Commentary: Outcry at Library Meeting Justified by Substantial Issues By ZOIA HORN

Friday May 06, 2005

I was sorry to read the public meeting of the Library Board of Trustees last Wednesday characterized as resembling a “high school pep rally.” I have attended public meetings when important issues that meant a great deal to the attendees, and this one was another good example of democracy in action. (In San Francisco Public Library during the fees for computer service fracas, in Oakland, when a Military Academy was foisted on the city despite the standing room only meetings and negative votes by Boards of Education of Oakland and Alameda County). The Berkeley Public Library Board of Trustees President, Laura Anderson quietly, but firmly determined that everyone who wanted to speak, would do so. Surely there were outcries, clapping and some booing, but all were heard. It was the substance, the sharing of information and concerns, the search for solutions that mattered more than the formal manners that often suppress what needs to be aired. 

Much information came from experienced staff members, some with great clarity, some even with eloquence. Passions ran high. The issues were serious: jobs were at stake; changes had been made that undermined years of devoted building of neighborhood branch services; librarians and other workers had felt that they were being treated like interchangeable machine parts with little respect given to their expertise and experience in the area of major decisions that would affect the library, its patrons and the Berkeley community. 

The unexpected defeat in November of the ballot measure that would have raised property taxes for the library was a shock. Berkeley for many years had fervently supported its libraries. Budget shortfalls caused the Director to propose layoffs, apparently “the second set of layoffs in 12 months” as mentioned in American Libraries (April 2005, p13). There have been some changes since then, some moneys have been found, but the frustration and resentment grew. 

Added to that was the commitment to a $650,000 investment in the “radio frequency identification device” (RFID) project that required much preparation. This new-to-libraries technology would allow patrons to charge out their books and eliminate long lines. It has been used to track cattle, prisoners, merchandise etc., only recently, libraries. A sad failing among librarians has been an attempt to emulate businesses. When businesses and industries create and adopt new technologies, they expect it will reap more profits by eliminating labor costs. Libraries are not, and were never meant to be businesses. Public libraries and librarians are part of our commitment to a democratic society that relies on informed citizens to participate in their own government. 

This new technology has not been adequately tested. In Eugene, OR, I saw, behind the scenes, the conveyer belt dropping books into specific bins for shelving. (That is the next step that can be expected). But some bins were overflowing. The books still have to be shelved, and in Berkeley library, it was indicated at the meeting, it has far too few shelvers. The expectation of even 90 percent self-charge-outs has not been realized in the few libraries that use RFID. Patrons need help.  

As with many technological devices, things go wrong and dependency on quick repairs if often illusory. Some weeks ago I phoned the BPL for a recorded musical composition only to be told the computer had been down for several days and although the librarian valiantly tried to find it, it was an impossible task since it could be in an anthology of many small pieces. With RFID the consequences could be a mountain of returned books that couldn’t be discharged, and therefore not shelved, or couldn’t be borrowed without resorting to paper and pencil? 

The very real concern for repetitive motion syndrome and the worker compensation costs that were used as one justification for the RFID project seemed to shrink as the only solution to a problem that might be dealt with in less dramatic and costly ways. Asking for staff participation in finding solutions might produce useful suggestions. 

Very disturbing is the danger to our privacy that this new technology presents. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Freedom Foundation are concerned and are wary about the devices. In our present climate of fear and government intimidation as evidenced by the USA Patriot Act, we do not want our libraries even as unwitting participants in surveillance and spying. 

As a retired librarian from public, university, school and special libraries and a long-term advocate and fighter for intellectual freedom I urge that we affirm our commitment to free, equal access to publicly-supported libraries and schools as essential learning centers for democratic living. That must include support for the librarians and teachers who touch and teach us throughout our lives.