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Monday, August 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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E-conomy / Paul Andrews

Public to taste life without its libraries

When Seattle public libraries go dark for a week next Monday, the closure will have far more chilling implications than a late-summer "furlough" might on the surface suggest.

For a variety of reasons, libraries are under pressure all across America. One can argue that the very institution of the public library, and all that it represents for a free society, is on a path toward extinction.

Perhaps to send home that warning, next week's eight-day closure will be especially stark. Book drops will be closed. The catalog will be unavailable. The library's Web site will be inaccessible. There will be no quick information service, no phone notifications that the book you ordered has arrived, no programs in library facilities.

If there is a potentially positive side to such draconian measures, it is this: Seattle will find out what it's like to live without libraries. For anyone who cares about free access to and exchange of information in a democratic system, the picture is not likely to be pretty.

It is possible to justify the closure as a budgetary necessity in these difficult economic times. The closure will save about $1.8 million, or 5 percent of the library's annual budget. It comes during a low-use vacation period. It keeps the system from having to cut back services year-round or endure layoffs of 30 employees (the full staff of 640, however, will sacrifice their pay for the closure period).

Many of my tech associates also like to argue that libraries are dinosaurs. Given the inefficiencies of paper and print content's increasing availability online, do we really need buildings full of books? Isn't the library of the future simply Amazon.com?

The problem with these rationalizations is they send our intellectual freedoms down the slippery slope of thought-control by special interests. Already privatization of intellectual content threatens to lock up cherished works of print, song and images that have long been in the public domain.

As intellectual-freedom fighter Lawrence Lessig put it in his book, "The Future of Ideas," how we decide digital-content access issues "will determine what the 'free' means in our self-congratulatory claim that we are now, and will always be, a 'free society.' "

The notion is also raised in a new Ad Council public-service spot, where a teenager asks a librarian for several books, only to be told they are "no longer available." When the boy declines to give his name, two men appear and usher him off as the librarian gazes sorrowfully behind. The tagline: "What if America wasn't America? Freedom — appreciate it, cherish it, protect it."

For longtime Seattleites who remember growing up in a city where libraries were friendly, fascinating places that were open whenever you needed them to be, there is a particular irony in the upcoming closure. The city may be strapped for funds, but the community's native sons number some of the world's richest individuals, many of whom grew up in households that valued access to education and learning.

Paul Allen's father was a University of Washington librarian and his mother a teacher and librarian. Bill Gates' mother taught school and later served on the UW board of regents.

Young Bill may have first been exposed to computers at a Seattle World's Fair exhibit featuring the American Library Association's Univac computer. As a youngster Gates participated in summer reading contests sponsored by the Seattle Public Library, and in fourth grade he traced lost books for the View Ridge school library.

It would be wrong to lay the upcoming closures at any individual's doorstep. Allen and Gates have been generous with libraries here, each giving $20-plus million to the Seattle system. And there may be other local millionaires who have donated on a smaller scale. But library closures should not have to happen in a city of such vast private wealth.

If he were to live to the grand old age of 100, Gates would have to spend a staggering $1.9 million a day to exhaust just his Microsoft holdings. One day's worth would more than cover the library system's shortfall.

Paul Andrews is a free-lance technology writer and co-author of "Gates," a biography of the Microsoft chairman. He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

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