infringements in electronic formats, freedom of information, and the need for personal privacy. Some national governments consider the control of information as a vital element of state policy. Nevertheless , the advanced computerized telecommunication networks make information more readily accessible and make it more difficult to restrict information flow. What we need to balance, to some degree, is the right of the individual to obtain free access to information with the right of individuals to control and limit access to their personal information.

Finally, the role of institutions such as schools and libraries in the dissemination of information has come under scrutiny at a time when public spending is being reduced in stages at the federal and provincial levels in Canada. In the past century, public libraries have developed their own unique sets of procedures for organizing print and audio-visual knowledge. Classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal System have been adopted, reference service desks created, children's departments set up, audio-visual departments organized, interlibrary lending procedures arranged, and so on. Now a glut of information threatens to make libraries irrelevant: in the fictional library of Jorge Luis Borges--the Library of Babel--the librarian is unable to find anything in a collection boasting an infinite number of books.

At a general level, society recognizes that people need to gain access to information. To make the best use of it there needs to be an effective system for organizing information on a community basis so it can be retrieved effectively. The public library has responded to this need in varying ways for many decades through years of economic restraint, as witnessed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and years of growth characterized by the 1960s and 1970s. The question posed in the 1990s returns to the basic functions of the library and what it should offer the public.

To conclude my brief introduction to the so-called Information Age, I would like to stress that divergent views exist about the possible effects of the development of a full-fledged Information Society. On one side, advocates insist that it will e mpower people, providing direct access to opportunities previously unavailable to them. On the other side there are pessimists who believe that the global economic structure that information provides the foundation for will ultimately displace individual s and communities with totalitarian capitalist structures. There is little doubt that the development of information can produce dramatic changes, but it remains to be seen if the nature of those impacts will be determined mostly by the structural requir ements of new computerized technologies or if their impact will be influenced to a greater degree by social/political forces, such as state regulation.

What can be said, however, is that the role of information and related communication technology continues to expand by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. I think, paradoxically at first, that the capacity to strength both centralization and decentrali zation is taking place. Today's management business texts, such as Fifth Discipline and Megatrends 2000 , stress flexible ways of organizing business in a deregulated , privatized environment. Opportunities seem to exist for local or small entrepreneurs who are willing to switch organizational and production facilities freely from one place to another in order to capture a share of a global marketplace. Evidently, the new information networks are no longer tied to places and it is possible to attain a centralization of managerial control and decentralization of production. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see why massive corporate concentrations are taking place in communications, why Disney and ABC are merging to dominate and make money from an industry composed of independent communication enterprises and local broadcast channels.

Finally, new groups and audiences are in the process of interconnection, e.g. electronic mail groups and dial-up bulletin boards, direct telemarketing, and subscription cable television. The principal media--television or video or the computer, and the telephone, are connected in many new networks that are integrating sound, speech, text, data, and images and permitting the connection of persons in lieu of the connection of places. It seems the most important communication patterns of the future wi ll be interaction and conversation, not the hierarchical transmission from a mass communication centre to a mass audience tracked by Neilson ratings or recounted by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Traditional community ties are being replaced by much more selective groupings in diffuse social networks. Further, an increasing number of social activities will rely on integrated online media in place of traditional face-to-face modes, e.g. telemarketing, and so on. As we can see, the Information Age or Society promises to be an exciting time, although it is too early to predict the demise of door-to-door sales!


Let us turn now to the public library. Where does it fit into information revolution which is taking place? As far back as 1950, a prominent scientist, Norbert Wiener, wrote a book, The Human Use of Human Beings , which applied insights gained in the computer technology of his era to the study of human communication systems using information in the new sense. Even at this early stage of the computer era, he emphasized that the proliferation of information reinforced existing relationships by placing a greater burden on society to disseminate and store information.

The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose.

The fact that he specifically mentioned libraries in the same sentence with kindred educational and research oriented institutions indicates to me that he recognized their crucial importance in the next stage of the information revolution.

I feel the basic question to be resolved right now is: will libraries be able to adapt new technologies to information demands during a period of retrenchment in government funding? Well, let us start with some good news. Although the public library generally is viewed today as a print-based institution, I have already referred to the ability of libraries to integrate formats such as films, videos, slides, records, and audio cassettes into their services. This activity began in earnest after the Second World War and continues today. Those of you who have used libraries over the past two decades realize that public libraries have successfully automated their acquisitions, cataloguing and circulation functions and introduced online and cd-rom pro ducts to their reference and interlibrary loan services. There have been successes and some failures along the way, nevertheless, by the mid-1990s it safe to say that most urban public libraries in Ontario serving more than 30,000 people have either made or are in the midst of the transition to automated systems. There is no doubt that libraries can incorporate new electronic formats into collections, in fact, these formats reduce rather than create barriers to public access. The managerial and profess ional expertise therefore exists to deal successfully with new electronic information resources on a community-wide basis.

If we review technical changes in libraries, we can see that online public catalogues have replaced card catalogues which first appeared in Ontario at the turn of the century during the Carnegie building program. Bar codes and wands have replaced the photocharging systems that had become common library procedures by the late 1960s. Online searching of remote databases is another recent innovation: users can ask to have many different searches performed. Full-text retrievable searches are possible , for example from Toronto where the Globe and Mail was the first major newspaper in North America to introduce computerized editions in the late 1970s. Subject specific inquiries can be made outside this country, for example to California where large corporations (like Lockheed Dialog) have establis hed huge database libraries which provide access to many subject areas, especially business, on a fee per use basis. And we must remember that library automation was accomplished during a period of recessions and cutbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, so libraries have not only been able to introduce automation they have been able to achieve economy in operation at the same time.

It seems to me, therefore, that public libraries can build on their knowledge and experience to extend their range of services. It is certain that the electronic information superhighway, the Internet, is offering people the ability to communicate via computers and to make available vast quantities of information that dwarf local library resources as we know them now. Let us be clear that people are not going to stop reading--in fact, digitalized print is a basic staple of the Internet where infor mation is created, shared, modified, "flamed", praised, and so on, every day. What will continue, is the erosion we have witnessed in this century of the book's dominance and centrality. With every passing month, it is becoming more important to identify and evaluate electronic forms of information in order to provide meaningful, balanced collections for public consumption. This process is essentially one that libraries and librarians have been engaged in for decades.

To be successful I think public libraries have to try to develop new services, to provide new resources, and to alter the public perception that libraries are mostly old-fashioned print warehouses that pre-date the modern era. To position the libr ary more firmly in the mainstream, I think its crucial for public libraries to do five things during the next five years.

First , libraries have to employ the power of information technology by emphasizing new roles in their public services. The communications revolution is an important feature of society. Libraries must continue to offer the latest features of telecommunicati ons which integrate sound, text, data, and images. This effort will entail budgetary decisions, and, in a climate of restraint and cutback, lead to the reallocation of declining budgetary resources. Success in the area of technical services that people d o not clearly observe will no longer suffice. As a start, computer workstations should be introduced as public resources where word processing, e-mail functions, electronic newsgroups, cd-roms, and worldwide Internet access are standard services. After all, the public library is a learning centre where many different resources should be utilized. One can easily envisage right now that older newspaper reading areas characterized by tables and racks will be replaced with state-of-the-art computer termina ls that can access hundreds of daily newspapers across North America. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for magazine reading areas: a number of traditional general or specialized periodicals, like Macleans , are now available on a subscription basis in electronic forms. Using software programs, either newspaper stories or magazine articles can be downloaded to disk or printed on paper at workstations on demand, thereby shifting the library's focus to i mmediate service demands away from the time-honoured collection of on-site materials.

Second , partnerships with other organizations have to be developed in the rapidly expanding information universe. The development of regional/metropolitan freenets which permit toll-free access to the Internet across the province is a good case in point. L ibraries must at the very least get their catalogues on local electronic freenets and they should try to play a leadership role in developing local community networks. Librarians have many opportunities to draw on their experience and proficiency in this process. They can select information resources, design user interfaces, or help promote the organization of community information on these networks. Libraries and librarians need to participate in network initiatives by allowing access to library catal ogues around the world and by developing WWW servers with navigational aids that allow people to find or discover information resources. Across the province local networks are in a state of development, e.g. London's homepage efforts and Ottawa's nationa l capital freenet. To date, a number of Ontario libraries (small and large) are responding by developing Internet access and establishing their presence as an information provider.

Third , libraries must strive to promote the concept of end user empowerment, that is to link people with information without an intermediary. Ideally, the idea is to provide an alternative to visiting the library by permitting users to locate and control their own information at their own convenience from home or office on a time basis outside the traditional 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The creation of virtual reference libraries with encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, indexes and abstracts that people can access from outside the library is the next step in the evolution (revolution?) of reference services. But to achieve this goal, librarians need to impart their skills developed over the past decade or so. Finding information on an information highway is not a s easy as it seems: people need direction, training, and skillsets. Frequently, the assistance of an intermediary--such as a librarian--will be required. Electronic information retrieval requires what many retrieval experts have termed recall and precis ion. Recall is the amount of relevant material a searcher finds, usually 50-75% of what is actually available. Precision is the amount of relevant items from a particular search that a user decides to use, usually 50-80% of what was originally located. Obviously, it is easy to see that many searches will produce less than half of what is actually pertinent to a subject search and that searching can become a frustrating activity. Librarians certainly can help information seekers overcome these obstacles .

Fourth , libraries have to dramatically broaden the range of electronic services. It is just not a matter of collecting electronic files. The day is over when library staff can feel comfortable offering an array of print or electronic resources housed in a central library or community branches. The traditional meaning of circulation as it pertains to libraries is changing and this concept has to be rethought. The twentieth-first century electronic library we have heard about should provide access to a va strange of resources and service providers anywhere in the world. It is not necessary to have news from newspapers which are incorporating more analytical and journalistic pieces to retain readership. If you want news from Australia, you can go on the W orld Wide Web and connect with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. A few people can do this from home now: in fact, according to Statistics Canada, Ontario has a growing number of people owning home computers with modems in Canada. Granted that thi s percentage is just under fifteen percent and there is a fundamental restriction--they have the know the information resource exists.

Another future service possibility is to have people login to a local library by computer from their homes or offices and "chat" with staff as they do on Internet Relay Chat channels around the world or fill in an electronic form, post it in an ele ctronic mailbox and receive a response from the library about some specific query, say the status of a previous request or the whereabouts of a circulating item. This organizational response is not as easy as it seems but it is a key area where libraries can play a vital role in providing an environment where research, study, and learning can flourish.

Finally , an image problem needs to be addressed. Libraries need to reimage themselves as important learning organizations where services continually change and improve. Too often, people consider the local public library as a recreational resource and the e ducational or informational role is secondary or overlooked altogether. If libraries are to continue to receive tax funding from municipal and provincial governments, they will have to rethink their traditional mainstay, the circulating collection. The c oncept of reading is changing: the cultural weight is more on visual/factual information in a variety of formats and less on reflective/entertaining book-oriented activity. Although books account for less than five percent of what is printed on an annual basis--newspapers, magazines, brochures, etc. account for the vast majority of "printed" sources--most space in libraries is allocated to books. Is it any wonder that the library is perceived to be a "book place" even though audio-visual departments hav e impressive collections and network structures to deliver off-site resources? This public perception needs to change, something I feel we are trying to do here today.

Already, some steps are being taken in this province to develop libraries as learning centres in a broad sense. Industry Canada's Schoolnet Community Access Project announced in February 1995 that it intends to offer rural communities affordable p ublic access to information resources on the Internet by creating a national network of community access sites. The plan includes libraries. As well, government of Ontario information is now available on-line in over two hundred public libraries with de tails about different ministry services, the location of government offices, MPP's addresses, and Ontario's parliamentary system. The idea of an electronic learning centre--the electronic library--needs to be integrated with the library's long-standing c ommitment to literacy and educational and recreational resources. The library is an important institution for improving literacy skills and helping understand and use information in different formats such as printed texts and computer files.

Taken together, none of these points is a remarkable new starting point. People have been saying libraries need to stress educational services for years, this is why book reading clubs and readers' advisory services were popular in libraries as lo ng ago as the 1920s. Information technology is not new, what is new is the pace of change. Access to resources at a distance is a challenge which interlibrary loan departments have been grappling with for decades. End user empowerment is essentially ne w fandangled terminology for explaining why free public library services have existed for a hundred years. To say that libraries should help people help themselves is to revisit the age of Victoria when Samuel Smiles wrote a best seller, Self-Help , in 1859. Partnerships are not of recent origin, libraries have been cooperating with community groups for decades. It is groups that are new!

To conclude, we need to acknowledge that there is work to be done if Library Week is to continue as a relevant occasion in Ontario. Fortunately, technology offers the library a chance to preserve and enlarge its role in providing access to resourc es in different types of formats. While it is always difficult to predict the future, it appears that public libraries are well-positioned to exploit information technology and interact with their communities and users in meaningful ways. I for one, any way, think that the foundation public libraries have laid is such that continued growth is highly likely. Free access to information and educational/recreational services have been their business for more than a century and it seems that another hundred years is not out of the question.


Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (New York, 1962)

W. Wayt Gibbs, "Lost Science in the Third World," Scientific American 273, 2 (Aug. 1995): 92-99

John Ridington, Mary J.L. Black, and George H. Locke, Libraries in Canada; a Study of Library Conditions and Needs (Toronto, 1933)

Statistics Canada, Household Facilities and Equipment , 1995 (annual), Table 5.6

Joel Swerdlow, "Information Revolution," National Geographic Magazine 188, 4 (Oct. 1995): 5-27

Alvin Toffler, Third Wave (New York, 1980)

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (New York, 1950)

© 1997, Lorne Bruce

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