William F. Buckley, Jr. on digital libraries, privacy and Andrew Carnegie: Read his words from 1993

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C44909-16The late William F. Buckley, Jr., shown in the photo with Ronald Reagan, wrote two prescient columns on digital libraries. Along the way, the author of “On the Right” even shared my passion for the privacy of library patrons.

Summing up part of my “TeleRead” vision, WFB told how a patron “could dial up the material from a network that did not keep permanent records of individual accesses; or he could go to a vending machine, pay cash, and electronically copy material to a small card” that plugged into a tablet computer. Yes, an iPadlike device with a sharp color screen.

wfb columnDuring the debate over the Patriot Act years later, Buckley would show similar privacy concerns. I remain grateful—he and I were political opposites on most issues. Let’s hope that today’s philanthropists will catch up with the digital library vision that Buckley and I held back then, and also that government officials will take note of his stand against NSA-style snooping.

Bill Buckley wrote in 1993: “Andrew Carnegie, if he were alive, would probably buy TeleRead from Mr. Rothman for $1, develop the whole idea at his own expense, and  then make a gift of it to the American people.” We need a robust national digital library system, not just an academic system or a search engine in disguise. And from the start it should address digital divide issues, just as WFB  and I hoped—through promotion of affordable e-book-friendly technology. We were thinking especially of tablets back then. Easy-to-use cellphone apps and many other options are also possibilities these days.

Hello, Bill Gates? I’m not even asking you to “develop the whole idea” at your own expense, but instead am calling on you to join others in supporting a national digital library endowment and  the concept of separate public and academic systems online. Yes, help pay for e-book tech for Africans and for similar activities overseas, just as you’re doing now. But let’s not neglect people back home.

You and other billionaires have the cash. Just 400 Americans control more than two trillion in wealth. Total spending on books and other items in U.S. public libraries each year is only around $1.2 billion, just a bit over $4 per American. The endowment wouldn’t replace all other revenue sources for libraries, just help. Local and state autonomy would remain. The endowment and the two systems could start as nonprofits and eventually become government agencies for maximum responsiveness and transparency. An initial nonprofit approach, designed from the start to protect privacy, would help address concerns over snooping and allow for greater experimentation at a crucial time.

Via a link I’ve just run across, let me present the complete text of one Buckley column: Future holds a living library on a card, the headline as used in the May 19, 1993, edition of the Ledger newspaper in Lakeland, Florida. No charge. Just click and you’ll see it for free. The image shows the same column as run in the Washington Times.

Alas, I can’t find a link to a free copy of the other “On the Right” column, although it or a similar one appeared in National Review on or about April 3, 1995. There, Buckley recommended TeleRead to Newt Gingrich.

Related: My 1996 Washington Post op-ed on TeleRead.

Detail: I started advocating two intertwined but separate national digital library systems after I wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education and drew disappointing responses from academics out of touch with the public library needs. See further thoughts on the twin-system issue from Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium.

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