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Iowa Libraries: Thinking Outside the Box

Nicholas Johnson

[The Iowa Library Association invited Nicholas Johnson to deliver the keynote address at its annual convention in Waterloo, Iowa, October 10, 1996. There was no text, and is no audio tape, of that lecture.

Following the lecture a seminar, question-and-answer session was held which was audio taped. This is a lightly edited transcript of that session.

Mr. Johnson began the discussion with the group exercise sometimes called "Thinking Outside the Box." Nine dots are arranged in a square. The challenge is to draw four straight lines that go through all the dots, but only once, and without ever lifting the writing implement. As the name suggests, the answer lies in being able to "think outside the box" that is, in this instance, to permit the straight line to go beyond its "edges."]

Nicholas Johnson: In the Information Age, for libraries, "thinking outside the box" means thinking outside the library, thinking outside the building; thinking beyond the functions that you are now performing to functions that you might perform; getting down to the basics of the role of a library in the society historically and the meaning of that today. What kind of functions does that call for somebody to perform, and of those functions which ones are appropriate for librarians to perform? What would you like to perform?

What I was describing during the keynote address was making each of you the de facto mayor of your town, even though not elected as such, with you all taking the leadership role and leading your community through the Information Age and what it is its citizens need to know. You're telling them, "Here are the businesses that we ought to be bringing in, here's where we will get the resources to do it, here are the new entrepreneurial opportunities for those of you who used to work for the company that's now been closed or moved to Mexico. You are trained in skills that would be very good in setting up this new kind of business. Here are some potential foundation grants, for example. Here are some venture capitalists who are available. Here's a market in Burma that nobody is serving right now that we could ideally serve from here. And we could do it over the Internet and, yes, provide that Internet access from the library."

What I want to do with this time is to get feedback from you. What do you see as you start thinking outside the box? You're there. You know about libraries. I'm just a little old law professor. I don't know about what your opportunities are, and what your challenges are, or what your fears are.

Q: We've been working the last few years on developing Internet access and the problem we've had is how to do it for free and we were dealing with incremental costs. Once you've bought your modem, once you've bought your equipment, the ongoing cost is minimal. We simply could not overcome the perception in business people's minds and individuals that the Internet is expensive, it's going to cost money, and it's not free. Is there something you could publish or do to them? [laughter] We need a Margaret Mead of information systems.

NJ: I don't know if I quite measure up to that standard. [laughter] Let me give you one shortcut to some of the stuff I have written. How many of you have access either at your library or at home, to the World Wide Web? Everybody! Let me give you my web site. This is a web site at the [University of Iowa] law school which will take you to two other web sites, one of which is family stuff, but another of which includes some of my writings. It's:

It will tell you more about me than even my mother would care to know.

I don't mean this as a partisan comment so I will not even identify the government official involved, but it was someone who was serving as governor of Iowa at the time. [laughter] I thought "Here I've been in Geneva and Singapore and all these places helping people, and I'm coming home to Iowa from Washington and why not help out my home state? I'll just do it for free, and get us on the map here in cyberspace." This was 1980. So I wrote him a letter. I said, "I don't want to bother you, I just want talk to whoever is responsible for telecommunications policy, Information Age stuff, your advisor on this." I got back a letter from which it was obvious his office didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I thought, "Well, I'll give them a second chance," and wrote a second time. I got another letter back indicating that writer was equally mystified by the whole thing. I thought, "Well, this is frustrating, but I'll give them one more chance." So I wrote a third time. This time I got an answer back and a name. I thought, "It must have been my fault for not explaining it properly the first couple times." I call this guy up and he says, "The Governor told you what?" I told him, "The governor said you were his telecommunications policy advisor." He said, "Hell, buddy, all I do is pay the phone bill." [laughter]

The same thing happened with the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce. I told them I'd do it for free. "I'll lay out for you an Information Age economic growth scenario for Iowa City. We have a lot of Information Age-type resources here. I'll describe what we can do, where the new jobs are, where the markets are, where the money is." No interest.

So I'm not saying this is any easy task at least not within 50 miles of where you happen to be located! [laughter] Some people are interested in my ideas in Chile, Australia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, even other areas in the United States, just not in Iowa City.

Q: Are these global interests concerned with pornographic materials? Are they afraid to allow access to the community of users because of this negative aspect? Are global interests preoccupied with these concerns?

NJ: Do you mean, are people in other countries concerned about what the people in Europe are concerned about? Yes, Germany suggested some restraints for CompuServe which were not, in fact, ordered, but prompted CompuServe to cut off access to some Internet sites. Those of you who have access to the Web know what a terribly small number of sites on the Web have anything to do with this, and how even fewer kids are likely to get access. But it is something you have to address as an issue.

Q: We're trying to go through several projects at once including a computer network, at least on our campus, and I know that the biggest thing you run up against is people who are so afraid to get out of their little tiny niche where it's comfortable and try something brand new. It frustrates me, even when I just have a good idea that doesn't cost that much.

NJ: How do you go about changing an institution? What are the elements you need to go right through to do it? Maybe before break I can go through that at some point.

Q: We're planning computer workstations in a new legal library. Will such places be wireless soon?

NJ: Here is what is as likely, or at least what some universities are doing. Someone I talked to recently was putting a wing on a building, and although they were cabling everything their belief was that probably there would be so many kids with their own notebooks and laptops that it would make more sense to have a plug at all the stations rather than actually put desktop computers there. One of the things that those of you who went into this a long time back have discovered is that it is not just a matter of buying the equipment. You're buying in for life. Usually the cost of maintenance per station per year is roughly equivalent to the cost of buying equipment. You have upgrades of hardware, software, replacements when things go down, an enormous staff if you're going to use this stuff well. So it is not a matter of just going out and buying a $1500 computer. In terms of wireless, we have wireless now. But I think it obviously makes sense when you're building a building to at least put conduit in there that you can string cables through so you have that flexibility in the future and you're not knocking out walls when it comes time to do it or removable floors some way you can get those cables around where you want them. Optic fiber doesn't cost much compared to knocking out a wall.

Q: Your talk was extremely interesting. I was wondering if libraries should develop into a service-oriented institution.

NJ: You tell me. What do you think about it? I threw it out as something to stimulate thought.

Q: In my mind I think that's where the library should be if we even consider these seven points that you put out this morning.

NJ: Anybody agree, disagree? Why do you need to lag behind? Why couldn't some really innovative, up-to-speed, online librarian in Iowa's smallest community, whoever that turns out to be, be somebody who really turns that town around on a dime and suddenly forms one of the fastest growing communities in Iowa? I think that's perfectly feasible.

Q: But some communities won't allow funding. It's a different kind of service if it's information rather than providing resources. It's a big jump between a service organization and an informational organization.

NJ: What do you see as the difference?

Q: Everybody has service. You go to the corner store and you can buy tapes, you can buy books, magazines, anything you want. But when you need someone to retrieve that information in a certain way that you can understand it, like you said this morning, a library would have excellent resources to retrieve information and give it to you without a lot of fluff and save you time.

Q: One of the things you didn't mention in your list of Iowa accomplishments was Iowa Libraries Online.

Q: Some libraries are having trouble getting Internet connections. There may be no local internet provider

NJ: Why doesn't the ILA become the state-wide Internet provider? We have a guy who came into Iowa City offering an alternative telephone service to USWest. You get local, long distance, Internet access, your own 800 number, voice mail, and paging.

Q: Do you think there is going to be some movement towards universal portable access to the Internet?

NJ: If you provide it. Why couldn't you all take that on? That could be another function you could perform. What's the Iowa Communications Network for? Why did we put that $100 million in the ground? [laughter]

Q: That's where the Agricultural and Information Societies clash. What would it cost for a satellite to provide access?

NJ: I'm not sure that would be the cheapest or best way to do it.

Q: How would you do it? Suppose you could put forward a plan for Iowa libraries for affordable Internet access for all, regardless of where you're located.

NJ: What I would have done with the Iowa Communications Network, and what I suggested and I could get nobody to consider, was to start off with pilot projects. You don't wire all the schools in the state and then think, "Oh, I don't know how they're going to use this." It seems to me you should wire a couple of schools and make it available for free and give them all the equipment they could possibly have and then come back two years later and ask, "What did you guys ever do with it?" It's the same deal with libraries. That's off the top of my head. I'd have to sit down and look at the numbers.

We could provide the service on the VITA satellite for virtually nothing, if you want to do it that way. That would be unusual treating Iowa as a third world country. Maybe at least that would get the legislature's attention. [laughter] [Note: Mr. Johnson serves on the board of directors of Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) in Washington. VITA supplies technical assistance to Third World countries and has recently launched "low earth orbit satellites" to assist in its mission.]

Q: So for $1500 the libraries could get a satellite dish?

NJ: I'm also an amateur radio operator, so I'm authorized to actually launch an amateur satellites. [laughter] We use the amateur radio technology to do this, which is why when we launch a satellite that costs everyone else about $100 million it only costs us $50,000. And that includes the design of the satellite, all the parts, the assembly, and the launch. So we do things a little cheaper. Let's put the e-mail up there, too.

Q: This is a good example of why we have to get the right people in the room at the right time.

NJ: What you need is an online chat room.

Q: That may very well be. I'm an area education director. We're integrating signals for the Internet, and the ICN, and no one asked us.

NJ: There's the problem. A lot of this is human problems rather than technological. I remember when I was an FCC Commissioner we were dealing with land mobile radio problems and coordination between local fire departments and police departments. I naively said from the bench, "Why don't you guys just use the same frequency, then the people on the scene could talk to each other?" It took me a long time to finally understand that the police chief and the fire chief didn't want efficiency, people talking on the scene to each other. They wanted the firemen to all talk back to the fire chief, over to the police chief, who would send the information back down to the policemen. They wanted to control the communications. There are a lot of things like that.

Q: This morning on NPR they were talking about the leaks that came out of the White House and they were saying we have that information now. They were saying if everything, if every memo was out there we couldn't have a democracy. [laughter]

NJ: We couldn't have the kind of democracy we have, that's for damn sure. [laughter]

Thinking outside the box. That's what we're supposed to be doing here. I want some ideas to take back home with me that I didn't come with.

Q: What's the function of an academic library, and what's the future of higher education in general, in terms of this new technology?

NJ: Higher education has the same set of challenges that I laid out for you all. When I was a kid most higher education as we think of it, education beyond high school, was done by major colleges and universities the names of which you could find in the World Almanac. If you look around today to see where education is going on, you see those institutions suffering, if not a broad-side blow, at least substantial erosion. It's like the trouble the three networks have been having with cable television competition. We have the very active, efficient, effective, innovative community college movement. We have a $6 billion university that is being run within the Department of Defense. We have much more than that being spent by major corporations in educational programs and training. There are televised courses available over Iowa Public Television. There are courses on the Web. I was on the faculty of something called the International Executive Forum run out of the University of California at San Diego. It involved corporate and military executives in 24 time zones. As faculty, we'd put a comment in the computer conference and somebody in Saudi Arabia would respond, and then somebody in the Third World would respond, and then I'd respond to their responses. The program was in La Jolla. The participants thought I was in Iowa City. On one occasion I was actually teaching from Geneva, Switzerland, and on another occasion from Fairbanks, Alaska. That kind of thing can be done. Geography is no longer a restraint. I came back from keynoting a conference in Seoul on networking the Pacific Rim. I was talking to the university president, telling him there was the potential for a multi-billion-dollar cash flow into Iowa from Pacific Rim countries. We could provide education to corporate executives and employees, as well as kids who want to get into universities. "That's never going to go anywhere," he said. [laughter]

What other alternative kinds of roles are there the library could play? What happens when many persons suddenly have home access to the Web? You guys know, you're on the Web. What the Web does, in effect, is to take all the files in all the computers on planet Earth (at least the ones that want to play this game) and, in effect, put them on your hard drive as far as your access to them is concerned. There are homes now that have access to more information than more than 90% of the public libraries had forty or fifty years ago. Now, at that point, what is your function? It is not to provide a copy of a government report in a government depository library to someone who can get it online, and search or do a lot of things with it they couldn't do in hard copy. That's what's coming to education, education without walls, distributive education, and it seems to me that is what's beginning to happen with libraries.

One other example. I don't know if any Iowa communities have done a study on this. I don't know of any. What has come about as a result of the global network called the VISA card? Its computers knew in Chile what I had bought in Australia. So, we have this global telecommunications network called the Visa card. We have toll-free 800 numbers and soon we'll have global 800 numbers. We have Fed Ex and UPS. Now, what does that mean along with the Internet? What it means is that a lot of the small town merchants in Iowa who used to have a virtual monopoly over the acquisition of things in their marketing area are now competing with companies in Austin, Texas, San Diego, or elsewhere. In the future they'll be competing with companies in Bangkok, Singapore, and Saigon. How many billions of dollars are going out of the state of Iowa as a result of this global marketing and shopping business? A lot. I don't know if you want to call this an broad-side blow or an erosion, but a lot of Iowa towns don't look like they're prospering. That's something you have to think about.

What is the analog of that for the library? If everybody in town had every book on your shelves in their home, how would that affect your role in the community? That, in effect, is what's happening. It hasn't happened yet, and it's not going to happen in exactly that way. I have a colleague who downloads and reads books off his notebook computer. I think he's nuts. But if I'd spent $6500 for a box containing $350 worth of parts, I guess I'd want to figure out every possible way to use it too. [laughter] I'm perfectly content to use an old beat up notebook computer that does me fine as I travel about. I think books are going to be around forever. A lot of this stuff will be around forever. We're talking about integrating, merging and shifting. But I think you have to think about what your role is. That's not to say all the libraries in Iowa will close down in five years. It is to say that you all have to change. The question is, like the March of Dimes once we cured polio, what are we going to do with all these wonderful resources libraries represent? That's the question I put to you this morning.

Q: There seems to be a greater need for cooperation and working together.

NJ: I thought about that when I was working as a Presidential Advisor to President Carter, putting together the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Sciences. To what extend ought we to think about libraries as a single organism, something similar to the gaia hypothesis which views the Earth as a living thing. You know the story (it was originally a science fiction story) of the fellow who puts the question to a desktop computer, "Is there a God?" The answer comes back, "Insufficient data." So he networks all the computers on his floor together. He gets the same answer. (This story was created before the Internet was created.) He figures out a way to connect all the computers on planet Earth. He then puts the question to all these computers and they grind away for awhile. Finally the computer lights up and says, "There is now." [laughter] I mean, to what extent should we think of the library as a single organic entity that is interconnected through inter-library loans, RLIN, OCLC, library associations like this one, ALA, international efforts, and so forth? Really this is just one organization. Where does that take you in terms of your thinking about what you do next Tuesday?

Q: For one thing it takes us from dependency to independency to interdependency. Our staff has to be constantly upgrading and training for the problems that keep coming in. We have a lot of staffers who are young and have gone to colleges that have had their own computers. Colleges and universities have to realize that there are going to be people who have to make a living while they're getting their degrees and aren't going to be spending all their time on campus. They're going to have to have access to resources at remote sites.

NJ: You know we have some western governor's proposals for distributive online education. Pete Wilson in California has been talking a lot about that, too.

We've been talking about computers, but you want to keep in mind what we also have available through other technologies. One of the things with convergence, as most of you know, is that any information whether you're talking about a voice telephone conversation, a fax, an e-mail, a video, an audio file, music any information can be stored in any format. You can take a computer file and put it on little audio tapes. You can take music and put it on a CD disk. You can take a video tape and put it on a CD-ROM or your hard drive. You can have animation in any one of these formats. So any information can be put in any medium. It can also be transmitted in any medium. You can transmit it through an infrared signal, an optic fiber, a twisted pair on your telephone line, or through a satellite feed. I don't know why I got off on that, but that somehow seems relevant today. [laughter] We need not think only about computers. The FM radio has a subcarrier frequency on it. You can transmit data onto a screen over a local FM radio station. I was opposed to the sale of WOI. No one would listen then either. In my comments to the Des Moines Register I said it was a wonderful idea to sell WOI, and I knew some folks in Arizona who wanted to buy our topsoil, too. [laughter] You're talking about wireless communications. Look at all the things you can do with a resource like WOI that has nothing to do with ABC television programming. To sell it off is nuts. So don't just think of the Internet because that happens to be the buzz word of 1995, 1996, and 1997. Let's think about all the potential media out there.

The Iowa City library is very progressive library, as many of you know. It's supposed to have been one of the first libraries in the country to have an online catalog. It has a television studio in the library. In Iowa City we have the capacity to transmit, over the cable system, documents from the library to a subscriber's home. There are hundreds of potential technologies and combinations and permutations of technologies.

It turns out that few law students are interested in public interest law anymore. So I tell my students in Law of Electronic Media, "Ok, you guys just want to get rich, I'll use that Once a week, at least, there is what I call a 'billion-dollar bonanza' in the newspaper. It requires no electrical engineering, involves nothing more complicated than plugging together stereo components, and could generate a billion dollars." Its up to them to find one.

There are all kinds of potential technologies out there for librarians, too. You can transmit information to your clients and have it show up as an alpha-numeric message on a pager. You can send them a fax every morning. There's all kinds of stuff out there you can do. The choices are as wide as your imagination. If it's not available in the market now, and you want it, somebody can invent it for you in 18 months.

Q: One thing you haven't talked about is copyright.

NJ: Copyright is going right down the tubes. I have, incidently, put the full text of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set and Test Pattern for Living up on my Web site. They're out of print and many of you kind people have put copies in your libraries. I thank you for doing that. Now, what conceivable harm could there be in uploading to the Web a book that is out of print? Because I've always been stupid about never taking money as a public official its inappropriate, and so on I've never received a dime out of these books. And now that they're out of print, I'm not going to get a dime out of them now either. Why not put them up on the Internet? But the publisher holds the copyright. So I had to get permission from the publisher to give away a book which I wrote, which they don't want to sell, and for which I never received any money. [laughter] It seems to me that the fair use doctrine ought to cover this case. A colleague and I are now in the process of writing on this subject. In fact, we're going to have a meeting tomorrow morning. This is a classic example of what we deal with in the Law of Electronic Media. We have a law of copyright that came up in an era when there was one printing press in the state. If anyone was going to violate a copyright, you pretty well knew who did it. Now that anybody with a nickel can make a machine copy you have an entirely different problem. Any-14-year-old kid can make a copy of an audio tape. Anybody can make a video copy off of television. The greatest irony of all is the computer software that used to come with the announcement, "If you ever make a copy of this software we're coming after you and you'll be using this software in Levenworth." Then you turn the page and they urge you to make a backup copy and show you how to do it. [laughter] That's just how ridiculous things have become.

Q: You talked about visualizing future information sources. How might this play out with copyright laws?

NJ: Did you ever get something called "Edupage"? It's free. I find it very useful. It's a single source and comes to you as e-mail. What they're doing, basically, is providing summaries of a large number of news stories. They don't actually copy the text, and it's free, so there's no way they can be charged with making a profit out of it.

Q: I have a suggestion. Now that the state of Iowa is rolling in the money, supposedly, why don't we have a one-year service corps for liberal arts graduates who are getting out of college and have them go into communities and help them with research?

NJ: Good idea.

Q: Regarding the 24 time zones. The way some companies are open 24 hours a day is very intriguing. I was at a law library and the law librarian told me they're getting requests from Germany, England, all over. Some of these requests are coming from people whose library is closed, but the law library in the U.S. is open and they're e-mailing to several libraries.

NJ: There's a service we could provide in Iowa. There are typists in Korea who are typing up briefs for law firms in New York City. Geography, anymore, is totally irrelevant. Why couldn't we create an institution in Iowa that would be online, available 24 hours a day, to do research for people for a fee? We would become a global resource. The state with the highest literacy rate could offer this service. We could answer questions from anybody about anything at any time of the day or night for a moderate fee. What do they say about Gates? Gates wants to substitute Bill's dollars for dollar bills. We could have e-dollars and they would transfer into Iowa. Suddenly, what Ross Perot would call "a giant sucking sound" would be money, from all over the world coming to Iowa. [laughter] We would become the new Saudi Arabia.

Before we break, here are the five elements you need in order to bring about a miracle in your library: vision, skills, incentive, resources, and an action plan.

Vision. A clear vision of why the changes are being made is necessary. If no one offers a vision, you're going to have tremendous confusion on everybody's part, at best.

Skills. You have to provide your people with sufficient skills to bring about the change or your changes are going to be unnecessarily slow and you're going to have incredible levels of anxiety and frustration.

Incentive. Employees, anybody, has to see what's in it for them. Why should they want to do this? How is their life going to be better afterwards? What are the incentives you're creating for them?

Resources. If you try to bring about the change but you really don't have the resources to make it happen you're just going to create frustration for everybody. It's probably going to end up setting the organization back from where it was before you came up with this wonderful plan. If you know you need 50 computers but you only have the money for one, there's not much sense in setting up a LAN. [laughter]

Finally, you need an action plan. You need to go through the steps and explain why you're proposing them. You know the old sales person's adage, "Plan your work and work your plan." It's applicable here. Otherwise, you're going to have more frustration, delay, and so forth. That's it: vision, skills, incentive, resources and an action plan.

Thank you for the invitation to be with you, and good luck to you all.

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