Free Space Report

The stated purpose of the Berkeley Public Library is free access to information. The model is that all walks of the public life can use it. Yet recently, with the all pervasive state budget crisis, libraries have had to fire employees, tighten new material spending, and shorten hours. The result, of course, is that working people in the commuter/9-5 lifestyle will not be able to access the books (as if the monotony of today’s working life lends itself to inspire bookish folks anyway). Also, students seeking to hunker down with the ever increasing work load of schools will have less time to study for free. Though the cutting of these library services are only a small blow to our progressive/sensible community repository, the whole picture looks rotten.

Thank crom they rebuilt the main branch library a couple of years ago. Trying to manage money issues during such a Republican coup as we currently live under would be hard to imagine. Still, the library is one of the most endeared public resources of our city. Well, that is, until one contemplates the transformation of a public resource in the age of privatization. I think the public library issue points to the root of this problem: we are treating every public space as if they were businesses. The top brass have a penchant for large salaries, at a time when pay cuts for them would mean more jobs and more services for all. Berkeley’s development trend has followed a model of everything-new-and-sanitary, that is, a shopping mall model. This model has been replicated with the San Francisco and Oakland libraries. In fact, one wonders if this style is a majority of American libraries. I know some would bemoan any criticism of cleanliness and order, but the ugly repercussions of such policies are akin to when San Francisco threw away hundreds of thousands of books. It wasn’t until they were in the process of moving into their new building that many openly wondered how little shelf space there was. Like S.F., Berkeley remodeled its old building so that it has an open feel to it. The problem is that it has yet to be fully staffed as the old building was.

Another side effect of treating information as a product is an emerging technology called Radio Frequency I.D. These tiny chips will be embedded in every book…and we don’t even know if they work correctly yet!

This whole endeavor will be costly while the whole library is under staffed and struggling for money. There are those who fear these chips were being geared for placement in every product and hence making our private lives traceable to people who would normally creep you out. This technology, already ushered in at the S.F. library, is set to appear in Berkeley in an eye’s blink. The question is easy for library managers: the primary concern of libraries is book theft (that is, if you can steal them before they get thrown out!). And I can relate to this, as I’ve seen both sides: being a hateful, heavy metal amoral teen who saw libraries as a part of the alienating environment, and (now) identifying as a lover of rare information and print. I know how few some documents exist, how fragile they are. Once gone, they’re not even a memory. Also, the radio chips are cited as being useful in cutting down on repetitive motion employees make. Eventually, they could replace the workers with self check-in and check-out, cutting perceived budget drains such as workers comp. Aldous Huxley wrote that the new fascism would be clothed in the guise of efficiency! What happens when bureaucracies are run by machines?

Local librarians assure privacy to a paranoid public who complain about possibility of privacy invasion. They claim that the chips will only activate information on the book itself with no patron data. They say they can be made this way, unlike consumer chips, but this is not a given. It is possible that the R.F.I.D.s will be as incompetent as much of the world’s modern technologies are. At least one could hope they are capable of being subverted. Is there a way to block the signal much like some places can block cell phones?

The whole battle taking place with the public sphere troubles me. Libraries around the world are small spaces that people liberate themselves in. Many of the lands that America plunders, sorely need the breadth of mind that a place like the Berkeley Library holds. But with the T.V.’s leaders chanting never ending war, libraries are more likely to burn. A real example of this plunder is the burning of Iraq’s library, erasing a people’s memory. This is a step in genocide or forced submission to live like the West wants them to live. In American cities today the war pigs don’t exert their death technology like they blatantly do to rouge states. But it is a devastation nonetheless. Albeit slower and not as obvious, its motivation is still money.