Digital libraries are the future

Nation needs a common framework for lending e-books to the public

March 12, 2012|By David H. Rothman

There are already tens of millions of e-book lovers, and their ranks are sure to be boosted by the latest iPad — along with improved Kindles, Nooks and their rivals.

My sister, the retired fourth-grade teacher, has finally succumbed; Dorothy reads faster by enlarging the words on her tablet. And my wife favors e-books when she stretches out in bed. Clearly, the time has come for a well-stocked national digital library system, not to replace brick-and-mortar libraries but to augment them.

In the 1990s, William F. BuckleyJr. — my political opposite — wrote two columns supporting my basic vision. He even recommended it to Newt Gingrich. But years later, we still lack a coherent national e-library strategy. (As of 2 p.m. Friday, 236 patrons of Maryland's Digital eLibary Consortium were waiting for 33 copies of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Jonathan Safran Foer's novel. In this case, because of legal restrictions and related technical precautions, a digital copy is just like a paper copy — only one library patron can read it at a time.)

Through greater purchasing clout, a national digital library system could give taxpayers far more for their money, adding to the inherent economies of e-books. A first step could be a foundation-financed buyout of OverDrive, current e-book supplier for the Maryland consortium and many other libraries, if the owners agreed.

Frustratingly, Washington for now does not grasp the full potential of a national digital library system truly serving the masses. In effect, at least unofficially, the Obama White House has farmed out the issue to a group hosted at the president's old law school: the Harvard-based Digital Public Library of America initiative.

Ideally, the DPLA's talented people can come up with a well-crafted online strategy to help public libraries and others encourage family literacy, mitigate the fourth-grade reading slump, distribute appropriate text and multimedia content to help upgrade our workforce, and stimulate the brains of the millions of baby boomers who soon will be retiring (some, like my wife, with serious mobility challenges). Not one current school librarian or other K-12 educator sits on the 17-member steering committee. And yet, the national digital library issue is in many ways a K-12, job-preparation and anti-poverty opportunity in disguise. Studies show a strong connection between children's academic achievement and access to books at home.

E-books are just swarms of invisible electrons, but children could still notice them. Librarians and teachers, for example, could post drawings of scenes from e-books on the walls, and they could talk up appropriate local titles mentioning people and landmarks known to the students. And "recreational reading," whether the electronic or paper variety, could help nudge children and parents alike toward the more serious variety and build skills and knowledge of many kinds. Many academics, alas, look down on popular-level books.

This is partly why we actually need two tightly intertwined but separate national digital library systems, ultimately — one academic and one public. Both could be universally accessible to Americans and ideally others, and with plenty of shared content. Separate systems would help avoid or reduce clashes over such issues as scholarly monographs versus bestsellers.

A common technical organization could serve both systems. It could offer such essentials as fully reliable, long-term storage and stable hyperlinks between books. Among other things, the technical services organization could forge alliances to help get the right technology for e-reading into the hands of low-income people and help them get connected. Yes, this is part of the greater digital divide issue.

Fair treatment of writers and publishers is also essential. No publishers or full-time writers or other creative types sit on the 17-member DPLA steering committee. The DPLA is admirably keen on free public domain e-books and on other unencumbered items that libraries, universities and others could commission for America and the rest of the world. But for now, unavoidably, some ifs exist about the DPLA's ability to deliver copyrighted offerings. Certain big publishers do not even make e-books available to libraries.

Publishers and librarians instead should team up on library appropriations at all levels, just as the Pentagon and its contractors so often work together on defense funding.

Books count. In Rockford, Ill., the NAACP and others are understandably seething because the local library system has secretly toyed with the idea of ridding itself of almost all paper books except for art books and those for children. Despite the high employment and poverty rates in this city of 153,000, there is talk of simply lending Kindles to low-income people — hardly a workable solution by itself. Is that the kind of digital future we want for less fortunate Americans?

By contrast, a comprehensive national digital library strategy could reduce, not multiply, the proverbial "savage inequalities" of our schools and libraries — and improve life and work for the elite as well.

David H. Rothman, a former poverty-beat reporter for the Journal newspaper in Lorain, Ohio, is a writer in Alexandria, Va. For more on digital library policy, go to LibraryCity.org or email him at davidrothman@pobox.com.

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