A national digital library system for George Roper in McAllen, Texas, please–not just the American elite—and don’t write off conservatives

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imageThey called Mount Vernon “the Hoods’ High School” at one time, and fittingly this white-cupolaed brick building sat on Route 1 in Fairfax County, Virginia, just across from a police station with an overgrown radio tower.

Melvin Bowman Landes, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, was principal, and every spring, he would inveigh the two sexes over the PA system against “bodily contact,” by which he meant handholding in the halls. Ours wasn’t exactly a high-poverty school, not in a well-off Washington suburb, and in fact, Chuck Robb, the former senator and governor, is among the alumni. But M.V.H.S. was and is no Groton or Exeter, either.

imageAmong my Mount Vernon friends was George Roper, blogger-in-chief today at GM’s Place and hardly a booster of federal funding for National Public Radio. Could advocates of a well-stocked national digital public library system actually manage to enlist the support of conservative Americans like George?

Yes, as I see it—if the system will respond to community needs and enrich rather than war with local public libraries.

George himself is unabashedly pro-public library and loves the national digital library idea. Significantly, he lives now in McAllen, Texas (second photo), where more than a third of the people under 18 have been said to be below the poverty line. As future job-hunters and in many other ways, they could benefit from economically delivered online books and multimedia and the right technology, guidance, and encouragement to help enjoy them—thereby reducing these young people’s risks of ending up on the welfare rolls. The McAllen library offers some e-books but hardy a full-strength collection.

imageMany liberals and libertarians—I myself am emphatically on the progressive side—would write off the dream of a genuinely public national digital library system to achieve the above goals. With conservative Republicans dominating the House of Representatives, how could the money ever materialize? “So,” in effect argue some supporters of the Digital Public Library of America, the  promising library initiative hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center, “why can’t the DPLA actually be the public library system online? We’ll never get a good one otherwise.” I disagree. As I noted during a March 1 workshop at the Harvard Faculty Club and in a related wiki, a “public” library system should be—well, public.

Aim to run it efficiently; cost-justify it; give the taxpayers their money’s worth; tie it in closely with the classroom and with school libraries, in line with parents’ desire for better lives for their children; don’t patronize Americans in “Flyover Country” or lower-middle-class neighborhoods anywhere; work toward making a wide variety of books available, reflecting different viewpoints, political and otherwise; and federal funds may come, not simply money from philanthropies and subscription payments from public libraries and other sources.

With public governance from the start, the library system would be more responsive to the populace. I’ll be grateful to Ivy Leaguers and foundations for their expertise and millions, but even unwittingly they mustn’t usurp the people of either Fairfax County or McAllen, who could localize the national collection for their own needs and also buy books and other items not included in the overall system, so that their independence remained. “Public” urgently needs to vanish from the name of the Digital Public Library of America even if individuals should be able to enjoy it directly; and the DPLA should clarify the governance issue as soon as possible, since this will have major bearing on the fate of the initiative. Let the actual public system develop with assistance of the Library of Congress, ideally, or another public body, just so it avoids an oppressive top-down approach and respects local tastes, needs, and interests rather than creating an imbalance between local and national in favor of the latter. However well intentioned the DPLA project is, its full-grown version would almost surely focus more—because of the priorities of the initiators—on rarefied intellectual interests rather on than the general needs of the country as a whole. I myself enjoy, as a recreational reader, Gissing and Dreiser and other greats or near-greats, just as I know that academics may cherish Homer or Flaubert or arcane philosophical writings; but despite the DPLA organizers’ hopes that their initiative will reach out to all, the organization is no substitute for an online system that would build on our public library system from Day One and offer genuine public governance reflecting America as a whole and allowing for the richness of our local and regional cultures, plural, at all levels. Let’s not even risk gentrifying our public library system. Keep it public.

Such issues truly should transcend ideology, and if George Roper is any indication, they can. Here is what he wrote in a comment on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s site when I pointed him to my recent essay in The Chronicle: “Part of the problem with knowledge, is that it isn’t always available to everyone. If I go to the local library I’m restricted to books that they have on hand, or can obtain through” interlibrary loan “or what is on/available through their web connections. If I go to the library at the local college or university, the same holds true. Not all knowledge is available. By digitizing information and making it available to everyone via the Internet that problem is solved. By not having to have buildings and their accompanying expenses to house printed books, savings should be substantial.”

I personally believe that appropriately sized physical branches have a future—as after-school study space, as places for story-telling and civic affairs, as outposts in otherwise-book-barren shopping centers, even as lenders of fishing rods when private competition isn’t near by and librarians want to pitch books to young anglers—but whether or not George agrees with me on all the particulars, his main points could resonate with many a conservative voter and opinion-leader.

imageThe late William F. Buckley, Jr. of National Review and “On the Right” fame wrote two syndicated columns in favor of my vision of a national digital library (clip is from the Washington Times), and in conversations with me said he liked the idea of its being administered by librarians in many cities, not just an elite in Washington, New York, or elsewhere. WFB’s enthusiasm for the national digital library concept was hardly out of character. Well-run libraries are the antithesis of make-work programs; rather, in both physical and virtual forms, they can be tools of education, wealth-creation, and empowerment, just like the Internet at its best. Paradoxically and delightfully, you can even love your local public library if you want smaller government; what better way to find out information about federal waste or trespasses on liberties? Furthermore, no public librarian makes you pass a political test before you can read up on budget deficits. Thinking similar thoughts, George goes on:

“We have seen, time and time again that when given information, there is a tendency for a people to seek freedom and autonomy. Digitizing information can only help this process. When information is available, despots quake in fear because the false ‘news’ and information that they put out can be shown to be false.

“This allows freedom to spread which cannot be a bad thing. When everyone with access to the web can find everything from space opera fiction to treatises on economics, law, medicine, etc., the people benefit.”

I won’t repeat my entire Chronicle essay in full, or other writings, but here are some traits and features that a genuine public system could offer the people of McAllen, Fairfax County, and even Cambridge, Massachusetts, academics included:


Education at all levels should be the main priority of a public national digital library system even though it should serve many purposes. How can we train Americans for more complicated jobs, in this high-tech, globalized era, if they lack knowledge of the fundamentals? Even the nontechnical would benefit as, for example, better corporate strategists or marketers with a superior understanding of cultures outside the United States, and of history, commerce, and life in general. And if we can elevate the quality of public schools, not just private ones, won’t U.S. colleges and universities come out ahead with an enhanced pool of talent?

George Will, the conservative columnist, put in a good word recently for Teach for America, and ideally he can do the same for the idea of a national digital library system tightly integrated with local schools, public and otherwise—especially given the links between academic achievement and the number of books available for K-12 students, at least with suitable guidance and encouragement of students. Some germane memories linger in my mind from M.V.H.S. A young prep school graduate, who probably had also attended the University of Virginia or another elite university, taught English to me and 30 or 40 other students in a packed Quonset hut; he insisted that we use one of his favorite guides to grammar, complete with an image of his prep school’s seal on the cover. Point is, we cannot separate good teaching from access to the best books and other content for particular courses or individuals.

In general, without neglecting universal fundamentals, digital library items should reflect the needs and passions of teachers and students and the learning styles of the latter. If a biography of a baseball player or NASCAR legend is what it takes to hook a leather-jacketed teenager on reading Charles Dickens ultimately, maybe by way of Jules Verne, then so be it. The same philosophy might well apply toward paper and digital content related to math, science and technology.


Five of the eight stories of the Korean National Digital Library are underground, and the library offers 300 terabytes of server space and seating for 550 humans. As described by Amanda French, a digital humanities specialist, the library cost $112 million to build over seven years and has digitized 380,000 books, or 80,000 more than NetLibrary offers via leases. Ms. French seems intrigued by the idea of nonpublic funding for our own digital library system. In fact, while an advocate of the public approach for the main system, I myself doubt that the current U.S. Congress would want the taxpayers to pay for even a mini knowledge palace right now, however advanced.

Instead the headquarters of our public digital library system could operate within an existing Library of Congress building; and, rather than our centralizing efforts in a splashy manner anathema to taxpayers, redundant server farms could hum away in a number of locations, a more prudent strategy, anyway, in this era of terrorism. Sooner or later, most of the storage may well end up on tiny chips. I want the saved money to go for back-up on different media, everything from paper to metal. Unless Korean-style splash will inspire private donors to open up their wallets more widely for a public system, complete with a Mr. or Ms. Bountiful’s name on the door of Headquarters, we need to be utilitarian and emphasize the system’s core needs. Some businesslike Bountifuls might even prefer for the system to avoid the physical frills; let the glitz happen on computer screens through virtual reality.

Knowledge ahead of fixating on the physical in tough times like these! Today, cupola and all, the Islamic Saudi Academy occupies the former Mount Vernon High building through a leasing arrangement, while the actual M.V.H.S. goes on elsewhere. George might worry about the teachings at the Saudi Academy. But I suspect he would at least appreciate Fairfax County’s practicality in this case.


Thrift is not the only way for the library concept to appeal to George and other conservatives; what about indirect cost-justification in line with the basic precepts of information technology? The same tablets fit for reading books would work in applications ranging from tax forms (no small detail to George, a mental health counselor swamped with government paperwork) to improved doctor-patient communications. We are spending several hundred billion a year just on healthcare paperwork alone. Reduce that even slightly and we’ll help cost-justify the digital library system. For details, see A national information stimulus plan: How iPad-style tablets could help educate millions and trim bureaucracy–-not just be technotoys for the D.C. elite on the Atlantic’s Web site. I use “-style” deliberately, not just because I’d hate a one-vendor program but also because Apple designed the iPad more for recreation than as, say, a good text-entry tool. An optimal design would be good for work and fun.

At Harvard I found at least one other workshop participant open to indirect cost-justification of the digital library system. Ideally the DPLA initiative will undertake a formal study of the c-j possibilities, perhaps in partnership with the Harvard School of Business and John F. Kennedy School of Government, so public funding is not just a mere dream and a separate public system will be easier to sell to the Republican Congress and budget hawks in general. The DPLA would still have an interest in the success of the public system, given its potential as a distributor and popularizer of DPLA content.


I’m all in favor of a proposal from Robert Darnton, a distinguished historian as well as Harvard’s library director, to establish a national digital library that would promote a virtual Republic of Letters, with a wealth of highbrow offerings for Americans and others. Such a project, as I see it, could share its intellectual, artistic and literary treasures—by way of Web links, content exchanges, and other arrangements—with the actual public digital library system.

One DPLA workshop speaker talked of a truck driver in love with the works of the great existentialists, and, in fact, an online Republic of Letters could reach far beyond the usual scholarly community and include forums at different levels, not just texts and multimedia.

That said, let’s also think about the separate public system, so we could better address such matters as the provision of K-12 textbooks and multimedia, bestsellers, job and health information, and other offerings for the crowds, especially in places like McAllen; related family-literacy efforts; the needs of people with disabilities; a national reference service covering the directly practical, not just the intellectual and cultural; meaningful integration with schools and libraries; the tablets and other devices with cost-justification potential; and how the system might fit in with the talk of broadband expansion, so that the improved tech does not just offer a speedier way to download YouTubes.

By privately funding an online Republic of Letters project and other valuable experiments and avoiding the name “Public,” the DLA, as I prefer that the initials be, would enjoy more focus, greater appeal to donors, and avoid or reduce budgetary conflicts with librarians interested in content for the masses. America does not abound with Sartre-worshipping teamsters, however enchanting this notion might seem on campus and however memorable the teamster existentialists might be. Public libraries must serve the real needs and interests, not the idealized ones, of patrons—hardly just my own thinking; rather, the very essence of the five laws of library science.

Not surprisingly, Molly Raphael, 2010-2911 president-elect of the American Library Association, is herself wondering about the P word in the DPLA name. Why, she may well be thinking, imperil the franchise and branding of existing public libraries? And won’t public library and K-12 people—the latter group was strikingly underrepresented at March 1 DPLA workshop—be better able to position the digital public system to serve genuine needs? Access to content should be seamless for all to the maximum extent, by way of those links and content exchanges, regardless of whether a user is a schoolchild or a Ph.D. But let’s respect the nuances and not throw public and private organizations into one bin or even consider that as a serious option. The DPLA should appreciate the responsiveness, citizens involvement, and other glories of a separate, publicly funded library system—just as Andrew Carnegie did in supplying the buildings but not the operating costs of Carnegie libraries.

Think specifics. Does George Roper really want his favorite space operas to compete in a digital library budget with an annotations project for Ulysses? I’ll admit some hyperbole here—I certainly can envision some overlaps in the missions of the public and private organizations—but I still worry that a university- or foundation-dominated version of a full “public” system would be a recipe for PBS- and NPR-style bloodshed, whatever the exact business model used. Instead let the DPLA/DLA initiative retain its independence and be bolder in its choice of content and legal and business models, rather than having to worry so much about adjusting to the mainstream; remember, everyone could still reach the DLA directly or through public libraries. If nothing else, separate organizations would lead to more diversity of content and greater freedom from censorship.

* * *

After a Harvard University workshop, I didn’t fly home to the Washington area; instead, ahead of time, I had paid the promo fare of $1.50 to take a WiFi-equipped Megabus back. The taxi driver on the way to the Boston bus terminal feared for me. Just $1.50, with a ticketing fee included? Beware of Internet scams, the cabbie said. He spoke in a foreign accent, and I asked where he was from. Nigeria, he said. Ah! Internet Fraud Central! So what’s the lesson here? Where you come from and who you are in society—not simply what you believe politically—can influence your perceptions of the world and its possibilities. Just as the driver did about $1.50 buses, many people harbor preconceived notions about a national digital library system in the public mode and who will support the idea if we implement it thriftily in a populist way. Open minds at DPLA, then, please. I have not polled every conservative in the cosmos or every resident of McAllen and cannot absolutely guarantee that they will agree with George or me about the need for the system I’ve described, but let’s at least give them a chance.

I know; the GOP has pledged to hold down the size of government. But the cost-justification side of my national digital library proposal, as I’ve shown on the Atlantic Web site, is anti-paperwork, not simply pro-knowledge, and besides, the most prominent endorser of my digital library vision has very definitely not been Barack Obama, whose chief information officer has ignored my email, and who wouldn’t even proclaim Read an E-Book Week when the organizers asked the President–despite strong industry and grassroots support for the event. No, the real advocate was the Bill Buckley, who even recommended the idea to Newt Gingrich. A well-stocked, well-run national digital library system would honor WFB’s memory, show more prescience than the White House has so far on these matters, and cost-effectively bring books to Virginia, Texas, and the rest of the country at a time when taxpayers are demanding more for their money.

Details: (1) Al Gore certainly deserves credit for his vision of digitizing the Library of Congress. But that is not the same as a comprehensive effort to create an online digital library system, with cost-justification and full attention to such details as appropriate devices for reading e-books and other important applications. In the end I found the Clinton administration to be a major disappointment. I can remember interviewing one Clintonian in the Executive Office Building and hearing him talk glowingly about wikis for schoolchildren, as a substitute for the full-service library system I wanted for them and others. We need both approaches! ((2) If the public system throws some money in DPLA’s direction without major bloodshed ensuing, that is fine. Just don’t let DPLA be the public system or make it over-dependent on the public side. Public broadcasters have gotten into trouble even through federal funding is just a fraction of the total; so tread with caution. (3) I myself like the idea of federal money for NPR and PBS but do agree with those concerned about the resultant tensions; let’s avoid replicating them in the library system. (4) I may be refining this essay to reflect input from others (and ideally rid it of typos, or at least strive nobly).

Elsewhere: For other perspectives, visit DPLA Steering Committee Chair John Palfrey‘s blog–for his summaries of sessions , II, III and IV—as well as the group’s round-up of postings mentioning it. I’m delighted to see the name issue, the use of “Public” vs. its omission, come up in DPLA’s discussions, and as I’ve written, I hope this can be resolved soon in favor of the latter option.

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