Update, May 3, 2013: Given the different needs of typical patrons of public and academic libraries, we are now advocating two tightly intertwined but separate systems.
The old LibraryCity wanted millions of e-books and other items on the Net—and to make them part of America’s library and school systems.
But it ran into a little obstacle, Google Books, which in effect preempted these embryonic nonprofit efforts.
Now a national digital library initiative is underway at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University [update: the Digital Public Library of America has become an independent nonprofit], and we hope it will lead to a genuine public library system online serving the entire country, not just the elite—even though we’re also in favor of well-funded research libraries. The new LibraryCity is an ad hoc group focused on these goals. If you’re in a rural area, don’t let “City” scare you; in the virtual world everyone should be able to enjoy “urban” amenities.
Contributing to the new LibraryCity within the limits of his schedule is Tom Peters. Tom is a seasoned academic librarian, a long-time advocate of public libraries and former director of the Center for Library Initiatives of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. [Update: Tom is now dean of library services at Missouri State University.]
For time reasons, the primary participant is David Rothman, founder of TeleRead, the oldest English-language site devoted to general news and views on e-books. David has appeared in places ranging from the Chronicle of Higher Education to TheAtlantic.com, and both Tom and David were involved with the earlier LibraryCity.
We’d love to post your own thoughts on the need for a well-stocked national digital library system, as well as on the form it should take. How could it be most useful? Write about the digitally related library needs in your own community or at your own institution. Send a message to policymakers! E-mail your essays to David (telephone 703.370.6540). Our own vision is of a national system not to replace existing libraries but rather provide them with a wealth of new content that they can position to serve Americans’ individual needs as well as community and institutional ones. We believe that the physical and digital can co-exist and that buildings will still be useful for community activities like this teen gathering at a branch in Blue Springs, Missouri.
At the same time we recognize that with so many Americans holding down more than one job, not everyone can visit libraries in person. The same applies to the growing number of elderly Americans who can no longer drive. If libraries are to survive, they cannot rely just on walk-in users. Furthermore, with a national digital library system in existence, even people in the smallest towns would enjoy access to a wide variety of books that would dwarf the number available through traditional paper collections of oft-cash-strapped libraries. Americans could access the national system directly. But we believe that good local librarians will add enough value to survive by offering community meeting places, reference help and other services in-person, links to community-relevant books, and offline and virtual forums. Better to adjust than to be Google-zonned away.
Meanwhile, for a good overview of the many problems with library e-books as they exist now, we recommend a report from the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies—although we believe that a national library system should consist of far, far more than books alone. A national procurement operation could be part of the NDL since this would give the taxpayers greater value. We envision a true system, with collection development services and other participation and administration by local, state, academic and special librarians in many cities, even though the system could be housed within an existing agency such as the Library of Congress and benefit from the assistance of other experts, too. [Update: We can also see this as a COSLA initiative.]
Among related writings of interest would be two essays on the Atlantic’s Web site: A national information stimulus plan: How iPad-style tablets could help educate millions and trim bureaucracy—not just be techno toys for the D.C. elite and Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System.
We are seeking to enrich the DPLA’s discussion of the national digital library issue, but are not a DPLA or Harvard blog (even though a LibraryCity cofounder attended a Berkman workshop at Harvard on March 1, 2011). Nor are we a competitor of the Harvard-originated initiative. Rather we simply are offering a grassroots perspective on the issue for the DPLA, the Library of Congress, the ALA, COSLA (already rather grassrootsy) and others.
Last update: May 3, 2013.