Why We Can't Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System

Along with out-of-copyright books, the first version of the library could focus on training and educational items--a potential godsend for the millions of Americans now in obsolete careers. But, yes, in line with the belief that recreational reading is worthwhile in itself and also promotes the job-related kind, the library could offer bestsellers and other popular contemporary works in time. That would be tricky, granted, with a sizeable chasm between the tastes of, say, Brooklyn and rural Arkansas. But the library system could cope with these issues as it expanded, aided by its increasing popularity--one of the best ways to counteract micro management attempts by special interest groups. Granted, certain politicians would love to shut down National Public Radio. But with hundreds of NPR-affiliated stations and tens of millions tuned in, the network has a sizeable built-in constituency of equally passionate listeners to counter its foes, and I suspect that the same logic would apply here, especially if the library system included a sufficient amount of good regional literature appealing to people with different values and chosen by state and local librarians. Thanks to the economies of digital books, it would be easier than ever to live up to two of the five laws of library science: "Every reader his or her book" and "Every book its reader." Especially with annotation capabilities, books will be able to serve as catalysts for community memories. Beyond constituency-building, another anti-censorship measure would be ample respect for private bookstores and other bypass mechanisms.

That raises the issue of the difference between a library book and one bought through an e-book store. Perhaps the most popular new titles would not be available for free from the system for a year or even several, with citizens able either to buy them directly or subscribe through Netflix-style plans blended in with the library catalog. I would prefer that all books go online for free from the start, and maybe that could occur in time. But without some compromises, the library system will never happen, even with the cost-justification I described in the information stimulus essay; and the Google model or the equivalent may prevail instead.

How close have we come to the above vision for a national digital library, and who will make it reality? Europeans countries like France are--at least in terms of politicians' rhetoric--closer than we are. There is even a Euro digital library portal. China has already amassed a huge digital collection, with six million books scanned as of 2006. A Wikipedia page lists dozens of government and nongovernment digital library projects, ranging from Project Gutenberg, probably the first, to the New Zealand Text Center.

In the States, the seminal inspiration for digital libraries may have come from Vannevar Bush's As We May Think proposal in The Atlantic in July 1945, with Ted Nelson having come forth with his Xanadu project in 1960, the accompanying hypertext vision and commercial plans for micro-level billing down to document level (and maybe even the sentence one?). LBJ talked of a "national knowledge bank" ("as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank") without filling in many details. Later Al Gore and others proposed digitizing the Library of Congress for the masses, but in the end, given all the complexities here, the Library has settled on less ambitious efforts--for example, its laudable initiatives to digitize image and sound collections and some public domain works, as well as preserve certain Web documents. The Library's topic-based partnerships with European libraries are hardly to be confused with a well-stocked national digital library system here in the states. Besides, by law, the main mission of the Library of Congress is to be what the name says--a library for members of Congress; it is a national library only in the de facto sense. Perhaps Washington could change this.

Involvement of the Library of Congress would instantly confer upon a National Digital Library System a certain amount of prestige, and beyond that, LOC could handle certain details. The system could even give users the option of restricting book searches to items recommended by experts at LOC or other institutions. But a top-down approach, through and through? Not, as I see it. Instead, by way of the distributed approach mentioned earlier, librarians in many cities should participate in administration and in the actual selection of books. If this isn't possible under the Library of Congress, the national system would be better off as an independent agency.

Back in the 1990s, perhaps another path to a national digital library sysem would have been the nonprofit Digital Library Federation, with many partner institutions participating. But the any DFL efforts in this direction never really got off the ground. Here's one reason. Many librarians dedicate themselves to universal access, but more than a few at major institutions can be rather proprietary--with the best-endowed libraries often hesitant to share their holdings online, especially with users thousands of miles away. Without significant funding of its own, the federation lacked the clout to herd the cats.

Members of another group, the Association of Research Libraries, are also cats in a sense, with their own individual self-interests, but enough money sent to the right institutions could work wonders to enlighten the research establishment. The ARL's own future scenarios are here. Significantly, lines can sometimes fuzz between the best public libraries and top research libraries, as well as between those at major and minor institutions of higher education; and, especially in fields such as math and science, where some of the biggest contributions may come from young people, not all of them with access to the best resources, we'd be better off a more democratic approach.

Recently a national digital library proposal has been floated by Robert Darnton, library director at Harvard, one of the most affluent universities of them all; an eminent historian; and author of The Case for Books, whose ideas overlap with the visions that I and others have propounded over the years. Prof. Darnton envisions research libraries pooling their collections, with funding from foundations. He wants mass access, my own goal since the early 1990s, and he even hopes that Google can contribute e-books to the "Digital Public Library of America." Let's just hope that Prof. Darnton's library would not be too bookcentric, and that it would serve science and technology as well as the humanities, in addition to providing text, multimedia, and other content for such applications as job-related training. I am not anti-book--quite the contrary, as author of a Washington novel and half a dozen other titles. But any genuine "public library" online needs to go beyond books and even beyond literature and offer a strong practical side, a priority of which one of America's most prominent authors, Mark Twain, the adventuresome typewriter pioneer, would have heartily approved in the spirit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Another passionate lover of gadgets--Thomas Jefferson, from whom LOC bought 6,487 books for $23,950 to replace those destroyed in the British invasion of Washington--might also have appreciated a national digital library with major scientific and technical resources. And he might have liked comprehensive, constantly updated content other than books alone; for example, refereed papers, text or other media from significant book-linked conversations, and anything else that speeded up detailed exchanges of ideas.

Yet other issues would be financial, even with major foundations participating as Prof. Darnton envisions. The initial digitization costs would be just the start if the national digital library is to reach beyond the elite and make e-books easily accessible. How about rights fees, for instance--especially the costs of bestsellers if this is to be more than an academic collection and truly encourage the masses to read? Prof. Darnton has joined the chorus of those calling for a massive overhaul of our country's copyright laws, and the laws are truly in dire need of reform; but publishers and writers will still insist on fair compensation, no trifle for such organizations as the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers. A well-stocked national digital library system would carry bestsellers and other very contemporary works, eventually if not immediately; and even if the library system delayed the free availability of the very hottest titles, the costs would be considerably more than for simply works of academic and literary interest.

Other cost issues--arising from Prof. Darnton's use of the words "public library"--need attention. How about hardware and connection costs for cash-strapped users, for example, even if Super WiFi takes off? Or the expenses of professional training and other assistance for teachers and librarians, many of whom excel in core skills but lack a gift for the technical? Better that the library be tax supported and scale up as it gains support so it is not reliant just on the generosity of foundations. Granted, we should want private collections to flourish, too--one way, along with bookstores and rental services, to deal with the censorship threat. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and other billionaires to the rescue? Society could benefit endlessly from a massive Gates-funded collection and others integrated with a national digital library system. But in the past--perhaps this has changed--Gates has shown far less interest in providing e-books for schools and libraries than he has in other philanthropic areas despite the less than optimal results he has achieved while paying insufficient attention to actual content.

Another challenge is to motivate America's librarians to launch a major lobbying campaign in Washington, an initiative that Prof. Darnton envisions but says he himself is not equipped to lead. I'd hope the campaign would aggressively seek ongoing tax funding of content and other elements of the library system, not just changes in the copyright system (again--see my cost justification ideas, part of the information stimulus plan shifting resources from bureaucracy to useful pursuits like the library system). Alas, the most logical organization to conduct the campaign, the American Library Association, does not currently rank a national digital library system high on its list of priorities. Furthermore, even with the safeguards I've suggested, certain ALA members might also worry about the censorship issue and the related one of content filtering. Carrie Russell, an ALA Washington staffer with whom I consulted closely during the writing of this essay, is personally most open minded toward the idea of a national digital library system. But she doubts that ALA would be able to take an official stand. Let's hope that changes, with ALA ideally partnering up with educational and training societies and perhaps other groups such as the AARP. Tech-smart librarians with a passion for e-books are no longer the rarities they were in the past. More than 2,100 people attended a "virtual summit" organized by Library Journal and School Library Journal and also reported on in the excellent Librarian in Black blog of Sarah Houghton-Jan. Some encouragement here for ALA?

Certainly ALA wants to improve the professional lives of its members and deal with other here-and-now matters. But what if, due to the Google settlement and disruptive technology, public libraries fade away? The most technically accomplished librarians would not just vanish into the mist, given all the opportunities beckoning from the corporate world. But something will be lost if we forsake public libraries for Amazon, Google, and the others. That poolside Kindle is nice. But shouldn't we care more about what Ms. Bikini and Mr. Beer Belly are reading--or whether other, less fortunate Americans are reading, period?

David Rothman, a writer in Alexandria, Va, is the founder of TeleRead, the oldest English-language site offering general e-book news and views. More

David Rothman (davidrothman@pobox.com), a writer in Alexandria, VA, has been writing on e-books and libraries since the early 1990s and founded TeleRead, the oldest English language site offering general e-book news and views. In his information stimulus essay in James Fallows� Atlantic blog, he told how the U.S. could cost-justify a national digital library system and other useful endeavors by using technology to divert resources from public and private bureaucracy.

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