• November 28, 2014

It's Time for a National Digital-Library System

But it can't serve only elites

It's Time for a National Digital-Library System 1

David Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

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close It's Time for a National Digital-Library System 1

David Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

William F. Buckley Jr., my political opposite, once denounced the growing popularity of CD-ROM's in student research. Shouldn't young people learn from real books?

I disagreed. Why not instead digitize a huge number of books and encourage the spread of book-friendly tablet computers with color screens and multimedia capabilities? (Decades later, we have a version of that in the iPad.) Buckley loved my proposal ("inspiring") and came out in the 1990s with two syndicated columns backing the vision. As a harpsichord-playing Yalie famous for political and cultural conservatism and cherishing archaic words, Buckley was hardly a populist in most respects. But he fervently agreed with me that a national digital library should be universal and offer popular content—both books and multimedia. The library should serve not just the needs of academics, researchers, and lovers of high culture.

Today such questions—on the nature, size, and constituencies of a national digital-library system—are not nearly as abstract as they seemed back then. I can remember skeptics questioning whether even advanced technology could let users search through millions of books in a national digital-library system. Google, in effect, has settled that. Robert Darnton, an eminent historian and Harvard University's library director, is not a technologist, but many, and probably the overwhelming majority, of computer scientists in this area would agree with what he recently wrote in The New York Review of Books: "Google, in digitizing large numbers of books and making many of them available online, has demonstrated its feasibility. True, Google is a commercial operation, which puts corporate profit ahead of the public good, but it is also a success story with a lesson to be learned: We can mobilize the technology and master the logistics that are necessary to digitize the holdings of our research libraries on an enormous scale." Last October, Darnton convened a high-level meeting at Harvard to discuss how such a library could be built to "make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens." In The New York Review and elsewhere, he has been widely making his case and is further pursuing the topic at a workshop at Harvard on March 1.

President Obama did not use the word "library" in his State of the Union Address, but wittingly or not, he helped the cause by citing digital textbooks as one justification for American business to expand high-speed broadband coverage. The topic is finally gaining attention in the national news media as well. Peter Svensson, an Associated Press writer, recently delved into the problems of e-books in public libraries today and complained that they are divided among thousands of libraries. "Some branch out there might have a spare copy of The Black Swan," he wrote, "yet I'm stuck in the long line of the local library. One national e-book library would be better." The New York Times ran a feature in January headlined "Playing Catch-Up in a Digital Library Race," describing how other countries have already begun: The National Library of Norway is digitizing its entire collection. The National Library of the Netherlands has started an ambitious digitizing project.

But will the United States actually construct a genuinely public and democratic national digital-library system to help us, in the president's words, "out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world?" While the Library of Congress has digitized some of its collection, much remains to be decided and done. Further, Americans have yet to reach a consensus on the characteristics of our own national digital library. Questions abound. Should the system exist mainly to promote literature and culture in general? Or should the library care equally about the promulgation of scientific, technological, mathematical, and medical knowledge—in fact, even business and vocational material, so that it can help millions of jobless Americans and others upgrade their skills? What are the ways to justify the cost of building a national digital-library system? Could the same tablet computers optimized for reading also be used for filing forms electronically and in other ways reduce the costs of paperwork? How can we resolve legal issues surrounding the dread topic, copyright?

Tom Peters, a veteran public-library advocate, is coordinator of LibraryCity.org, a new online ad hoc group that will seek to deal with these matters, especially whether the national digital library should be mainly for the intellectual elite or also serve the rest of society in many directly practical ways. Peters is a former director of the Center for Library Initiatives of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago. ­­I am co-founder of LibraryCity, and like Peters, I hope that Darnton and others will agree with the idea of a genuine public library rich in content and services for the nonelite as well as the elite. Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society is sponsoring the March workshop to kick off its research and planning initiative for a "Digital Public Library of America." With funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to define the scope, architecture, costs, and administration of such a library. LibraryCity's intent is to augment the Harvard effort, rather than replace it, by offering a grass-roots perspective in depth. I appreciate Havard's invitation to include our views, and I will be attending the meeting.

What are the current differences between our perspective and Darnton's? First, let me emphasize that he has not specifically said that the library should be limited to the elite, or that it should encompass just books and culturally related content and omit services such as reference. He does see the national digital library as "the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet." Darnton's heart is in the right place. The problem is in some major details. For example, when Darnton mentions America's "cultural patrimony," whose "patrimony" are we talking about in a multicultural, multiethnic America? Since The New York Review published his views last fall, Darnton has commendably agreed that "heritage" would be a more suitable term. But as priceless as our "heritage" is, shouldn't the library also be a repository for the collected wisdom and recollections of the great unwashed of modern America? Even Darnton's reference to creating a "Republic of Letters," drawing the term from the philosophes in the 17th and 18th centuries, smacks a bit of intellectual snobbery, however accidental. And for the most part, his writings play up topics like collection management and preservation, while ignoring, for instance, reference services, user communities, and grass-roots content like oral histories. And what about issues such as integration of the national digital-library system with local schools and libraries, and providing related training for teachers and librarians as part of their education and subsequent professional development? Will the library be governed democratically, and will it be responsive to the public while courting philanthropic funds? Comprehensiveness, please!

"It's like a politician making a campaign promise," Peters remarked to me recently. "You can have an 'and other items' to cover yourself, but Professor Darnton's real priorities are clear—the humanities. This is a wonderful start. It just isn't a full library."

Among other things, a well-stocked online national public-library system would help make American students more competitive with their counterparts in other countries. It could also help correct the many deficiencies of library e-books today, as documented by the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, which has wisely suggested a national buying pool to keep costs down and help libraries control their own destinies, rather than just tagging along behind vendors. A common procurement system of one kind or another would be a natural component of a national digital-library system. For now, public libraries offer just a tiny fraction of the more than 800,000 e-books available through Amazon's Kindle store—itself a far from complete assortment—while millions of elementary- and secondary-school students are using obsolete textbooks.

Frustratingly, however, as is so often the case, Washington lags, despite Obama's reference to e-textbooks. Years ago, Al Gore vaguely talked about digitizing books at the Library of Congress for schoolchildren, but the reality today is a long way from the old rhetoric. In a 2010 speech, Obama, in fact, denounced iPad-style machines as evil distractions, without fully acknowledging their potential as transmitters of knowledge and learning devices, even if they aren't currently being built, priced, and marketed for the masses. Yes, he digitally autographed a student's iPad later in the year with Adobe Ideas software. But my attempts to open dialogue with the White House on a national digital-library system have failed to draw a response. That is why I am extremely grateful to Darnton and the Berkman Center for bringing this topic closer to the national agenda.

While at the Harvard workshop, I'll share my own vision. I see going beyond simply digitizing what is in our libraries to create a broader system—broader in content, metadata, accessibility, services, and communities to be served. Here are at least some of the traits I think the national system needs:

A wide variety of books and other items, including the literacy-building kind. The library system should serve not only academics and other researchers but also the country at large, with the promotion of literacy and knowledge of all kinds—including, dare I say, the sciences and useful arts.

In fact, the system should offer everything such as textbooks, carefully vetted scholarly papers, user-contributed photographs, local oral histories, and multimedia job-training materials, as well as other directly practical content. We mustn't neglect digital textbooks, multimedia, and other how-to content for students, small-business people, factory workers, and others. Those are the kinds of materials that can help our country create the wealth and economic growth we keep hearing so much about. Libraries are notable for aiding Americans to realize ambitions that can lead to gainful or more-gainful employment; digital-library collections should reflect that interest in self-improvement and other life-changers.

Speaking hypothetically, Peters recently e-mailed me that he wants the digital-library system to serve "a teenage boy in Kamrar, Iowa, who yearns to learn much more than is offered by his local high-school curriculum, or the person with impaired vision in Marathon, Texas, who wants to attend online programs about classic westerns and discuss them with others, or the Latina single mother in Bellflower, California, who needs a national digital public library to improve the quality of life for herself and her children." Simply put, let the content be both formal and informal, dynamic and static, popular and academic, cultural and directly practical (culture in the end can be extremely practical, beyond its intrinsic value—if nothing else, in business activities such as marketing and Web design).

In the content area, I certainly see a major role for Darnton himself, given his world-class credentials as a cultural historian, even if he is not a trained-and-seasoned-in-the-trenches librarian by background. Top scholars like him could help us create stellar collections in their areas of expertise: We need their participation. But American citizens need to be treated as more than just passive consumers of content chosen or developed by experts.

Accessibility, mixed with realism. Not every library item can go online tomorrow with patrons charged no fees for access. Still, we can at least work toward that goal in a reasonable way. A compromise might be for best sellers and other popular offerings not to appear in the national digital-library system for a year or more after publication (at least not unless local and state systems pay extra to shorten or eliminate their patrons' waiting time for desired e-titles, or unless those systems drastically reduce the actual loan durations on the most-sought items and offer links to stores and publishers to encourage borrowers to buy library-offered books and other content).

As a library user, I hate time windows and other access restrictions. But a realistic approach would preserve opportunities for bookstores and commercial rental services and help protect publishers' income, a must no matter what the library system's business model, if the system is to be affordable in the near future and include copyrighted material from major sources. For their part, both librarians and content providers will need to show more flexibility than they have so far. Today libraries own paper books with which they can more or less do as they please, short of, for example, copying them in ways that go beyond fair use. They may need to bend somewhat and accept some restrictions, as long as the public's right to continual access is preserved.

But publishers will have to yield, too, by making more e-titles available to public libraries. Furthermore, publishers should be less zealous in their use of digital-rights management, technologies that limit access to digital content. Ideally, they will also spend less time lobbying for Draconian copyright laws, and more time working with libraries to create and promote cost-effective strategies to help libraries and themselves survive, with more revenue for all and less temptation for cash-strapped students and others to pirate books. A well-stocked national digital-library system could make content more easily available both legally and—for publishers—profitably.

If nothing else, many readers of e-books are buying more books than when they had to drive to bookstores or wait for delivery by mail. A digital library would support a culture of reading, as libraries always have. Institutions participating in the national digital-library system could also help by popularizing appropriate hardware for e-reading.

  • Usability, in the general technology-related sense, with material made available for many different kinds of tablets, cellphones, and other machines, via technical standards that promote interoperability. The national library system should steer clear of the tablet-creation business—let Apple and the others slug it out. But the right technical standards will boost the market, creating more opportunities for the private side. So might free tablets for some low-income people or tax breaks for others.
  • Ease of use for Americans with disabilities and others, especially for such purposes as job-training. Fewer people with impaired vision would need government assistance, for example, if they had the ability to change the size and style of the "type" or hear e-books read aloud. Ideally, different interfaces would be available even for mainstream users—everything from complex options for academics to colorful, Netflix-simple interfaces for more casual users.
  • Tight integration of the digital collections with our library and school systems. Librarians and teachers should receive proper professional preparation so that the national digital collections are truly part of curricula. What's the point of educational content if teachers and students can't absorb it?
  • The ability of the public to contribute items ranging from informal neighborhood guides to videos of news events (which are, after all, future history).

A democratic organizational model. The name "Digital Public Library of America," used by Darnton and the Berkman Center project, will ideally be reserved for just that—a genuine, tax-supported, public-library system, answerable to the voters one way or another. Many librarians in cities and suburban and rural areas across America should run the library system and choose items for it and also be able to build their own collections.

Such a distributed, democratic approach would address many needs that members of the elite, by themselves, cannot even begin to anticipate (like the needs of the Latina single mother in Bellflower). That is not to say the library system should be anti-elite or anti-wealthy or exist only on tax money. It could also benefit handsomely from links to items in private collections and from donations by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other philanthropists. But I myself would prefer that the actual digital-library system be genuinely public from the start, with accompanying democratic governance.

Interactivity and long-term trustworthiness. The library system should also provide for reliable backups in many locations and on public servers, as well as contractor-owned ones. It should be interactive and preserve annotations, both formal and informal, while providing for good data integrity (the accuracy and completeness of data). The system should allow easy and permanent linking from social networks and other Web sites, too, so that it is truly blended with the Internet, especially the parts so dear to young people. It should adhere to e-book standards, so that electronic text is readable centuries from now.

Cost-justification. Alas, in this chilly fiscal climate, we can't neglect the financial details. Cost-justification will be essential. The same tablet computers useful for reading text and consuming multimedia could also be used for filling out electronic forms and many other purposes. Unlike today's iPads, those tablets could easily be propped up and work with computer mice and plug-in keyboards to make them more useful for productive work. A focused national effort could build demand enough to drive down costs through mass production.

This "information stimulus" for ordinary Americans, not just the members of the White House and congressional elites already thrilled with their iPads, would indirectly divert resources from paperwork to knowledge, popularizing established multiple-use precepts from information technology. We spend at least several hundred billion dollars a year just on medical paperwork. Reduce those costs just a little—along with, say, the countless dollars that small businesses spend on government-related matters like taxes—and we will indirectly pay for a good part of the library system. In fact library books would be one way to entice more people to use tablets and save time and money spent filling out paper forms by hand. Simply put, the multiple-use concept could address many needs, not just library-related ones.

Other business principles. The national digital public-library system could and should be businesslike in ways beyond cost-justification. For example, rather than creating a giant tech-oriented bureaucracy, the system could use Google, Amazon, SirsiDynix, Overdrive, and others as contractors, while expecting a good value for the taxpayers. (Disclosure: I'm a small Google shareholder, though I was pushing for a well-stocked national digital library years before the company's birth and am against the proposed Google Book Settlement over what content holders regard as copyright infringement.)

The system should fairly compensate publishers, writers, and others. It needn't pay for spontaneously created annotations. But books and other formal, edited content are another matter. The library system might pay by the number of downloads, although other models could be used as well, including perhaps flat fees for, say, certain kinds of scholarly or educational materials.

Flexibility, especially for the future. The technical and administrative architecture should allow technological experimentation by qualified members of the general public. Google wisely let Harvard researchers experiment with an application that could measure the usage of phrases in books. Such flexibility is exactly what a national digital-library system needs. But beware of farming out tasks if the national library system lacks adequate safeguards against "vendor lock-in" (often made possible by software or hardware that works only with other products from Vender X) and gratuitously exclusive contracts.

Ideally the White House and Congress will understand the stakes here and start building a national digital public-library system with all of society's needs in mind. That will benefit higher education, since American colleges work mainly with the products of American high schools, where the priorities can differ starkly from those of the academic and research elites. We need to avoid the library equivalent of a 1981 proposal to let ketchup and pickle relish count as vegetables in school-lunch programs. Granted, literary classics and other forms of high culture are essential: They are not mere condiments. But neither are they the full diets that American library users—students, working mothers, octogenarians in need of accurate medical information—deserve.

David H. Rothman is a writer in Alexandria, Va., and founder of TeleRead, a Web site devoted to news and discussion of e-books and related topics. He is also a cofounder of LibraryCity.org, an informal, nonprofit group working toward a universal national digital-library system. He is the author of six nonfiction books on technology-related topics, as well as The Solomon Scandals, a Washington novel (Twilight Times Books, 2009).

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