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A few years ago, i was walking down the street in one of Manila’s poorer neighborhoods when I came upon a gaping hole where a sewer grate used to be. It was an experience doubtless familiar to many who have traveled in the Third World: someone had presumably looted a humble-but essential-piece of the city’s infrastructure. It brought home to me not only what a robust infrastructure we take for granted in the West, but also how easily it can erode.

I am reminded of that missing sewer grate by an all-out battle brewing here in the United States-only the gaping hole we’re threatened with is in the stacks of our public libraries. And in this case it’s the publishing industry doing the looting. As we plunge into the digital realm, the nation’s 16,000 public libraries are striving to uphold their tradition as protectors of public access to new books and articles. But publishers, in an increasingly bald, frontal assault on the library’s mission, have something very different in mind: a pay-per-use model for information content that will largely shut libraries out.

The battle is being waged on many fronts, from legislative initiatives and lawsuits to the publishing industry’s unilateral pursuit of copy-protection technologies that will keep users-including libraries-from sharing digital content. One of the loudest and most shameful voices in the debate is that of Patricia Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. The former Colorado congresswoman enjoys a distinguished 12-term record of championing women’s rights and sponsoring legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Act. But in her latest incarnation as a front for the publishing industry, Schroeder has been quoted as saying that publishers have to “learn to push back” against libraries, which she portrays as an organized band of pirates!

 At her most hyperbolic, Schroeder has implied that if libraries let people borrow electronic versions of books and journal articles, there will be “no copyright left.”

There’s no question that publishers need to control content in cyberspace. But to hear Schroeder tell it, legions of librarygoers are primed to topple the publishing industry. She conjures up visions of readers pirating electronic copies of the latest works by E. O. Wilson and Maya Angelou faster than Napster users swapped songs by Metallica and Britney Spears. Her industry’s answer to this far-fetched scenario is a preemptive campaign to make people pay for any and all access to published works-even those borrowed from libraries.

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