Freedom of Information
I’ve been distracted lately by library history. Any suggestions of good books on the subject are welcome. As the keywords are common, net searches just aren’t providing much in the way of useful information. I’ve found some compendium sites, but I'm really looking for a more general overview. For the first time in a long time, I actually had to turn to an encyclopedia, and gasp may have to physically visit a library to satisfy my craving. All the books I’ve seen so far seem too tangential, and expensive to add to my personal collection without reviewing them first. I thought a few years ago that I might go into the LIS field, but I got distracted by writing.
The article in Encarta was surprisingly helpful, but filled with vague generalities:
Fundamental shifts in economies and political structures throughout Europe during the 16th century forced libraries to assume new practices and responsibilities. Members of the growing middle class benefited from the emergence of capitalist economies during this period. They soon began to demand access to information that could help them solidify and advance their socioeconomic position. Libraries eventually became a central source of information for most Europeans.
The phrase “began to demand access to information” needs to be substantiated by contemporary references. Who demanded? What tracts are there on the subject? Inquiring minds want to know. This assertion echoes Ian Watt’s version of the history of the novel, where the “middle class” suddenly becomes responsible for everything. I suspect it isn’t that simple.
If the demand for public access to information was so prevalent in the sixteenth century, why did it take until 1850 for public libraries to gain support in England? I’m somewhat familiar with circulating libraries, and the growth of the coffeehouse as an information center as well as a seller of stimulants. What I wasn’t familiar with was the seemingly crucial role of the colonies in fostering the growth of libraries as a public institution. The target of libraries in the US was not just a middle class, but seemingly everyone. The missionary zeal of the Puritans was also applied to increasing print literacy in the new colonies.
The problem of free information is always rests on the question— who pays for it? National libraries and theological libraries are paid for because they feed the egos of the institutions. University libraries are paid for largely through charity, and thus feed the egos of the patrons like John Harvard. England seemed to coast along on dubious business models, somewhat like the modern video rental business, where subscriber support provided for the acquisition of new material. But in the US, the distribution of printed materials was at first, primarily pragmatic— it rested on the consequences of use.
Between 1695 and 1704 clergyman Thomas Bray of Maryland established 70 small circulating libraries of carefully selected volumes meant to convert the natives. This to me just speaks of egotism of a different kind, but his gift to South Carolina did result in the passage of an act creating the first public library in the US in 1700. Rich planters established schools that even the poor were allowed to attend in 1757, and libraries as public, civic institutions seem to be entrenched in the US long before most other countries. These facts shock and amaze me. The first tax-supported public library was formed here in 1833, compared to 1852 for England and 1869 for Australia. The easy access to information seems to be pivotal in the formation of stable social structures, regardless of initial motives.
Business models eventually seem to break down in the face of the demand for access. But they stubbornly cling, in some countries longer than others. This seems worth of consideration in light of the battles over intellectual property in electronic information systems. Free distribution of information is good— from a purely pragmatic standpoint— and produces a promising future. But that nagging question always remains— who pays? I don’t think our present short-sighted republican administration will be willing to pay the bill, and the middle class which elected it doesn’t seem to be too hungry for information.