Runaway InfoExpress

Should the San Francisco Library be pay-per-view?

Annette MacNair grew up in 1940s New York, and when nostalgia gets the better of her, she remembers a library branch on practically every corner. Together with her father, a poorly educated Polish immigrant fleeing poverty and anti-Semitism, MacNair discovered the joy of pawing through the open shelves in their Bronx neighborhood. Dad, a bookbinder by trade, learned most of what he knew about American culture and honed his English skills on Sunday afternoons at the library. He developed an abiding interest in Hasidic politics and the labor movement; his daughter loved the classics.

Today, MacNair, a 66-year-old librarian in the San Francisco Public Library, despairs about the direction of the local system. Frankly, she's pissed. She says San Francisco is deviating from its egalitarian mission of providing free, equal access to information, the mandate that helped her father gain citizenship more easily.

The most immediate example of this ill-considered direction, she says, is something called InfoExpress, a plan by library administrators to enter the information brokerage business.

Under a plan being reviewed by the San Francisco Library Commission, librarians would conduct extensive research on any subject for a fee of $60 an hour. After perusing any combination of 1,500 data bases and numerous printed materials, researchers could then route the info by fax, modem, or messenger for an extra charge.

At first glance, the plan makes all the sense in the world, especially given increased access to information and the hyperdrive public demand for it. But the plan would radically alter the nature of the public library, transforming it from a depository of ideas, where users engage in the search for knowledge, into a brokerage house where all serendipity is stripped away; no one need even show up. Also, entering into a competitive relationship with private info brokers is a highly questionable move, considering the private sector's ability to raise capital, expand, and move a product quicker, farther, and for less money.

But it's the issue of equal access that drives MacNair batty. She and other critics say establishing a secondary, and more valuable, level of services and holding it out of reach of those who can't afford to pay is anathema to the mission of public libraries.

"I use the Orwellian example of some animals being more equal than others," says MacNair. "This is an outrage. It's a genetic battle for me. I have a new grandson, and I want him to be able to enjoy libraries the way me and my father and my children did."

Further fueling the anger of MacNair and her allies is the fact that the InfoExpress processing and delivery fees will only pay part of the cost of running the program. More than half the funding will come from the coffers of the library's general fund, filled mostly by taxpayers who probably can't afford the innovative new program.

In fiscal year 1995, the total cost of InfoExpress will be $144,828. Nearly $60,000 of that cost will be recovered from service fees. But close to $90,000 will come from tax dollars.

Joining MacNair in her opposition is PEN West -- an association of journalists, fiction writers, and editors.

"Information haves and have-nots will become further divided because fee-based services create additional economic barriers to information access for very important segments of the library base: working people, low-income users, and non-profit organizations," wrote Mollie Gregory and Allan Parachini, president and vice chair of PEN West, to the Library Commission.

A group of 57 San Francisco State University and community college students has also protested the plan, submitting a petition to the Library Commission that addresses the widening gap between people zipping along the infobahn and those puttering along the frontage road looking for an on-ramp.

"The majority of students will not be able to afford such costs," the petition states.

And this dispute isn't relegated to cranky San Francisco. The American Library Association is riven by debate on the issue, with the organization split almost in half. Last year, the editor of the ALA Journal, John T. Barry III, came out against the concept of charging fees for services.

InfoExpress critics say that creating a "for pay" sector while the library's traditional core crumbles smacks of empire-building by library admin-istrators. But City Librarian Kenneth Dowlin is confident that InfoExpress is consistent with the system's mission statement. Dowlin is so confident that he voluntarily quotes from the system's official mission statement:

"We are to provide free and equitable access to ..." Dowlin's voice trails off, and he excuses himself to retrieve a copy of the statement, explaining, "Let's make sure I get this right."

Back at the phone with hard copy in hand, he elaborates.
" 'Free and equitable access to information, independent learning, and the joys of reading.' I guess if you're going to nit-pick, [InfoExpress] doesn't quite fit that statement," he allows.

Dowlin adds that the critics' argument ignores the modern convention of user fees for a whole host of government services. He cites park fees, government-subsidized parking lots, and even photocopier fees at libraries.

"I understand their philosophical point, but the bridge of charging fees for service was crossed 40 years ago," Dowlin says.

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