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.