Wednesday, July 23, 1997
Librarians have last
word on technology

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Anyone who thinks librarians are quiet types should try lunch with the Kenton County Public Library staff.

Let me tell you, there's no shushing these librarians. They gab non-stop.

Over sandwiches and salads, they chew on a lot of topics. Weeding the collection of outdated books. The incredible boredom of shelving books. Certain husbands' chronic inability to buy tasteful gifts. Oprah Winfrey's book club. Overdue books and deadbeat borrowers.

But week-to-week, the No. 1 topic is keeping customers satisfied. Librarians, I learned at the latest Lunch With Cliff sit-down, are devoted to library users.

That's a big job in Kenton County. The library system is growing as fast as the area. Circulation for the fiscal year, July 1996 through June 1997, was 1,228,449 items, up 20 percent from the previous year. That's in a system with three libraries and a collection of 380,000 items.

Staffers speak with pride about getting hot novels on the shelf and into readers' hands before the books hit area stores. They know regular customers by name. And by their favorite authors.

Patrons become friends. They bake cookies for the librarians. When they get a new puppy or a new car, they show it to their pals at the check-out desk.

This week, however, the topic was less cuddly: computers and the library. It's a high-tech, high-anxiety subject librarians all over the country are grappling with.

In Kenton County, the library is installing new computers to plug patrons into the Internet. The staff is going crazy - in a bad way - with the World Wide Web.

''We're all wearing wigs,'' says systems librarian Alice Clay, ''because we've pulled our hair out over this.''

She pops her lunch into the microwave. Alice and 14 other librarians are gathered in the windowless basement lounge of the main library in downtown Covington.

Outside, it's 90 degrees in the shade. But here in the cool basement, most of the librarians are hot about the Internet and other pitfalls of the information age.

''Look at the cartoon,'' suggests associate director Wayne Onkst, pointing to a clipping on the lounge's refrigerator door.

In the cartoon, kids line up to get into a library that's on the Internet. Signs in the library windows proclaim: ''Log On Sex Any Time'' and ''Net Sex Free.''

Alice Clay laughs at the cartoon and scoffs at its implications.

''Our policy,'' she says, poking at her food, ''is that it's the parents' responsibility to deal with the kids and our materials. We're not the computer police.''

''There are things on the Internet that are far more offensive than sex,'' adds Erin Noll, assistant systems librarian. She lists the Websites of Neo-Nazis and devil worshipers.

Erin has a long and happy pre-computer history with the Kenton County library. Her parents took her there as a child when the building opened in 1973. She used it through high school.

''This is going to sound corny,'' she says, ''but when this job was posted, it was the one I dreamed about in school.''

Erin went to college knowing that most people see women who are librarians as ''wearing their hair in a bun, being uptight.'' And going about shushing people.

''That's an image we're out to crush,'' she insists, tugging at her blond hair, pulled back in a modified pony tail.

Heads nod around the table.

''We tell dirty jokes with the patrons,'' says audio-visual clerk Leah Holley.

And, nobody in the lounge can remember hissing ''Shhhhhhhhhh!'' to a patron.

''They don't even teach shushing lessons anymore in library school,'' says Anita Owens, a librarian at the system's Independence branch.

''Shushing doesn't work today,'' says Keith Sanders, head of circulation. ''If you try to calm someone down with a 'Shhhhhh!' you might get another word back that begins with 'Sh.'''

Talk turns back to the Internet. Staffers are divided on whether it will put the library out of business.

Alice Clay admits to using it in place of going to the library to research car prices.

Her tablemates frown.

Leslie Hoekzema, head technical services librarian, doesn't see a conflict. ''People are always going to want information,'' she says. ''And they're always going to need a librarian to help them find it.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.