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Atoms to Bits at the New Main
Apr 29, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

I spent Sunday afternoon in the "New Main," San Francisco-speak for the recently completed new home of the San Francisco Public Library. I walked the staircases, I wandered the stacks. I thumbed through periodicals, I smelled the books. I admired the new Nayland Blake sculpture which scales the five story atrium, illuminating the names of 160 authors -- a new canon in fiber optics.

And I perused the card catalog, which is now plastered on the walls.

Like most modern libraries, the New Main has replaced their card catalog with an electronic database, accessible through dumb terminals throughout the building. No more thumbing through dog-eared cards (like taking a virtual tour through the stacks), but rather a precise keyword search, instant screens of results, and no serendipity. The library isn't just for books anymore. It's an "information warehouse."

In the process of moving to the new building, the New Main didn't entirely dispose of the card catalog, however. Artists Ann Chamberlin and Ann Hamilton spearheaded an enormous effort to take thousands of cards, match them up with the books they represented, and pay members of the public $1 to read the book and write a few sentences of reaction on the card itself. The results of that project are now mounted, floor to ceiling, on walls throughout the building. A life-size reminder of the physical nature of the printed word.

Nicholson Baker, author of a now-famous New Yorker essay denouncing the demise of the card catalog, had a violent reaction to the New Main's catalog project. "It's heartbreaking to a person of my generation: The card catalog really did stand for the library as a smaller, visible, hefty thing. It stood for the books that were in this larger structure....It just feels to me an act of hostility toward the whole printed past, in a way, to throw out the crucial self-published document."

The library pushes ahead nonetheless, replacing its physical doppelganger with a new electronic one; the cards becoming the latest casualty in the transformation of knowledge from atoms to bits.

Not surprising, then, is the fact that the new $137 million building, which has room for something like 3 million physical volumes, is the largest center for free access to the Internet in San Francisco. The whole building is wired. Network jacks on every desk. Blindingly fast Lynx browsers built into every dumb terminal. Dozens of Pentium machines on each floor, hooked into the library's T1, running Windows and Netscape.

And this is what people come for. I wander through the halls, stare over people's shoulders, and find some folks doing some virtual reading. And others guiding their kids through the journey of the Zoombinis. And, of course, I saw more than one user logged on to Bianca's smut shack.

I applaud the efforts of the library to bring free Internet access to the public. The costs and degree of difficulty of connecting to the 'net for the first time users is still extraordinarily high. Not to mention that I'm not sure it's worth shelling out $2,500 for a base system to cruise recycled magazine articles.

But I fear for the library's M.I.S. staff, who has to support and maintain hundreds of computers used by thousands of different people each day. I saw one user launch Microsoft Exchange on a Windows 95 machine. Imagine the possibilities for destruction! The library has only been open two weeks, and I counted about a dozen PC's which already had "Out of Order" signs taped on them.

It's too bad the New Main couldn't wait a year or so to install their machines, because they're the perfect market for the Network Computer. Since the library's existing PCs are really single-purpose machines (web-browsers), they could have cut their installation and support costs dramatically by installing (presently mythical) $500 web terminals instead of $3,000 Pentiums.

The folks behind Apple's Pippin, Oracle's NC and Diba's Internet should take note. The folks who surf at the library most likely don't surf at home. They're a captive audience. Give your machines away to public libraries across the country. Let them see first hand how easy it is to get out on the web with your machine. And in exchange for the hardware, work a deal for library-wide marketing rights. Apple should be a natural at this -- they leveraged sales of millions of Apple IIs though the educational market.

Of course, if the library's M.I.S. staff gets overworked, and their network goes down, patrons may have to revert to the world of atoms for their hypertextual fix. As Nicholson Baker says, "the footnote is the poor man's hypertext. It's not fancy. You don't need any software at all. All it takes is a little number, a little asterisk, and smaller type."



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