Mindful of the record number of poor Americans, a thoughtful “Front Line Librarian” in a Southern state is asking an essential question in effect: Why care so much about library e-books and the rest when millions of low-income people lack computers or at least the skills to use them?
Front Line says more reliance on the Net will make their lives harder, not easier.
“The digital divide has not gone away,” he writes in response to my suggestion that library-lovers fill out a Gates Foundation survey on the needs of future, more digitally oriented libraries. “If anything, it is worse now than it ever has been…
“On a daily basis I am helping people who struggle with literacy, never mind using a computer, to apply for jobs like cook, janitor, deck hand. When to apply for a job flipping burgers at a fast food chain requires that you fill out a web form, complete with the ‘captcha’ spam shield, I know there is a problem.”
This was not the Front Line’s intent, but he is strengthening my argument that America urgently needs two intertwined but separate national digital library systems—one public and one academic. Among other complications, a single system wouldn’t provide enough attention to the needs of the poor. I myself worked as a poverty reporter eons ago in an Ohio factory town, and believe me, I of all people know the gap is alive and wide. At the same time, wouldn’t efficient use of technology by libraries and other agencies better satisfy the demands of politicians to “do more with less”? No panacea. But the digital can help, one reason why I like the Internet-aware survey even if I also can appreciate Front Line’s concerns. Here are a few points for him and others to consider:
1. The way to narrow the digital divide isn’t to dumb down everyone, but to help those on the wrong side—through training, Net-modern family literacy programs tied in with digital libraries, and other means (hello, Gates Foundation and other philanthropies?). Younger Americans are far, far more comfortable with technology than, say, the librarian’s brother who lacks a smart cellphone. We have a knowledge and attitude gap, not just a wealth one, in this case. I daresay that more than a few ghetto dwellers own smart cellphones even if most don’t. I’d like them to be able to use larger-screened reading devices if desired, but the cellphone example is one illustration of the danger of lumping all low-income people together.
2. The battle is over. Like it or not, U.S. libraries will be much more fully online in the future than they presently are. Now we need to avoid gentrifying the masses out of their own public libraries, both physical and virtual, and to tackle access issues ranging from ergonomically appropriate hardware for reading to the availability of e-books and other items for the cash-strapped. And what about the creation and support of family literacy programs, hardly a core interest of academic librarians?
3. I fear that one humongous digital library system, blending in public and academic libraries, would be dominated by the American elite without sufficient interest in grassroots concerns, including, yes, the availability of the bestsellers that taxpayers demand. Shared content in many and perhaps most cases? Shared technology! Yes! But don’t weaken the digital branches of public libraries by depriving them of the right to form their own national system online. While greater efficiencies would make it desirable to have a common technical services organization for both public and academic libraries, the former need their own national digital system to which the technical services organization is highly responsive. If the services organization is not helpful, then the money won’t be coming from the public library system. Let public libraries deal with this as a true national system whose leaders enjoy the time and preparation to guard their turf.
4. The technical service organization should help libraries line up appropriate hardware for low-income people to use not just in libraries but at home, with proper training available. Far better than just confining them to paper. There is a reason why so much of government and business is online—digital information is so much more timely and so easier to collect, manipulate and absorb. Almost from the first, 20 years ago, I proposed “TeleReaders” (a generic name, not a particular company’s commercial product) that could be used not just for books but also for electronic forms to help cost-justify a national digital library system. A more recent version of this evolving vision is online at TheAtlantic.com.
5. The cost of the hardware has plummeted. In India, the talk is of $20 tablets, and here in the States, the rumor is that Google will release a $99 version of the Nexus 7. This is today. The hardware will only get better and cheaper. Kindle are already in use as readers for African children in the bush, and I’d guess that the wholesale price of the devices is now less than $50. I would not recommend a $50 device as a replacement for elaborately illustrated science textbooks. But imagine the possibilities for encouraging children to enjoy reading, especially for recreational purposes, which can contribute to academic success. If you can go E and if the online library system I’ve envisioned is in place, then you’ll enjoy a much wider selection of books than in print. Remember: students will be more eager readers if they find books matching their precise interests, including in some cases local works In digital form.
6. I am gung ho on the continuation of many librarians’ role as, in effect, social workers. That means help face to face and over the phone in most cases, not by computer. Who says this must disappear with the rise of e-books? What’s more, the survey itself gives respondents a chance to rate the importance of “appealing physical space,” so it clearly isn’t as if the Gates people expect physical libraries to vanish entirely.
7. Also, must we immediately have to get rid of all paper books and magazines? This is a process of evolution, not instant revolution. Long term, however, the digital will prevail because of the enticing efficiencies, and the Gates Foundation is absolutely right to plan for this online future—just so libraries can sufficiently address the access issues and related ones, which a two-system approach would make easier.
8. May the Digital Public Library of America—the national digital library initiative with the greatest chances of succeeding, despite its shortcomings—pay attention! Two systems, please.
9. Let the public one include people with the sensitivities of a DPLA participant named Dwight McInvaill, a librarian who serves a county with an illiteracy rate of almost 30 percent. Yes, some experimentation with Kindles and the like is going on in Georgetown County, South Carolina.
10. The above is what we need, as opposed to, “Let’s slow the move to digital because it’ll hurt the poor.” Get them the resources to come along for the ride; encourage well-targeted spending by philanthropies; and remember the efficiencies here, and in seeking government money don’t count people out because of their politics, especially when William F. Buckley Jr. was an ardent supporter of the TeleRead plan.
Meanwhile I’m grateful to Front Line for speaking out, even if he’d prefer not to use his name right now; yes, a quick online check shows he is authentic. In fact, he was in an email conversation with me and other people a few years back on another matter.
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