A reply to a national digital library endowment skeptic

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Here’s my defense of LibraryCity’s new article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy—the one calling for a national digital library endowment—against a sadly misinformed commenter. Meanwhile my continued gratitude to the Chronicle for running the essay! And scroll down for an update to see one more reason why we need the endowment.D.R.

antidigit2Many thanks, Champil, for a chance to update you and others, including people with the wealth to make a difference.

Please keep an open mind as you read my detailed replies about e-book technology and the rest in the year 2014 and beyond. It's never too late to change one's opinions. I myself am in my 60s—old enough to have rooted once for the Anti-Digit Dialing League.

C.: “It's hard to know where to start with what's wrong with this article. And in the interest of full disclosure, I love libraries and have an MLIS, so I certainly support the end goal here.”

I, too, love libraries. Let's consider the end goals of S. R. Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science—perhaps the main precepts of librarianship. We can do so in an e-book context.

But before we do, let me say that local libraries would still be free to spend local money entirely on paper books. In fact, by creating rich national collections of digital items, we would free up more local funds for p-books if that's what people in certain cities wanted.

My belief, of course, based on long-time trends, is that digital will prevail. At the same time I don't want paper books to vanish. Like horses and buggies, they should be there for those of us who enjoy them even if they are not the main show. And I think it is essential to preserve paper editions in archives and research libraries, regardless of whether the books are digitized. Beyond that, I believe that the p-book option should be available for picture  books for preschoolers right now, while the debate goes on about their needs. Also I myself dislike children’s “e-books” with badly thought-out  bells and whistles that steal attention away from the words and stories.

It's just that for libraries, digital in most cases will be more cost-effective for mass use, especially as business issues get clarified–a process that the proposed endowment would hasten.

Tablets and e-readers are no longer so exotic. The demand for digital content can only grow over the years, and later in your comments, you yourself concede that digital is the inevitable future. Do you want libraries to be left out when print editions in many and perhaps most cases will not exist?

antidigitNow let's move on to Ranganathan's Laws.

1. "Books are for use." For many people, including my wife and sister, not just me, e-books are more readable than paper books. We can blow up the type, change the style, adjust the width, alter the colors—do whatever it takes to make us feel more comfortable. I've found that many and probably most people just don't know how to use e-readers and tablets correctly.

And guess who can enlighten them and also help them settle on the right hardware? Well-trained librarians, complete with e-book "petting zoos" to help patrons choose the right machines.

In addition, the elderly and people with vision or attention problems can even use text to speech.

2. "Every reader his [or her] book." Well-stocked national digital collections with excellent discovery mechanisms would make it vastly easier for readers to find the right books for their needs and interests.

In my hometown, we spend only about $2.60 per capita on collections, meaning that more than a few titles are AWOL. The national average, as I noted in my article, was only $4 per capita as of fiscal year 2011. Not everyone can conveniently hop into a car to visit better-stocked libraries. People in rural areas, many miles from from libraries of any kind, well stocked or not, suffer especially.

Even with the endowment and the public and academic digital library systems, we couldn't satisfy every reader immediately—wait lists would probably still exist for loans of popular titles in E. But the future would be much brighter than the present.

3. "Every book its reader." A national approach augmenting local efforts would give specific titles MUCH better exposure. They would more likely to find appreciative readers.

Stellar search engines and other top-notch discovery mechanisms in this case, too, could make a world of difference online.

4. "Save the time of the reader." Readers can download e-books from home or the office—or a Hilton in Tokyo—if they want. In fact, remote is the norm.

Of course, many will still want to go to the library for many other purposes—face to face reference services, story-telling hours for children, tools such as as 3D printers, author appearances, you name it.

Creative librarians will still be able to draw the crowds in.

5. "The library is a growing organism." Point already made. My commentary told how pathetically little we're spending annually on content—less than the worth of the poorest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list. Here's a chance to increase that dramatically while fairly compensating content owners.

What's more, collections can multiply without our spending millions on new buildings or expansions.

C.: "First of all, how is replacing print resources with electronic resources supposed to decrease the so-called digital divide? It would absolutely, no question, 100% make it worse. This really isn't a hard one to figure out. As books move to technology that poor people don't have, no amount of loaner-iPads will be able to keep up. And who wants to read a whole book on a phone?"

Delighted to see you venture into digital divide territory. I'm a former poverty beat reporter, as noted. I didn't see many books in the homes of welfare mothers. Good librarianship and technology could indeed narrow the book gap.

You talk about loaners of iPads. In time we could even be talking about giveaway machines. Non-Apple tablets already go for as little as $50. Are they as good as I'd like? No. But that will happen almost surely, based on decades-old patterns of cheaper electronics. I've been writing on technology since the 1980s. No infallibility claimed. But my track record is pretty good.

Amazon's E Ink devices with front lighting already sell for $119 new and less than $100 used, and in five years equivalent machines will go for south of $30.

Significantly, the same tablets used for reading books can deliver useful information in other forms and make it easier to provide social services and healthcare. Talk about cost-effectiveness!

What's more, connectivity expenses will go down along with hardware ones, and various forms of public help could aid the poor.

How about another digital divide factor, even among some affluent people—the knowledge to use e-readers and tablets? Here again librarians can help low-income people and the elderly and even well-off Americans without digital savvy. The endowment could help pay for librarians' support-related professional development, at least in the poorest districts.

Speaking even more of divides, how about the reading divide?

The endowment among other things could help pay for school librarians and family literacy specialists to help people absorb the content.

C: "And who wants to read a whole book on a phone?"

Plenty of people—from digital natives to readers in their 60s, like me. And even more of them will read on cell phones in the future, as the technology improves.

I'm sorry I'm not in the same room with you. I could show my cellphone with a five-inch screen with 441 pixels per inch. No dots, just like paper—so I can shrink the words a bit and squeeze in more text and still read it just fine. A Salon writer recently extolled cell phones as salvations of literature. She constantly reads the classics on them. Not everyone will want to read on cellphones. But for them, tablets and e-readers exist.

Of course, if the Salon writer and I had severe vision impairments, we could blow up the words and enjoy the benefits of large-print books without all the weight—no small factor for elderly people with arthritis. Too, the elderly could use text to speech, in line with my earlier observation. My cellphone can read to me in a delightful British accent.

Five years from now, gadgets similar to my 2014 phone will go for $50 or $75 or less. Libraries will be in trouble if they do not plan ahead for e-reading on improved cell phones. Even now there is a new category of phones, "phablets," a blend of "phone" and "tablet." That refers to phones with bigger-than-usual screens.

C.: "Secondly, much of the move to electronic resources will probably take place anyway – as fewer books get printed, and more are in digital format, libraries will have to transition as best they can, and they will figure it out over time. Sure, it would be nice if more donors stepped up and gave them some extra money to ease the way, but the author is ardently hoping for a process that has a look of inevitability to it."

Wait. You yourself are conceding the inevitability of a mostly digital book world. Would publishers be making the switch if e-books weren't the future? Like readers, they're recognizing the economies and convenience.

Libraries should do the same before it's too late. Do you really want libraries to be even farther behind the publishers than they are now?

Just 12 percent of a typical local library budget goes for content. Yes, we need plenty of money to, say, help patrons enjoy the books. But wouldn't you also like public libraries to increase the 12 percent—to keep libraries competitive with alternatives, not just other sources of books but also video games and TV programs?

Remember, I'm talking about the world of the masses, too, not just life among the social and cultural elites.

C. "…I learned that donations come from interest, ability, and affinity – just because Gates and Buffett have ability doesn't mean that they have an interest in libraries (Gates's actions would suggest otherwise), or affinity with groups fundraising for them."

I fervently agree with your wise words about the glories of "interest, ability, and affinity." You're obviously a true pro at prospect research.

But now let's examine the specifics here.

Mr. Gates started out with far, far more interest in libraries. Could it be that he grew impatient with the resistance he encountered from librarians too set in the old ways?

The vision of the endowment and the two national digital library systems offers all kinds of exhilarating new possibilities for Mr. Gates—and a way to spread the work and the donating around, so he can focus on his valuable anti-malaria work, global economic development and other causes as well.

As for Mr. Buffett, Mr. Gates's philanthropic partner, who knows?

But like Mr. Gates, he is cares about cost-benefit ratios, and they're far, far better with e-books than with paper books. Also, keep in mind that plenty of prospects exist besides Messrs. Gates and Buffett.

Finally, as I wrote, Susie Buffett is keenly interested in K-12 issues—which public library ones to a great extent are in disguise. It isn't just young students we're talking about; also, their parents. I myself am gung ho on family literacy. With the help of the endowment, libraries could do a great deal more in that area than they are now.

C: "Are finding cures for TB, HIV/AIDS, and malaria such unworthy goals that we need to try to get them to divert their money into areas they are not interested in?"

I've talked about a endowment “ goal of $10-billion to $20-billion for the first five years." Let's go with the higher figure. That might even out to $4 billion a year for five years–some donors might favor pledges over all-at-once donations. Either way, the $10-$20 billion is just a speck of the combined $2-trillion worth of the Forbes 400 and a mere fraction of Mr. Gates's personal wealth alone.

That leaves many, many billions for other essential causes.

What's more, in the article itself, I've noted the societal benefits of libraries in areas beyond reading, and one of them is health. Better readers are more likely to know about health threats and spot them early on—or follow their physicians' directions. Let's not talk about health vs. e-books. The two causes in some important ways can be highly complementary (just as education of young women is an amazing form of birth control, a fact perceptively noted by Mr. Gates and his people).

Same in other areas such as crime prevention. Not to mention education beyond reading skills per se.

I hope you'll appreciate the possibilities now that I've updated you on e-books. You've got plenty of company. We need to get the word out about E as it exists today, not a decade ago.

Believe me, if my net worth exceeded a billion and I wanted to help society, I would be on the phone right now—calling up my fellow billionaires. "What a way to stretch our philanthropic contributions and help people!" I'd say. "And imagine improving the the quality of the workforce while we're at it!"


David Rothman

Co-founder and Editor-Publisher



Update, about 8 a.m.: Here’s one more argument for a national digital library endowment—the urgent need for trustworthy, librarian-managed identity protection for people commenting on articles in the media. The endowment could help pay for it.

If you click on the "David Rothman" link above my comment in the Chronicle  and scroll down my profile on the Disqus site, you will see a comment  from an anti-Semite posting under the same name and urging reader to “stop paying taxes to Christ haters, AKA, Jews.” As a Jew, I  am cringing. This is an outrageous failing of Disqus, not the Chronicle. Minus trustworthy, effortless identity control for commenters, Disqus’s  name-based links and profiles are meaningless. What better example of the shortcomings of our broken information infrastructure?

Perhaps with national digital library endowment money, librarians could set up a well-run repository for comments posted on the sites of interested media organizations. Commenters could opt-out of the database if they wanted.  In fact, ideally they would have to opt in.

Yes, perhaps the existing Disqus can fix my problem. But for now, this means finding the possible remedy in an FAQ and following convoluted procedures that may or may not work. Ideally Disqus folks could have done all the work themselves. No such luck when I complained earlier about spurious comments showing in my Disqus profile—and identified them.

See why I’m down on Disqus?

Wouldn’t it be so much simpler for comment-database participants to link identities to local library cards and perhaps something else?  Again, keep in mind that I envision this system being voluntary, with a “Verified Identity” icon appearing on the published  comments of participants.  If you don’t want to be in the database, you shouldn’t be! What’s more, commenters should be able to submit anonymous comments to publications wanting to carry  them!

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