There are many variations of `equal access' and of `culturally diverse.' This paper will attempt to address some of them by looking at the roles that two information professionals have adopted in preparation for the coming decade.
Sandra Reuben, Director of the Los Angeles County Libraries, is in a predicament. Branch libraries, with collections, services, and community connections established to meet the needs of a particular neighborhood are an excellent way of improving service in culturally diverse communities (Stern 90 @ 429). Due to financial constraints, Ms Reuben was forced to close many of these branch libraries. In a personal conversation, she told me that these closings severely limit user access in a number of ways--Library clients who are able to commute to another branch library are faced with the challenge of traffic and of parking at an overcrowded library facility. Library clients who are unable to commute--the kids--are worse off. Ms Reuben described trying to explain to a heart broken fourth-grader why her local library was closed. Reuben's plan for coping with this situation in the next decade is to promote the concept that The Library is a Service, Not a Building. She is fine-tuning services at remaining libraries by conducting telephone surveys of their respective community members. She is working with an advertising firm to help promote the Service concept. By cooperating with tele-commuting in North Los Angeles and participating with other electronic networks and bulletin boards, the Los Angeles County Library Service is now accessible to some users on a 24 hours-a-day basis (Reuben, 1992).
In lecture, Peter Lyman presented a fascinating look at the development of computer operating systems, and how they are culturally biased towards white males with a military background. The engineers who created computers and their essential operating software were (with the exception of one woman) male engineers employed by the military. Lyman pointed out that military jargon forms the basis for many computer related terms, including execute, command, break, control, boot, and escape. These terms are unfamiliar to millions of people being introduced to computers today. Some people have an especially hard time issuing a command to a delicate piece of machinery, or pressing a key which might break the whole thing. Another cultural bias built into today's advanced user interfaces is the `Desktop' metaphor, which assumes that a new computer user has worked in a traditional manual office--one that includes file cabinets, file folders, a wastebasket, etc. In my own personal experience, I learned to use a computer interface two years before I acquired a file cabinet and hanging file folders. Perhaps I should say that I relate to my conventional desk, trashcan, and file cabinet through a `Computer' metaphor!
To help provide equal access to information systems for people of all cultural backgrounds, Lyman is experimenting with alternative, customizable interface metaphors--such as sewing. His goal for the coming decade is to empower the information seeker with a common computer instruction language and an easy to understand and customizable user interface (Lyman, 1992).
A final aspect of information access is literacy--one must be literate to read a book. One must be computer literate to participate effectively in a computer network. While researchers such as Lyman are working to simplify the definition of `computer literacy,' others are advocating full-scale computer training for the public:
For reasons of social equity and economic efficiency, it will become more important than ever to educate all people so that they can benefit equally from the information resources that are about to become available. Should the benefits of networks become general, democracy might well be enhanced. (Tesler 1991, p 61).
I believe that the information profession should approach the challenge of providing equal access to diverse clients from every angle described above. We should emphasize that the Library is a Service more than anything else. This will ease our transition into the next decade when the library user may virtually visit the local library (or a library thousands of miles away) from a networked terminal within their home, school, or workplace. We should also make efforts to simplify user interfaces and to educate all citizens to help them become computer-literate.