Embassy libraries close doors to public, go online

As the Cold War thaws the Electronic Age heats up and the combination is changing the way U.S. embassy outreach centers across the globe operate.

The U.S. Information Agency which promotes the understanding and acceptance of U.S. policies and culture in foreign countries has been transforming its traditional worldwide libraries from general reading rooms open to the public to so-called Information Resource Centers (IRCs) that distribute government data via the Internet for embassy use only.

For decades due to political reasons the USIA located its libraries only blocks from U.S. embassies so that non-U.S. citizens could visit the libraries to read American novels magazines and newspapers in addition to policy journals and speeches without risk of being seen entering a U.S. embassy. USIA libraries as a result "inadvertently serve as surrogate public and academic libraries " according to a cable transmitted by USIA director Joseph Duffey in which he set forth the IRC mission.

"While over time such programs generate much good will and appreciation for American culture broadly defined they often do so at the risk of diverting resources - especially staff time and expertise" - from the agency's core responsibilities.

But because of easing political tensions the libraries no longer need to be separated. In addition with the increased use of the Internet and the increasing costs of maintaining the libraries the USIA has begun to develop the IRCs.

The USIA has begun to install IRCs in about two-thirds of all its posts including those in Germany Mexico Kenya Japan Lithuania and India. The centers are based on a new USIA model that mirrors an internal library maintained by the average private corporation said Cynthia Borys team leader for the information resources team in the USIA's Bureau of Information.

"Information is highly filtered highly selected and timely [and is] delivered to the embassy especially to those conducting our foreign affairs overseas " she said. "So there is a shift in terms of the audience" that we are serving.The USIA also plans to make better use of online information. Stacks of books or magazines issued by American think tanks are being replaced by terminals for Internet access to data repositories such as those maintained by the Government Printing Office. Also available are online services such as Lexis-Nexis.

"The IRCs have the best telecommunications connections " said Mary Nell Bryant information resource officer for East Asia.

The move to IRCs is a bittersweet transition for USIA operations in areas such as Berlin according to Mary Boone director of information resources there. Regarded as a librarian before the transition Boone said the "America House" libraries as they are known in Germany are as familiar to the German public as was the Berlin Wall. "For the staff it breaks their hearts to tell old customers that we don't have U.S. fiction anymore [and] that they will have to go to the public library for that " she said.

Instead of serving as librarians the USIA staff now focus on delivering almost in real time information such as policy decisions or speeches delivered by President Clinton. Boone said for example that a staff member from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's office grew tired of waiting on information from the Denver Summit of Eight nations - a political and economic meeting of the world's eight leading industrial nations - and contacted the USIA for help. The USIA was able to use IRC resources to quickly pull down necessary transcripts.

In Cologne and Hamburg IRCs have been pulled onto embassy grounds Boone said. "It is a much smaller space but you walk into the door and see tables with computers and by the way if you walk around the corner there are also some books. The whole look of the centers is changing and it is changing the way we spend our time."

-- Jones is a free-lance writer based in Falls Church Va.

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