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

E-book gadgets have finally cracked the mass market here in the United States or at least have come a long way.

Consider a memorable Kindle commercial from Amazon, in which a brunette in a bikini one-ups an oafish man reading off a rival machine. Mr. Beer Belly asks about her e-reader. "It's a Kindle," she says by the pool. "$139. I actually paid more for these sunglasses." Mad Men would be proud. A year or two from now, count on twice as much ballyhoo and on better machines for less than $99.

I myself own both a Kindle 3 and the Brand X iPad and can attest to the improved readability of the latest E Ink from Amazon's supplier, even indoors, despite lack of built-in illumination. Outside on walks, as with earlier Kindles, I can listen to books from publishing houses savvy enough to allow text to speech. No matter where I am, I can instantly see all occurrences of a character's name in an engrossing Louis Bayard novel. I can also track down the meanings of archaic words that Bayard's detective narrator uses in this murder mystery set at West Point and featuring a fictionalized Edgar Allan Poe.

But there is one thing I currently cannot do with my Kindle despite all the sizzle in the commercials--read public library books. Local libraries do not use the Kindle format for their electronic collections, relying instead on rival standards used by Sony Readers and certain other devices. Amazon undoubtedly would love to fix this under terms favorable to CEO Jeff Bezos and friends. But then other issues will remain. How many Kindle books--or those readable on Sony Readers, iPads, and others--will cash-strapped libraries in poorer cities be able to lend? What range of titles will be available? And shouldn't we look beyond books and consider the needs of researchers who, for example, could benefit from reliably preserved electronic discussions linked to individual books.

Might the time have finally come for a well-stocked national digital library system (NDLS) for the United States--a cause I've publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog? That's the topic of this essay, and many of the same concepts could apply to other countries, including Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan, China, India, Brazil, and various other nations. Perhaps national digital library systems could interconnect, forming a global one. But for simplicity's sake and reasons of self interest, I'll focus here on a digital system for the United States, which, in national digital library planning and execution, lags far behind the diligent Chinese, among others.

A library plan and related initiatives should include the actual collections, not just for traditional education and research but also for job training; tight integration with schools, libraries, and other institutions; encouragement of the spread of the right hardware and connections; and the cost-justification described in the stimulus proposal. Multimedia is essential, and Kindle-style tablets will almost surely include color and video in the future, blurring distinctions between them and iPads. But the digital library system mustn't neglect books and other texts. Old-fashioned literacy, in fact, rather than e-book standards, should be the foremost argument for a national digital library system--as a way to expand the number and variety of books for average Americans, especially students. Without basic skills, young people will not be fit for many demanding blue-collar jobs, much less for Ph.D.-level work, and economic growth will suffer (PDF). Even recreational reading of fiction, not just nonfiction, can help develop the comprehension needed for the job-related kind. But by the end of high school, most young people in the United States no longer read for fun. E-books and other technology could expand their reading choices and make books more enticing, through such wrinkles as Kindle-style dictionaries and encyclopedia links to help students better understand the words in front of them.

The need is there. Decades ago when I worked the poverty beat at a factory-town newspaper in Lorain, Ohio, on Lake Erie, west of Cleveland, I did not see even pulp-fiction titles in the apartments of typical welfare mothers. Most middle-class homes also tended not to teem with books--probably true in New York or Boston as well. And this antediluvian era was years before distractions such as super-cheap video games, $67 color televisions from WalMart, cellphones, social networks, and, of course, other sites on the World Wide Web. The 2010 Kids and Family Reading Report sponsored by Scholastic says more than half of the surveyed children read for pleasure between six and eight years of age, but that the statistic drops to a quarter for those between 15 and 17. For 15-17-year-old boys, the fraction of recreational readers is a mere fifth--maybe one reason why so many men are falling behind women in earning power.

What, however, if a well-stocked national digital library system could multiply the number of books enjoyable not just by young people but also their parents, the role models, whom schools and other institutes could encourage? Significantly the Scholastic Report--full text here--says: "It is clear that letting kids choose which books they want to read is key to raising a reader. Nine out of 10 children say they are more likely to finish books they choose themselves."

Here is another eye-opener. Just a quarter of the students in the Scholastic survey have actually read digital books. But 57 percent would like to. One-third say they would read more books for fun if they could use an e-book reader. Certainly this jibes with a Harris Interactive poll of 2,775 adults. Fifty-three percent of e-reader users said they read more often than six months before, or much more than the 18 percent of non-users. Even considering the desire to justify purchases, those are impressive numbers.

Shouldn't libraries adjust in a major way to the possibilities of e-books and, in fact, use technology to strengthen themselves as bastions of literacy, so that, for example, books can better match YouTube's popularity?

What's the point of broadband expansion, a goal of the Obama administration, if it simply means more YouTube? Broadband could actually hurt literacy, at least among families without an interest in reading, if we fail to not just to spread the books around but also work actively to popularize them.

The affluent certainly are catching on. One analyst has suggested that Amazon could sell more than five million Kindles this year and 11.5 million in 2012 (Jeff Bezos is vexingly secretive about the exact numbers so far), and another has pushed up estimated global sales of the e-book-capable iPad to 36.5 million in 2011 and 50.4 million in 2012. Those are just two brands. Regardless of the notorious imprecision of analysts' projections, e-books clearly are on the way up. E-books are actually outselling hardbacks at Amazon. While the percentage of e-book sales is undoubtedly increasing among book-buyers, the real goal should be to grow the total number of book-lovers and knowledge-lovers in the general population.

Just as importantly, libraries and schools need to prepare for the inevitable tipping point, when major publishers will often decide that the market is not large enough for paper editions. Some paper books will survive, just like the horse-drawn carriages that tourists ride in New York's Central Park. But interest may eventually wane even if print on demand machines become common in copy shops. And why not? E-readers almost surely will become more paperlike in display quality and in fact might offer flappable pages in time for those who cared. Whether or not the related technologies improve, a 99 percent certainty, the tech is already good enough; and a national digital library system could reinforce and spread the book culture and also promote other forms of text, through the efforts of teachers and librarians, ideally working with parents as well as students. Minus such focused efforts, what will become of welfare families in Ohio factory towns? They and countless others have problems enough appreciating and catching up with even paper books. Library visits typically are not part of their routines. Through both technology and reinforcement from teachers and librarians, we could strive to excite both parents and children--including colorful electronic picture books, from which mothers and fathers could read to offspring.

Beyond literacy, many other reasons exist for a well-stocked national digital library system, and I'll list some of them: 1. Economies do count. Granted, the editorial costs of a good e-book are or should be the same as those of a paper book, and maybe will be more if you consider the expenses of possible extras such as linking. But the value can be greater. The purchase price of a paper book is just the start for a library, which must also bear the processing, storage and checkout costs. If the current Great Recession turns into another Great Depression, then besieged libraries in some cities may shut down or cut back service still more--observe the fate of the Hood County Libraries in Oregon. A national digital library system could help mitigate the misery somewhat. The rule in librarydom is so often: The worse the economy, the greater the demand for library services, as Americans turn to libraries for help in preparing for and finding new jobs, and as hard-pressed families seek more affordable recreation. None other than my political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., talked up my TeleRead proposal for a well-stocked national digital library system in part because of the inherent efficiencies.

2. The present hodgepodge of public and private solutions for libraries just is not working. Only The Adventures of Augie March showed up when I searched for Saul Bellow's novels among Amazon's more than 700,000 Kindle books. I could not find a single e-book edition of a Bellow novel in the smaller collection of OverDrive, which does serve public libraries with popular-level and some literary books. I suspect that more of Bellow's fiction will go online soon. Still, this is an excellent illustration of the nature and size of the problem.

3. The proposed Google Books settlement may fail to live up to all the ballyhoo, not to mention the fact that it still faces legal challenges and the appeals could go on for years. Google in many ways would be America's new library system, except that librarians would not even be represented in the copyrighted-related Book Rights Registry. As if that isn't enough, libraries would end up paying subscription fees for access to some digitized material they now own in print--even certain books that some major libraries let Google scan. Moreover, if the Registry wanted, it could allow libraries just one free terminal each through which to access the books; in fact, that's the default. With the rights holders dominating the Registry, just what incentive would exist to give away additional subscriptions, in effect? Simply put, the proposed settlement is a sellout of America's libraries.

I myself would rather that companies such as Google, Amazon, and OverDrive function as contractors answerable to a national digital library system, which could use private services, content, and infrastructure but insist on high standards in areas such as accurate rendition and preservation of text. Google and brethern could also continue their private efforts: in addition to supplying their technology to a national digital library system. See Inside the Google Books Algorithm, a recent post by TheAtlantic.com's technology editor, Alexis Madrigal, for an example of the possibilities of Google as a discovery mechanism for those in search of just the right book. I simply don't want Google and the other corporations to be library substitutes and dictate algorithms to the rest of the world. By way of disclosure, please note that I own a small speck of Google stock even though, by my writings, you might not know it; and along with millions of other Americans I also own other high-tech stocks that the library system and the rest of the information stimulus plan would benefit.

Another possible contractor for the library system could be the valuable Internet Archive, the nonprofit e-library started by Brewster Kahle. Whether through contracting or otherwise, I can also envision participation by other existing archives such a JSTOR (academic journals), ARTStor (images), the Art Museum Image Consortium, and HathiTrust.

4. We need inexpensive, up-to-date multimedia and other content for job-training.

Given all the damage from free trade agreements without sufficient protection of unionization rights--not to mention tax laws encouraging U.S. companies to ship factories off to China--training is hardly a panacea. But the more content the library system can provide for training, the better. That would hold true especially in key areas such as green industries, nanotechnology and 3D printing. What if we had a just-in-time training system, aided by a national digital library system, so that the American workforce was more agile and could more easily meet the changing needs of employers? For job training efforts to succeed, however, the labor force needs basic verbal and mathematical literacy, the reason why I've mentioned literacy as the foremost reason for the proposed library system.

5. Americans with disabilities would be benefit immensely if the library provided digitized text that the vision-impaired and others could enjoy without current hassles. Remember the glories of Kindle-style text to speech when the publishers allow it. Furthermore, the Kindle and the better e-reading applications let users vary the size and style of the "type," the text and background color and even the line spacing. This is one reason why e-books on a good screen may actually be easier to read than traditional books.

6. The library system could popularize e-book standards and perhaps underwrite their development and also develop and promote common Digital Rights Management systems for books and other content. DRM has rightly earned the enmity of many e-book users and even many editors and publishers because of the technical problems it creates and its dubiousness as a piracy-fighter, and ideally a national digital library system could exist without it. But large publishers are adamant at the moment, and unfortunately this issue is intertwined with e-book standards. The biggest houses have already agreed on the ePub standard for novels and other books without layout complexities; and future versions of ePub will be more flexible. But a Tower of eBabel still stands tall since proprietary DRM gums up even a nonproprietary format like ePub. The Kindle cannot even read nonDRMed ePub directly, and needless to say it can't make heads or tails out of DRMed ePub from OverDrive. Even many e-book-capable cellphones can't display library books now.

Sony Readers, Nooks, and some other devices will work with typical library books, and OverDrive hopes to offer software able to display e-books on the iPad and presumably the iPhone, among other capabilities. But for now, the $139-and-up Kindles offers the best value and reading experience in the opinion of many. I myself have mixed feeling not just because of the standards issue, but also because reading applications for the iPad let me move faster within a book, and because I'm a sucker for color book covers. Whatever the most popular brands of the moment, the technology will change. If books are to be readable for centuries, without translation complexities we might not even anticipate, it would be foolhardy to build an entire national digital library system around proprietary formats and company-controlled DRM.

7. A national digital library system could offer long-term storage--making e-books more durable, more serious as a medium, especially in an era of networked books and cloud computing. A stable library-type business model would help. For nontechies, a networked book picks up text and perhaps multimedia from many sources, annotations ideally included. Cloud computing means that your library books would reside on distant servers rather than your downloading them to your machine in the usual way--you'd read them within your browser or maybe a special app for the iPad, an Android operating system device, or another tablet-style machine. That's the direction in which Google in particular is now moving, and Amazon is also a big believer, but all kinds of complications could ensue in the future from reliance on private companies. As some have pointed out, do we know who will own Google and the rest a decade from now? That might be one argument for undertaking regular backups of all content on government servers even if the library system's books and other items normally reside for mass use on leased, privately owned servers. Backups should include annotations and other digital content from social reading--which can vastly improve the quality and speed of exchanges of ideas, adding major value to books, academic papers, and other formal items. Library users if they wanted could limit searches to, say, those from academics or other experts who commented on the material in the clouds (the filtering idea in this context is from Tom Peters, an academic librarian, who, like Bob Stein, multimedia CD-ROM pioneer and founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, has been a fervent believer in the powers of book-linked discussions).

8. The troubled American book-publishing industry would be better off with usage fees paid by access counts or through other means (obviously libraries themselves would prefer one-time fees for external access). Imagine the billions that could flow to publishers as the library system grew and schools incorporated its offerings into their curricula and better encouraged children to love books. Keep in mind I'm not proposing the library model as the only one for publishers; rather, as an additional source of revenue. Newspaper and magazine publishers would also see revenue gains, with more Americans likely to purchase tablets that would excel for many kinds of reading. One way or another, directly and through links, the library system could make available back issues and work to preserve them dependably.

9. Librarians themselves would come out ahead--not just in Washington and New York but throughout the country. I envision a genuine, distributed system as opposed to the top-down approach. Local, state, and private librarians would be free to buy material for their institutions to augment the national collection.

While the system could start relatively small, it could grow as the country became more accustomed to its contents and features. In my information stimulus proposal, as a starter for discussion, I arbitrarily mentioned a typical budget of five billion annually in the early years for the library system and related costs such as preparation for teachers and librarians, with the possibility of expansion from there.

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?