'Free public library' - every reader owns a share

To a dedicated book lover, a library is a wondrous place. Walk through the door, and the pleasant, nose-tingling smell of paper and glue offers a silent welcome, a promise of the literary gold inside, waiting to be mined.

So many books and magazines! So many words filling printed pages and dancing across computer screens! So many ideas, waiting to inspire thought and provoke discussion!

No wonder those three little words, free public library, remain among the sweetest in the language - not only in English, but in any language.

Just ask the 5,573 librarians who traveled to Boston last week from 150 countries to celebrate libraries and to reaffirm the universal importance of free access to information. From Albania and Bangladesh to Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe, they came for the 67th annual conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

Wearing everything from Indian saris to African robes, speaking a multitude of languages, and toting book bags bearing the words Ex Libris, they filled Boston's huge Hynes Convention Center, a veritable United Nations of book lovers brought together by a shared passion for ideas and the written word.

To illustrate the growing universality of information, Alex Byrne, chairman of the federation's Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression, notes a milestone: In the last two months, the balance of information on the Internet has changed. Until now, the majority of that material has been in English. Now, less than half of it appears in English.

"English is still the largest language, but no longer more than 50 percent," Mr. Byrne says. He calls this "an enormous shift."

Yet, whatever the language, access to information, printed and electronic, can still be threatened. Last week, the committee issued its first world report on "Libraries and Intellectual Freedom," documenting the state of censorship in 46 countries.

Threats, Byrne explains, can come from people in political or commercial power who want to restrict access to information, and from religious and ideological leaders who want to impose their own world view.

In Kosovo and East Timor, libraries have been deliberately destroyed. Such destruction, he says, is "actually an attempt to destroy something that is a symbol of a community and tangible parts of culture - language, beliefs."

In France, political interference from French nationalists resulted in the removal of librarians in Provence. "The decisions on what to buy for the libraries are made by the mayor and his officials," Byrne says.

There is also good news. When a Chinese librarian was arrested for collecting resources in China, protests from Byrne and others around the world led to his release.

"That's the power we have," Byrne says, "the power to draw attention to dictatorial practices, thereby shaming them into stopping. We just have to keep dripping water on the stone." He warns that no countries are immune.

In the United States, efforts at censorship take two forms: Either people want to remove printed library material because they disagree with the information it contains, or believe it is harmful. Or they want to limit young people's access to a full range of information on the Internet.

The American Library Association disagrees with such limitations, says Judith Krug, director of the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Still, she remains optimistic, saying, "As the concept of democracy is gaining strength, the world is becoming far more aware of and knowledgeable about the importance of information and access to it."

Libraries face other challenges as well. In the US, large numbers of librarians will be retiring during the next 10 to 15 years. That will require libraries to "aggressively recruit new staff, and make librarianship a very attractive possibility," says John Berry, president of the American Library Association.

It has been half a century since Ray Bradbury published "Fahrenheit 451," his science-fiction portrayal of a society in which books are forbidden, and where books - and the houses that hold them - are routinely burned by teams of gleeful firemen. (The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns.) Because of the fear of being caught owning books, Bradbury explains, "The public itself stopped reading of its own accord."

Every few years, I reread Bradbury's book as a reminder that even in a free society, the priceless right to words on paper cannot be taken for granted.

Free public library. Those words, carved in stone above the entrance to many libraries, signal one of the greatest assets in any community. As the American Library Association neatly puts it: "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries."

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