NEW ORLEANS -- When Steve Stone first started eavesdropping on computer network conversations, he was a frustrated editorial assistant at a newsletter that hyped lawn mowers and garden tools.
After months of reading these coast-to-coast chats, Mr. Stone found his life's calling.
He became a librarian.
The electronic discussions that enchanted the former engineering student took place among librarians at the WELL, a computer link to the Whole Earth Catalogue.
At the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, he read passionate arguments about the relationship among data, information, knowledge and wisdom, and the effect computers will have on the only place to get information for free: the library.
The debates convinced Mr. Stone that it would be librarians -- specifically new-wave electronic librarians like himself -- who would shepherd the Average Joe through the Information Revolution.
Pricing out the poor?
And it worries him that the very advances that let him read the minds of brilliant people talking to each other over the Internet computer network put a value on information that could price it beyond the people he wants to help.
"One of the things that lured me to librarianship was the idea that information wants to be free," said Mr. Stone, a 27-year-old rookie librarian in Peoria, Ill., who attended his first American Library Association conference here this month. "Getting information to the people who really need it is what's important."
That ideal -- free access to all the world's knowledge by anyone who wants it -- is the foundation on which America's public libraries were built. The word "free" does not appear in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library by accident.
In his keynote conference address, former President Jimmy Carter lauded the public library as a place of lifelong learning to bridge the gap between rich and poor.
Said Mr. Carter: "I don't know where else the poor can go to find something other than the cacophony of our pop culture."
And the formerly illiterate Alice Cage of Mobile, Ala., brought the librarians to tears when she told how she learned to read at age 66, saying: "The lady at the library told me I could come and ask for help anytime."
Yet, the electronic wizardry that persuaded Steve Stone to work to keep information free to people like Alice Cage also threatens the public's right to free knowledge.
As more information is printed on compact disc and carried over Internet, the world's largest system of computer networks, it becomes less accessible to people without expensive computer equipment. Like families who can't afford to buy their children encyclopedias, those people have traditionally gone to the library for information.
And private publishers who invest in putting electronic information on line are trying to protect their profits by charging for each time someone uses their network.
With electronic data paving the nation's emerging "Information Highway," the public library will be expected to provide mass transit for those who can't afford to cruise on their own.
Mr. Stone, the resident "techie" at Peoria's Bradley University library, envisions an electronic information "jukebox" paid for in advance by the library, a system that lets anyone come in and punch up whatever he wants for free.
"One of the first long conversations I read on the WELL was a discussion of data, information, knowledge and wisdom," said Mr. Stone, who watched so much television growing up that he didn't learn to ride a bike until he was 10.
"Data is just uncollected facts. Information is data arranged to make sense. When a librarian helps turn information into something useful, it becomes knowledge. A person who integrates knowledge into a workable world view can be said to possess wisdom." He added: "If information is not free -- easily available, hopefully at no charge, and uncensored -- all people are left with is confusing data . . . no chance of gaining the knowledge to make the world a better place or the wisdom to be truly happy."
To fight the battle to keep information free, techies such as Mr. Stone need help from older, traditional librarians. Workshops on electronic information at the ALA conference were so crowded that there was seldom room to sit on the floor.
Mr. Stone's most satisfying moment as Bradley's electronic librarian was not leading a patron to knowledge, but persuading a 45-year-old colleague to use Internet.
"I was pushing her to use on-line information, and she kept resisting," said Mr. Stone. "Finally she tapped into a gardening discussion, something that really interested her. Through gardening she discovered other parts of the network. Now she uses it."
It's doubtful, though, that Robert Vospers will ever cruise the Internet.
The 81-year-old retired chief of the University of California, Los Angeles, campus library, Mr. Vospers went to library school on a New Deal program that helped high school students go to college during the Depression.
Now nearly deaf and unable to walk without help, Mr. Vospers received an honorary ALA membership in New Orleans for his half-century of library work, during which he often heard -- just like today -- that the demise of the book would be written on the next page of history.
"No more books? That's one of those mythical ideas people have been saying for as long as I can remember, because it's easy to repeat," said Mr. Vospers, who vividly remembers filling out his first library card at age 6 in 1918. "The book will survive as it always has. Its flexibility is unmatched."
While books will likely survive as a concept, library techies see their form evolving into a small, portable light screen, perhaps bound in leather to make the technology a little warmer.
And as the idea of a library without books moves from myth to reality as the 21st century nears, librarians with the skills of Steve Stone will have plenty to do.
"We haven't seen a revolution like this since the advent of movable type," he said. "There's a lot of formatting alone to be done; right now books move over networks without title pages, tables of contents, indexes or page numbers.
"The machine by itself will never really understand," he said. "When somebody comes up to a reference desk to ask the biblical question, 'What is the House that Ruth Built?' a librarian would stifle a laugh and explain. A machine would send you to Yankee Stadium."