A White House conference on library and information services is meeting at the Washington Hilton, but books seem far from the center of attention.
Instead, the hundreds of librarians and delegates to the five-day session have been greeted by a display of computer terminals and dicussions of "information networks" and community services involved with such things as how to direct people to food stamp offices.
Confernce organizers and other speakers declared that libraries must move away from books in an effort to pull out of a decade-long slide that has seen budget cutbacks, shortened hours, rising thefts, and soaring costs.
There is some skepticism -- and indeed libraries remain mostly in the business of circulating books. But many of the resolutions that the conference is considering seems to underscore the declaration of its chairman, Charles Benton: "We've come a long distance from the familiar stacks. There's a vast technological change that the library community must cope with . . ."
In the hotel basement there is a [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] to sample. It contains only about 400 books, but offers a glittering array of computer terminals, television screens and other electronic gadgetry that can present information from 100 data banks around the country."
"Here we are in a room that is alive with information," Benton declared. "What we hope we have is a working model for America."
Others at the meeting described new services that many libraries already provide classes to teach illiterates how to read, "community referral desks" that tell people how to get food stamps or legal assistance, teletypewriters for deaf people, "talking books" for the blind, meeting rooms for community groups, and films, art works, cassettes, and records for millions of users of what the librarians call "nonprint media."
This burgeoning of new enterprises is occurring at a time when the libraries themselves are on a "downward spiral," according to conference organizers.
"There have been massive cuts in the budgets at a time of rising costs," said Marilyn Gell, executive director of the meeting, "and this has impaired the ability of libraries to provide service. The poorer the service, the more reluctant citizens are to provide financial support. It can be turned around if libraries are perceived to provide a function that is essential. They can be answering questions like, "Where can I get my Social Security check? How can I get the rats out of my basement? What can I do for my handicapped child?'"
"Libraries are plagued by the image that we are nice but not essential," said Clara S. Jones, a professor at the University of California who used to direct the Detroit public library. "It plagues us at budget time that we are icing on the cake, not meat and potatoes. The proof of utility is the hard test in hard times . . . We have to provide gut-level service that reaches people where they are and grabs their needs."
The speaker who talked most warmly about books was President Carter who told the delegates on Friday that he always asked for books as Christmas presents when he was a child.
Soon after he became president, Carter recalled, reporters noted that his daughter Amy read a book throughout a state dinner with the president of Mexico.
"Since I was a little boy, my own family had had the habit of reading at the table," Carter continued. "We have a lively conversation and read simultaneously, and Amy is just carrying on one of the Carter family traditions."
"Carter added: "My access to books is one of the most important elements in my life."
He made no specific promises to the delegates, but told them as he left, "You've got a friend in the White House."
Several hours after Carter spoke, Amy visited the conference, talking to members of its "youth caucus" and touring the "library of the future."
The conference and its planning seasons around the country have been financed by a special $3.5 million Congressional appropriation. During the last 18 months there have been meetings to elect delegates and propose resolutions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
About 700 delegates are staying in Washington at government expense until the conference ends on Monday. There also are about 1,300 alternates and observers who are playing their own way.
The most popular topic at the pre-conference sessions was how to increase funding for libraries, according to an official summary.
Around the country, delegate said, the effects of budget cutbacks and inflation have been severe.
In Washington the number of employes working for the city library system has dropped by 30 percent since 1971. Bookmobile service has stopped. The number of hours branch libraries stay open has been cut from 72 to 40 a week.
The Los Angeles public library has bought no new books for a year.
The New York public library has about 200,000 books in storage that have not yet been catalogued and placed on the shelves.
Problems are less serious in suburbs. But even Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which have some of the busiest libraries in the country, have cut services hours and personnel. They also have reduced the number of new books purchased as the average cost of a hardcover book has soared to $20.10, more than double what it was 10 years ago.
One exception to this bleak picture is the Library of Congress, which is completing a major new building and has expanded its public services since 1977. The library played host to the conference delegates at a reception Friday night.
Some talked about making the Library of Congress the centerpiece of a national library system, instead of providing service mainly to Congress. But there also were fears expressed about centralized federal control over libraries, which traditionally have been governed by local boards and financed by local taxes.
"The plight of the libraries is tied to the nature of society," Gell remarked. "They don't exist in a vacuum . . . I think libraries are very basic. But there are a lot of people who don't see them providing the services they want. That's what libraries have to do to survive."