Winter-Spring 2002

Community Networking on the Night Shift, Part Three: Librarians, Community Networks, and Philosophy Lite
by Anne McFarland

In Part 2 of this series, "When A Community Organizer Tries to be a Techie," I detailed my losing battle with technology and publicly admitted to being a technomoron. Hating to leave myself with that label, I have been looking for something that I'm reasonably good at that I could share with community networkers. A few things I've learned from my day job as a law librarian might actually be helpful. So I'm going to divest myself of some philosophy lite, which is what you get when you philosophize on the night shift.

I find myself rereading Tom Grundner's Letters to the Fourth World, which are far better philosophy than I'm capable of, yet I find myself debating some of his thoughts about the relationship of libraries and librarians to community networking.

Two of those letters are online at, in the Original Acorn Menus section under "Community Nets Theme Parks"; the Final Letter is also online at the Los Angeles FreeNet.

The first letter was what got me started in community networking. Much of the philosophy of community networking is in that letter, and there's nothing that I can add to it. The Final Letter was one that Tom agreed to write to those of us at ACORN, the Akron Community Online Resource Network, before he retired from community networking.

In that letter he talked about the radius, the idea that within a ten-mile radius of the center of most reasonably well populated areas there is enough knowledge to answer the questions of everyone within that radius. And he saw that knowledge ranging from what we commonly call "book knowledge" to life experience, which is also what folks are looking for—maybe even thirsting for.

So how does that relate to libraries? And how do libraries relate to community networking? In that Final Letter Tom asks "Would the role of librarians remain largely that of managing printed materials, or would it become that of managing community information--in whatever form?"

My knee-jerk reaction is that, of course, librarians will manage information in whatever form it's in; that's our job. We've managed print, and we've specialized as music librarians and art librarians, to mention a few of the non-print specialties.

The major part of library work has been managing large chunks of information, such as books. The Library of Congress classification and subject heading systems were designed to manage these large chunks. The smaller chunks found in periodicals and other serials are managed by indexes which have the hallmarks of subject heading systems if not classifications.

The Internet is, indeed, a horse of an entirely different wheelbase. A quick check of Google for materials about cataloging the Internet brought up a number of very interesting items, indicating that that concept may have been more daunting than originally thought. I find material on the Internet Public Library, "Pathfinder: Organizing the Web -- Resources for Librarians," helpful in this regard as well as a piece by Anne Callery, a Yahoo cataloger, on "Cataloging the Web."

To the extent that the radius contains people with knowledge that is already in print form and available through libraries and increasingly directly in electronic format on the net, community networkers don't have to worry about including it, let alone organizing it. There's no need to reinvent either the wheel or basic library cataloging systems.

But to the extent that the radius contains personal information, we need to consider collecting and organizing it. This personal information might be an individual's self-publishing of a web page to share his writing, his art, his philosophy. One of the things that we've been playing around with on, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Community Network, is the idea of showcasing local talent—from artists to writers, etc. This is indeed in keeping with the concept of the radius, concentrating on material that is unique to our community.

And I think that this material is complementary to another part of the radius, the information that citizens need to live productively and fully in their local communities and to participate in the governance of those communities. Most people outside a local community could not care less who won the city council or school board election and have no desire to discuss those matters. But the locals do. And the community networks make it possible to keep that information within reach (archiving) as well as to provide forums in which to discuss it.

And how will we organize this material? I think that most community networks are small enough so that organization has not been a major problem. Although there are site search mechanisms, it's a matter of pride for a librarian to arrange content logically enough so site searches should only be necessary as a last resort.

Early on in my career as a librarian, I was a cataloger in an academic library. The stereotype of catalogers is not pretty, but it is as mistaken as other stereotypes of librarians. Cataloging is an intellectual challenge and involves classification, subject headings, and description of the item being cataloged. We can bring those concepts to bear as we need them in organizing community networks. Try to keep a cataloger away from this challenge!

Anne S. McFarland, Esq. is a regular contributor to the ComTechReview and the Research and Reference Librarian for the Cleveland Law Library Association.

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