Access to information


In this new era of photo-ID requests, one of the forms in my wallet is a reader identification card from the Library of Congress. It has a color photo, a signature, and a bar code leading to more information about me, and all three are covered with a special laminate that, when tilted appropriately in the light, says “ultra secure.” That’s me.

I got the card this spring when I was doing some research into the history of television. It was not possible to gain access to the collection without it.

My favorite library, the one at Lincoln Center, has signs on it indicating that it will re-open on October 29. YAY! Its closing had nothing to do with the attacks. It has been closed for years.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been access to the collections. The circulating materials were moved to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island; Brooklyn and Queens have their own library systems). The reference materials were moved to the Annex on West 43rd Street.

I don’t miss only the materials; I miss the librarians. The ones at the Billy Rose Theater Collection (which includes television materials) were the best I’ve ever encountered at any library anywhere.

One day, I was researching whether there was any correlation between a movie’s widescreen aspect ratio and its gross revenues. Variety lists the top-grossing movies of each year, but the issue the list appears in varies from year to year. I feared I’d have to pore through a huge stack of the publications. When I explained what I wanted to the librarian, he opened a drawer and pulled out a file. It had all of the lists. “I knew someone would need this someday.” The same librarian personally phoned a colleague at the Eastman House library in Rochester to get me something when he found it was missing his collection.

By now, you must all be familiar with the way I look. The first time I entered the Theater Collection, I was treated the same as anyone else. The same was true throughout the research libraries. As a pimple-faced teenager not even living in New York, I could go to the majestic main reading room of the library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and be treated the same as any professor or official. And the person sitting next to me might have been someone who wore tattered clothes and was sleeping — or had come just to read the morning paper. Next to that person, someone might have been poring over a rare manuscript.

There were guards at the only entry to the main reading room. They always zealously checked everyone LEAVING, to make sure they weren’t taking anything from the collection. But they never checked anyone entering. I always had to write my name and address on the call slips used to access the great collection — at any of the research libraries — but I never had to show proof of identity. That was always a matter of pride with New York’s libraries. They were open to all, and all were treated equally. I hope that hasn’t changed.

The mayor announced large budget cuts yesterday. Although the libraries are not branches of city government, they do receive city funding. One of Mayor Giuliani’s first acts in office was cutting funding to the libraries, causing reductions in hours. He also sold off the city’s AM, FM, and TV broadcast stations. I guess he didn’t think an informed electorate was necessarily such a good thing.

Access to knowledge came up recently in a speech made on Friday by Lynne Cheney, doctor of philosophy with a specialization in 19th-century British literature, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and wife of the vice president. She was speaking to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

She was responding to a quote in the September 30 issue of the Washington Post from New York City Board of Education deputy chancellor for instruction Judith A. Rizzo: “Those people who said we don’t need multiculturalism, that it’s too touchy-feely, a pox on them. I think they’ve learned their lesson. We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge, and awareness of other cultures.”

Dr. Cheney attacked what she called the notion that “it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction.” Instead, “If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history.”

Dr. Rizzo, however, wasn’t talking about the attacks of September 11; she was talking about the attacks in America AFTER September 11, like the killing in Arizona of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, simply because he wore a turban. It was tolerance of other cultures in America that had been the subject of Dr. Rizzo’s remarks.

After the September 11 attacks, Representative John Cooksey of Louisiana said that anyone with “a diaper on his head” (his term for a turban) should be stopped and questioned. He later apologized for that remark but is now running a TV commercial in which he says, “We know the faces of the terrorists and where they’re from.” It seems to me that he could have benefited from some teaching of “habits of tolerance, knowledge, and awareness of other cultures.”

Another threat to the dissemination of knowledge today related to prerecorded video. The Radio and Television News Directors Association has been petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow news helicopters to fly again. They say they’re not a threat to national security. Others in government seem to be more concerned about videotape recorders.

At today’s White House press conference, it was noted that television news organizations have been asked to strongly consider whether they should air “recorded” images of Osama bin Laden and air them in their entirety. I don’t understand the emphasis on “recorded.” Is videotape now a terrorist implement? As for propaganda value, I find it hard to believe that any American was inclined to view Osama bin Laden more favorably after hearing him thank God for the death and destruction of September 11 and threaten our future security.

The other White House concern was that the tape might have contained secret messages to operatives in America. Does that mean those operatives can’t afford to buy a newspaper that runs transcripts? They can’t go to a library and use an Internet connection?

On October 1, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban anti-pornography filters from the public-access computers at that city’s libraries, even though the Children’s Internet Protection Act passed by Congress in April denies funding to libraries that don’t install the filters by 2003. They might lose $20,000 a year as a result, but they’ll allow people to look up, say, breast cancer or sex-based discrimination, despite those subjects having words that trigger the filtering software.

New York’s library system is not the only good one. I did some very enjoyable research at the old San Francisco library (I’m less enamored of the new one). And, when I toured the big library in St. Petersburg in Russia, I was shown a mailbox-type chute in the outside wall. It was put there so that opponents of whatever regime was in power could send copies of their works to the library to be archived until such time as a more favorable government (one that wouldn’t want to burn the works) appeared. Pro-Taliban tracts were probably in the “burn-this” category even under the old Soviet regime.

We seem to be trying to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but I’ve heard no plans for us to stick around to see that a democratically elected government replaces it. Is our enemy’s enemy always our friend? That’s why the U.S. helped both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden gain power and armed them. Now, there are reports that we’re helping the Northern Alliance. Their human-rights and drug-dealing records don’t appear to be so wonderful, either.

Perhaps information about our goal in Afghanistan is classified. It appears that plans to keep classified information even from the elected representatives who would have to fund the classified projects have been either scaled back or scrapped — or so we were told today.

The New York Times ran photos and profiles of the mine-clearing agency’s security guards killed in the military action in Afghanistan. Naseer Ahmad was a newlywed. Safriullah had four young children.

In another section, the Times today covered the Afghanistan-related jokes told at the star-studded comedy benefit at Carnegie Hall on Monday and said that you still can’t expect to get tickets for performances of “The Lion King,” “The Producers,” or “Urinetown.” They also had a short piece on the doubly postponed Emmy Awards show. Broadcasting & Cable’s web site today says the show may be held in November on a California military base.

Tomorrow is an election day in New York. So was September 11.

TTFN, Mark