Digital libraries vs. our national dumb-down: Could ‘civic dashboards’ and other innovations help America break out of an endless loop?

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Should libraries serve as news and opinion hubs—among other functions—to help elevate the level of civic life? That’s among the ideas below. For a summary, click here and scroll down.David Rothman

imageEven after two U.S. bullets ripped into Osama bin Laden, a bigger threat remained—the dumbing down of America.

Some high school students, in fact, as told in the book Readicide, have described “Al” Qaeda as a person. And the budget debate has been endlessly gummed up by many Tea Partiers’ disdain for the basics of business and government, not just their hatred of Barack Obama, Darwin, climate-changers, Keynesian economists, and a host of other evil-doers.

All too often, the media serve as megaphones for ignorance and for anti-knowledge demagoguery; and Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, has coined a disturbingly useful term.

image“The leading contender for the Republican nomination for president,” he wrote of Rick Perry in August when the Texas governor was riding much higher in the campaign, “is emerging as a climate change denialist. We might call this ‘verification in reverse.’” Convince voters to doubt the widely undoubted and go into a mad-as-hell mode, then exploit their indignation. VIR or variants certainly abound in the school-and-library area, exacerbated by the weak economy. Think of all the know-nothing stinginess toward school libraries despite the test score mania and evidence they tend to promote student achievement.

But could the Digital Public Library of America, the Harvard-hosted online library initiative, help break us out of an endless loop, to use some computer jargon—the very reluctance of the country to invest amply and wisely enough in education, libraries, and other wealth-building activities, because so many slogan-addled voters and miserly politicians have slighted the country’s knowledge needs and we’re slowly growing still dumber? Call the process “re-verification,” the opposite of the phenomenon Rosen described. And along the way, Harvard could do more than now to honor its own civic and moral obligations.

imageThe DPLA cannot replace what I personally would see as essential measures: well-planned economic stimulus or smarter tax or trade policies or better labor, campaign, and voting laws. But in factual ways—for example, through the addition of “civic dashboards” to library Web sites, a concept I’ll explain here—the DPLA could encourage more rational dialogue on economic and other issues than Washington and so many in the media have inflicted on us so far. Small c, please; no Hondas involved. Discussion of the DPLA’s mission is timely, since the organization will be the topic of an international conference at Columbia University on October 11, and separately it will hold a much-welcome public meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 21.

A DPLA-style online library initiative, partly aimed at helping us escape from the endless loop, could tie in with efforts from independent grassroots media, nonprofit news organizations such as the ProPublica investigative effort, and nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters. The idea here is not to turn libraries into propaganda mills that ban writings of Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. In fact, thoughtful conservatives would welcome accurate information that buttressed their own arguments on issues such as tax policy. For example, how about vetted writings on the risks of excessively high marginal rates on capital gains reducing incentives for executives of start-up companies in crucial areas such as technology? The well-informed on all sides could benefit from the powers of links, interactivity, and potential access to a greater range of materials, as well as libraries’ better integration with the existing World Wide Web and social media.

No “Truth Central,” Please

A “Truth Central” would not exist. Rather, just as now, individual librarians and acquisitions committees would point patrons to material they deemed helpful. In addition, news and opinion sections promoted on local library systems’ home pages via civic dashboards would offer diverse, documented perspectives and link elsewhere. High school students among others could participate, acquiring practical civic experience in the adult world, especially on matters affecting them, rather than simply memorizing the nuts and bolts of government. Library and news professionals—yes, I’ll discuss funding possibilities—would supervise the forums. Users could customize the dashboards to play up topics of special interest to them. DPLA-inspired library efforts of this kind would complement the ideas [link added] of such authorities as Prof. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Engagement at Tufts University, who has advocated local news hubs and even called for an Internet-era communications corps to encourage meaningful local civic participation among the young and better inform everyone.

Re-verification should be just one purpose of the DPLA and related activities. But it would be especially helpful at a time when public relations so often is tromping disinterested journalism, and when academia and its traditional truth-seeking are under siege, just like the very idea of public education itself.

In 1980, the ratio of PR workers to journalists was about 1.2 to 1. Today it is 4 to one. “Journalism is literally being rolled over by propaganda,” John Nichols, coauthor of The Death and Life of American Journalism, has said. The Internet makes it easier not just for reformers to research and spread exposes of shoddy corporate practices, but also for unscrupulous companies and think-tanks to con the citizenry directly without any gatekeepers. The decline of unions, once a far more important pathway into American civic life as noted by Levine, has further simplified the work of corporate propagandists.

Meanwhile, thanks to judicial lapses such as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision loosening up campaign finance restrictions, it is easier than ever for profit-drive business people and others to back extremists. And that could do no small amount of harm when the constituency of a political party may differ starkly from the general electorate.

A Scandal Away

Significantly, it could take just one scandal, real or Swift Boat-synthetic, for a Tea Party-style candidate to defeat a foe and reach the Oval Office even if the candidate’s views were vastly out of sync with those of most Americans. If Tea Party-style Scroogery prevails in the end at various levels in the public sector, elite schools like Harvard might fare better in the long term than would public libraries and tax-funded universities. Skinflint legislators cannot wreak the same harm on Ivy League institutions as on state universities. And Harvard and others in the elite have invested billions in a stock market increasingly detached from the priorities of America’s poor and the middle class. Besides, more foreign investments could at least help mitigate the damage to Harvard’s endowment fund and related activities if Tea Party math keeps wrecking D.C. and Wall Street. For all I know, perhaps some Harvard academics think their school can turn itself into a genuine, stateless multinational.

If so, however, they are wrong. Despite the productive and essential presence of student and faculty from abroad, Harvard is a national university relying in part on the stature of its host country for prestige, and the bulk of the funding and students come from the American elite. Whether or not certain academics there understand, Harvard has an interest in U.S. prosperity and prestige—a point still not fully expressed in the present vision coming out of Harvard-based DPLA, not one of whose steering committee members is a K-12 educator, even though school libraries are among the most needed and common varieties. Tellingly, the DPLA studied and at first seemed headed toward modeling itself after European national libraries, among others. The Europeans tend to place a greater emphasis on national heritage than on the most practical knowledge for the masses, including the prosperity-building and civic-related kinds.

Laudably, the DPLA has evolved somewhat in response to critiques from me and others, and I’m especially appreciative of its R&D and its continued interest in such Web-enhancing concepts as linked open data, which has found strong support in Europe. But at least as evinced by the composition of the steering committee (missing K-12-people and too light on the small-town variety), the DPLA still seems to care too much about the needs of the urban and academic elites compared to America as a whole. Like Wall Street, even though the parallel is not exact, given the Street’s profit orientation, the DPLA as an organization is in many ways out of touch.

Harvard and the Social Contract

For the greater prosperity and general well-being of the country, we need balance and a genuine respect for the social contract as it has been traditionally interpreted in the U.S. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor with middle-class origins in Oklahoma, reminded us of multimillionaires’ moral obligations in the context of tax legislation and of the need for all to pay their fair shares. Mightn’t her comments also apply to Harvard and other elite institutions, not just individuals?

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own, nobody,” Warren said while campaigning in the Massachusetts Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat. “You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” Who says every Harvard professor is a prep school product? Even more relevantly, Harvard and other major American universities are where billions in factory-created wealth have flowed with the help of the tax code. Harvard should not need the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics to acknowledge the university’s societal obligations here. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations may or may not get anywhere, but they could well be a harbinger of far more disruptive activities of the nonelite if the people at the top fail to take notice of the rampant unfairness in America today, which the DPLA would aggravate if national digital public library efforts were simply part of a “big tent” with academic librarians calling the shots (public libraries are major gateways to economic advancement, and it’s not as if the protestors are disconnected from the library world—they even have their own library with far more than just political works).

Why We Need Separate Academic and Public Systems Online

Especially desirable, then, practically as well as morally, would be separate public and academic digital library systems, so that they could better focus on their respective priorities even though all interested citizens could use the academic system. The content and other requirements of Ph.D.-degreed researchers are so often a far cry from those of K-12 students in low-income families served by public libraries. Without early intervention by teachers and librarians, most of the students will never reach their full potential as either citizens or workers, to the long-term detriment of our economic security and very much related political stability.

Other strong arguments exist for an academic library system online—with significant private funding—and a mostly tax-funded digital public system, tightly intertwined but separate. If the extremists set the tone at all government levels, freedom of expression might suffer at many local libraries and perhaps even within the public national digital system. The academic system, less tax-dependent, could serve as a bypass. But the economic and general social arguments for the two-system approach—and for the very existence of well-funded digital libraries—are the very most compelling. Americans must not simply to be able to read; they also need to be able to analyze information for school and work and ponder what it means not only to them and their families but also to their communities and the nation as a whole. Our educational system over the decades has failed to teach this analysis adequately or impart the curiosity that is prerequisite. What to say when seniors plead: “Keep government out of my Medicare”? Or when politicians appeal to voters’ ignorance and depict Social Security as a Ponzi scheme even though it is repairable through such obvious means as elevation of the cap on taxable earnings?

If nothing else, one wonders how many U.S. voters know that the top one percent of American families enjoy about 23 percent of income now, a huge jump from about nine percent 35 years ago. Why would the upper one percent of families not have paid about 38 percent of all income taxes in the 2008 tax year—a statistic dear to right-wing commentators—if they had hijacked so much of our national income and wealth? Might not the grubby numbers count in debates in areas ranging from tax policy to job creation? Will the rich and super-rich really bestow jobs upon the rabble if laid-off construction workers, clerks, and so many other consumers lack the income to buy much beyond the necessities? Who’s to say our multimillionaires won’t just invest aboard or simply hoard the money?

Now imagine the oft-hoodwinked voters as workers, managers, or maybe even CEOs; we are talking about a mass failure to fathom practical mathematics at a basic level.

The More Like Us Qualities

Confusingly, the comprehension and awareness issues are not just a matter of reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy as reflected in test scores; in fact, our schools are far from the very bottom in global studies of overall educational quality. Standardized tests, moreover, are just one way to measure student achievement. But improving our K-12 international rankings would hardly hurt if we can achieve this without destroying America’s real edge—the creativity, resourcefulness, curiosity, and entrepreneurial zeal and risk-taking that have helped us prevail in areas ranging from R&D to entrepreneurship, thanks to those Americans who have risen above the norms. Call these characteristics the “More Like Us” traits, similar to those that the Atlantic’s James Fallows has described in a book of that name.

The MLU factor is one reason why public e-libraries, just like those of brick and mortar, should carry up-to-date material of interest to business and technical people, not just play up preservation of heritage and other laudable scholarly activities; we need truly full-service public libraries with a balanced approach.

Both kinds of traits and talents—the academic ones and others—could be crucial to the U.S. maintaining an edge in a number of areas. The movie The Social Network amuses us with semi-silly talk from a fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder, about the number of geniuses in China; more seriously, if America’s population is a fraction of China’s, and if Shanghai easily led the K-12 rankings from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the Chinese striving to spread the success elsewhere in their country, maybe we should look beyond the whimsy in the movie dialog. And not just on the test score issue, but, far more importantly, also on the promotion of the quantifiable and nonquantifiable abilities that have already served us well even if our K-12 schools today are not the absolute global champions in the rankings.

With the above in mind, Harvard University, Zuckerberg’s alma mater and organizational host of the DPLA, should play a major role in fostering literacy of various kinds, traditional-, civic-, and Net-related, and others—far beyond the organization’s currently envisioned efforts. University President Drew Gilpin Faust or Provost Alan M. Garber or his office will ideally take a close interest in the e-library project and strive for synergies with other activities and resources elsewhere at Harvard, given the university’s avowed respect for multidisciplinary approaches.

Granted, Harvard University is just one institution, and while it lacks a formal mission statement, many would say that the university as a whole exists mainly to originate and promulgate scholarly knowledge and teach Harvard students to appreciate the possibilities. But with Washington so often focused on the well-being of the socioeconomic elites rather than of the country as a whole—through billionaire-optimized tax cuts and the like for the benefit of campaign donors—perhaps Harvard needs to rethink its mission somewhat. In fact, a 1997 mission statement for the Harvard College, the university’s undergraduate component, talks of the need for graduates to “serve society.” Many schools use similar generic language, but at Harvard it should resonate more than elsewhere.

Facilitators, Please—Not Overlords

No, the faculty, staff, and alumni of Harvard and like institutions should not be public libraries’ overlords. But I can see Harvard and other major universities expanding, not shrinking, their role in the world of public libraries and public schools if elite academics can sufficiently distinguish between overlording and facilitating.

Overlording would mean folding the digital public and scholarly systems into one, with the most likely result: dominance by the academic elite, oft-far-removed from average Americans’ concerns. Facilitating among other things would mean massively shared content with the approval of those on the public library side, as well as the creation of a joint technical services organization. I’d like to see both of those forms of facilitation happen and many others, too, such as university-related fellowships and cultural enrichment programs for mid-career public librarians who have distinguished themselves.

The Madonna Effect offers Harvard—in particular—new opportunities for the popular good, based on the university’s close ties with Washington, especially now. The effect as mentioned here is named after the popular singer, an example of the stars whose recordings have displaced those of many obscure rivals in mind share and revenue. In today’s Net-centric world and especially in academic circles, people pay too much attention to the Madonna equivalents.

Barack Obama is no exception as an attention-giver or -taker if we go by the percentage of Harvard-educated appointees in his administration (although I have not checked to see if, say, the Kennedy Administration surpassed him). As reported in the Harvard Law Record in 2009, almost a fourth of more than 100 White House appointees attended Harvard. “At least seven administration staffers,” said the Record, “earned degrees from the law school alone,” as, of course, did President Obama himself and his wife; and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, holds a Harvard undergraduate degree. Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet in American Life is the organizational host of the DPLA, and Berkman is an offshoot of the President’s law school.

Harvard as a Power Center with the Potential of Effecting Change in the Library World and Elsewhere

Harvard is most everywhere, directly or indirectly, in the Obama administration even if Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan are the only alumni in the cabinet as far as I know. For example, one of Obama’s appointments to a health-related advisory committee was the pediatrician mother of Law School Prof. John Palfrey, the chair of the DPLA. Vivek Kundra, Obama’s former chief of information, who, if he wanted, could promote the library-related information stimulus package I’ve discussed in the Fallows blog, is a joint fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and, yes, Berkman even though he is not an alum.

In certain ways, especially in the development of ideas and of national leadership, Harvard is a quasi government or at least a partial one, consistent with its role as a national university. New Congress members, for example, can fly up to Harvard for orientation at Kennedy.

On top of everything else, Al Gore—who, like me during the 1990s, was pushing for library books to go online in massive way, via the Library of Congress—is a Harvard alum. He advises Google and sits on the board of Apple. While hardly disinterested financially, Gore potentially could serve as a bridge between the school’s library-related efforts and some dominant corporate players and philanthropists on the high tech side. (Disclosure: I myself am a very small Google shareholder, a fact that did not prevent me from opposing the Google Books settlement.)

Harvard cannot control the actions of its alumni, but it can marshal its powerful network to try to influence them, from Barack Obama on down—including his fortuitously situated secretary of education. And if Obama is defeated? Then all is not necessarily lost for Harvard as an institution. Willard Mitt Romney, yes, the Perry rival in the GOP and perhaps the party’s leading Presidential prospect as of this writing, holds dual degrees from Harvard’s law and business schools.

Harvard and the Library of Congress

Reflecting Harvard’s clout in Washington is the DPLA itself. Could a new library-related organization out of Podunk U. have drawn the same band of influentials?

Among the 17 steering committee members are Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, and Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, which among other things awards library-and-museum-related grants.

I do not know how close Harvard Prof. Robert Darnton (the original proposer of the DPLA idea in his role as the school’s library director, too) is to Marcum’s boss, James Billington, librarian of Congress, but the two men are both Harvard-educated historians whose teaching careers at Princeton overlapped. Nothing nefarious here, just an illustration of how Harvard, not Podunk, is coming across as a major shaper of national digital library policy, far more than is the American Library Association. In the past, maybe the White House or the Library of Congress might have spearheaded a national digital library initiative going beyond Washington’s limited activities in this area. Why not now? A fall-out from a possible fear of the small-government movement, the copyright lobby, or the Darnton-Billington relationship?

Although LOC cooperates with national digital library projects overseas and focuses at home on preservation of public domain content and other nonencumbered material in the cultural area and others, it is far from a genuine public library in the scope of its current services online; efforts like the LOC-supported World Digital Library are no replacement for a full-service approach. Have LOC and the Obama Administration farmed out national digital library policy to Harvard and friends, as opposed to working meaningfully toward a full-service national digital public library system?

For that matter, the Harvard-originated-and-mainly-Harvard-staffed DPLA as envisioned now isn’t a true public e-library, either. And such a failing is the crux of a big and rather disturbing problem.

Despite promises to keep discussing the issue, the DPLA so far has insisted on the “Public” in its name over the objections of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). And, however noble in intent, the DLPLA has not fully committed to the creation of a true national public library system online, either in governance, administration, or range of realistically envisioned offerings; in fact, it is unwittingly weakening the franchise and branding of local institutions qualifying for the term “public library.” In a March 2011 concept note and elsewhere, the DPLA’s focus is on old books, other cultural preservation, and the improvement of systems to help library patrons find content, develop their own, and benefit from collections at other libraries. Those all should be major priorities for a DPLA-style organization. But this is far from the well-stocked, ever-accessible universal digital library system that I described at length in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year.

To give one example, the DPLA so far provides for no realistic way to meaningfully fund mass access to bestsellers and other trade-published books—the very stuff that can often induce young people and parents to read for fun and enlightenment alike and thereby strengthen academic and vocational skills. Nor, at least publicly, does DPLA show enough interest in working with government officials and with other organizations to map out ways to help address hardware and connectivity issues that will restrict the number of Americans directly benefiting from the library initiative.

Positives of the Existing DPLA

On the positive, there is some hope in Chair Palfrey’s “What is the DPLA?” statement to the group’s mailing list on July 1, a draft of a forthcoming concept note. The what-is document even starts with a mention of both libraries and “communities”—presumably patrons, too, not just community institutions—helping to “make the recorded heritage of humanity broadly available through digital means.”

What’s more, the DPLA is commendably striving to bake interactivity into such places as its catalog software, a community-friendly goal. Here’s to the DPLA as one big virtual “watercooler”! In a related vein, I very much like the way the organization reached out to individuals and groups across the country to solicit their ideas with the group’s Beta Sprint competition, which recently announced nine finalists in areas such as unified searches for the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian; multimedia using the nonproprietary HTML5 Web standard; and improved handling of searches, browsing and other tasks by way of LibraryCloud and ShelfLife. ShelfLife presents related books as “neighborhoods that are visually displayed as books on a shelf.” Users will even be able to rate and reviews books, Amazon-style. The DPLA hopes to share the related open computer code with local and national libraries, and I, for one, can appreciate the potential of these tools to surpass commercial alternatives and make libraries less reliant on the usual vendors and more useful to patrons. Kudos to John Palfrey and his associate, David Wineberger—coauthor of the Cluetrain Manifesto, a classic on the Net as a conversation-starter—for the just-described efforts. Without the right technological tools, nothing can happen.

Needed: More ambition

As a group, however, the current DPLA lacks the breadth and ambition I was hoping for. I don’t see a sufficient appreciation of modern public libraries as dynamic life-changers, and beyond that, what about their possibilities as information tools for civic improvement? The DPLA and local libraries cannot single-handedly solve our problems, but as sources of information for actions at the individual level and beyond, whether it’s finding a job or puzzling out pollution data on a near-by oil refinery, digital libraries are a logical place to start.

Part of the vision problem is that a year after the DPLA organization’s creation in October 2010, the steering committee members apparently have yet to reach a consensus on the precise scope and purpose of the group, and if or when they do, then I fear it will happen without long-term strategy suitable for the country as a whole. Let’s hope that the public meeting in Washington helps. So far, a mere four of the 17 DPLA steering committee members are local public librarians, and just one African-American and one Latino are members even though nonHispanic whites will be a minority in this country well before the end of the century. Women are still somewhat under-represented, and, as noted, no school librarians or other current K-12 educators sit on the committee; nor are there any career librarians from scientific, medical, or technological areas.

The DPLA appointments are not disasters, but in striving to serve both academic and public libraries, the committee does not even adequately meet the often-separate needs of those two worlds. With two different e-library systems, there could still be plenty of common content and somewhat overlapping boards with the shared members commanding respect on both sides. Encouragingly, the newest DPLA steering committee member is a adventurous librarian from Georgetown County on the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina. Dwight McInvaill has not only has introduced Kindles and other e-media to his library system but also has reached out to daycare providers in his literary effort; I can easily see a system like his as as testbed for the thoughtful use of tablets for low-income people, related training and support, and other innovations. At the same time he is also an avid cultural preservationist. So, yes, some individual committee members can simultaneously care about highbrow priorities and those of the nonelite, but let’s not expect all members to be so protean.

A To-Do List for the DPLA and Harvard

Here are other thoughts for Harvard and the DPLA to help libraries smarten up society, including in civic matters, while respecting local needs:

1. Immediately drop the word “Public” from the DPLA’s name, in line with COSLA’s officially expressed wishes. Even a national digital public library system, separate from an academic one, should not use “Public.” Rather the word should be reserved as it more or less is now—for reinforcing the branding and franchise of local public libraries. Consider the less-threatening “Scholarly Digital Library of America” and “National Digital Library of America.” Why should Harvard and friends run or seem to run our “public” library system, brick-and-mortar or digital, and grab media attention that instead could go for a genuinely public effort when the time came? The actual digital public system should be built instead around a group such as the COSLA—devoted to public libraries and composed of librarians—and also include heavy input from the Public Library Association, part of the American Library Association. In the past I would have suggested the Library of Congress, but now I am not quite as certain, given LOC’s forfeit of important digital roles to the DPLA. A fall-out from LOCA’s fear of the small-government movement, the copyright interests, or both?

2. Aim for more of a multidisciplinary effort. Granted, one cannot plan libraries without considering such legal angles as copyright law, and for the sake of continuity, too, especially in technical areas, the current DPLA leaders and staffers from the Harvard Law School should remain. But why isn’t the Harvard Graduate Education School of Education also playing a conspicuous role both in planning the DPLA and, ultimately, in helping to develop content for it? And mightn’t business school participation be increased to refine business models; and what about the participation of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, on both business and administrative issues?

3. Think in truly strategic ways, both organizationally and technologically. The separate public and academic systems, for example, could establish the shared technical organization not just to provide reliable short- and long-term archiving but also to evaluate, develop, and refine technologies in areas ranging from connectivity options to the hardware and software ergonomics of e-reading. At the same time, a major strategic goal should be for library e-books and other media to be Kindle-easy to enjoy, and without so much reliance on the actual Amazon, which is always in search of customer lock-in, both at the consumer level and others.

The interests of Amazon and libraries are hardly always the same. As Library Journal’s Mike Kelley and INFOdocket’s Gary Price have respectively documented here and here, major privacy questions arise when libraries rely on Amazon and other nonlibraries.

Furthermore, at least at the consumer level, albeit not at the production one, Amazon has stuck to its proprietary e-book standards. Libraries should continue ties with the International Digital Publishing Forum, creator of the nonproprietary ePub standard. At the same time, they should nudge the IDPF toward the rapid creation of non-Amazon standards for Whispersync-style services and other convenience features even if such wrinkles are not directly related to ePub. How can libraries, universities, and publishers wrest control away from Amazon if Kindles are so much easier to use than rivals?

In the end, the market, not the aspirations of alpha librarians and academics, will determine who prevails; and standards and usability are everything despite the obliviousness of most consumers and even most policymakers to the arcane technological details.

4. Let a strategic approach also lead libraries to hasten the transition to electronic information in book format and others. Haven’t we read enough tributes, from librarians, to physical books and strolls through the stacks? Work on new business models and other strategies to grow the number of e-books and other available digital content, including for recreational reading by children and their most important role models, their parents. Of course, paper books have their place—for example, as tenderly archived backups for the electronic variety and perhaps as enticements for some first-time readers. But so many students these days prefer to Google up information rather than rely on physical books. It isn’t simply a matter of laziness. Online is where the most current information, and even the most authoritative, is so often found, particularly in the most rapidly evolving disciplines such as computer science. Shouldn’t the DPLA, then, be more aggressive in encouraging public libraries to speed up the electronic transition?

The demand is there. In May 2011—even before the OverDrive e-book service started directing Kindle owners to Amazon for library books authorized for the local libraries—I discovered that 127 library users were lined up electronically for the New York Public Library’s one digital copy of a biography of the chess champion Bobby Fischer. Imagine, now, the Kindle’s effect on demand. Gary Price even wonders if the OverDrive-Kindle connection could hurt libraries because patrons will so often not be able to find what they want, at least not without long waits. “Could disappointing experience(s) with a high visibility service like this lead to increased discussion on the topic of libraries not being all that useful these days?” Exactly.

If nothing else, in setting its priorities and helping libraries arrive at their own, the DPLA should remember that Amazon actually sells more e-books these days than paperbacks and hardbacks compared—a forerunner for the industry as a whole. Compared to the June 2010, adult trade paperback revenue in the U.S. was off almost 64 percent in the same month in 2011, while e-book sales increased 167 percent. Some legacy publishers already are receiving a fifth of their revenues from electronic books. Those are just snapshots, but the trend is clear, with digital books and related media, such as learning software and perhaps educational games, destined to dominate in a decade or two, if not well before. In terms of potential choices at a time when the recession has already decimated many a library budget, the economies of e-books make even more sense for taxpayers and typical library patrons than they do for retail purchasers—just so public libraries care much more about access issues than the DPLA does at the moment.

Digital books could be especially helpful for low-income people if, through the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, the right hardware and connectivity and technical and literacy support were available with encouragement from the DPLA. Library e-books are available 24/7 for two- or three-job families and can be self-expiring, thus obviating the need for the fines so frightening to families on tight budgets.

Significantly, under pressure from the FCC in antitrust matters, Comcast began making low-priced desktop computers and Internet connections available, far from a total solution but an example of the possibilities, especially if e-book-and-literacy-friendly tablets are another option. In past writings on information stimulus—an attractive possibility, if only Washington will allow it!—I’ve already told how tax breaks for middle class taxpayers could be cost-justified for the purchase of multi-use tablets whose costs will be falling anyway in the near future. Unless we deal with access issues more seriously than the DPLA has so far, not just for the poor but also for aging baby boomers and people with disabilities, libraries cannot go digital to the extent they urgently need to. And if they do not? Then Netflix equivalents from companies like Amazon could displace them, aided by brand-oriented hardware such as the just-announced Kindle Fire tablet.

If libraries cannot act quickly enough, we might see the prediction of Mike Shatzkin, a prominent New York publishing consultant, come true as perceived by politicians favoring well-off constituents. “Libraries make no sense in the future,” he said, donning his prophet’s hat, because “there is no need for a building.” I disagree. Libraries offer valuable community services and spaces, far more than just books and other content. But for now, some in the Tea Party crowd (Shatzkin’s political opposites) are already onto this one. Rick Perry is well aware of the potential of electronic media as a cost-saver for schools, and he just might apply his logic to public books in time. “I don’t see any reason in the world,” he has said, “why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years.” Ideally educators and librarians, too, will better understand the inevitability of digitization and work to phase it in properly in libraries (with due attention paid to ergonomics, privacy and other issues that many in the small-government crowd may overlook in their fixation on the bottom line). Who says the Tea Party and friends are always completely wrong?

5. Nurture innovation but do not forget the very most urgent public needs, which are not just for more helpful catalogs and other tools, but also for access. The DPLA or successors should work toward a time when a cash-strapped mother at a health-clinic can benefit from not just physical books to read to her child but also a library card and tablet providing her with the ability to access medical information, job-related content, and thousands of free e-books for recreational reading.

The International Children’s Digital Library, started well before Harvard and friends founded the DPLA, is full of colorful titles, which a national digital public library system could pick up as part of its collection. But how much good can the books do for low-income people if they lack ways of accessing and reading them?

Of course, the hardware and content are far from the only needs; in-person guidance and inspiration from librarians and educators is a must. Work with libraries to help them offer relationships, not just technology. The best public librarians are often social workers in disguise. For now, the DPLA is too much of a technological experiment and not enough of a human one. With less of a geekish approach, the DPLA would be an easier sell to the library world, many of whose leaders feel intimidated by Harvard.

6. Encourage both public and academic libraries to preserve their traditional functions—in collections, acquisitions, and archival activities—as “book warehouses” and much more. Libraries can rely on contractors for certain technical services and others that they and academia may not always be able to supply as easily, despite the fine work Harvard is doing in developing nonproprietary tools. On the public library side, society’s needs should prevail over academic ambitions. Efficiency and responsiveness should count more than the research aspirations, technical or legal, of Harvard or any other institution. But, yes, Harvard and others in the academe can help libraries of all kinds upgrade e-catalogs and establish or at least control their storage infrastructure, as the HathiTrust is already doing. Again, the OverDrive-Amazon example shows the risks of not acting. Technology means leverage.

7. Both together and separately, the respective public and academic systems should try to deal directly with the publishing community to reduce middleman costs. An arbitration board with both librarians and content-providers could work to make certain that the latter enjoyed a fair shake. Both public and private systems could also experiment with the open access model already advocated by the DPLA; full national or global rights could be purchased to at least some copyrighted content. In some cases, as has already been suggested, the DPLA and individual libraries or groups of them could even commission books from authors or agree to fund publishers for not-yet-published projects. This should not fully replace traditional royalty-based arrangements that public libraries make with trade publishers. And state and local libraries should be able to amass their own collections, either directly or through centralized procurement systems, without a central system dictating to them.

8. Care more about public awareness and absorption of e-books and other content, including the locally originated variety. Nate Hill of the San Jose public library system, has suggested library outposts, mini-libraries that could up anywhere from shopping centers to store fronts. Librarians ideally could staff them. As Hill intended, library outposts should not be replacements for neighborhood branches; rather, they should help position libraries to be more in the center of community life. Paper books mustn’t vanish from libraries overnight, but as their importance shrinks over the years, that will free up space for suitable small businesses—for example, bookish coffee shops or independent bookstores with print on demand capabilities.

Family literacy, a nonpartisan cause taken up by the Bush family, is key in promoting both the use and absorption of content. Interviewed by the Washington Post, James Billington said: “When National Geographic asked about the seven libraries that influenced me most, I said that the most important in my life was the Nelson Billington Library: the random books that my father bought, read and shared in the house that he loved. His library and his own way of using language set me off on everything else.” Not everyone is lucky enough to have a father like Nelson Billington, but librarians, teachers and volunteers can help parents and children identify, obtain and absorb their own favorites. The importance of family literacy—so far removed from the day-to-day priorities of the majority of academic librarians, the ones who would be most likely to dominate a “one big tent” approach—is one of many reasons for the establishment of separate academic and public systems since their priorities are so different. Dual systems would also help address the inevitable concerns that academic libraries were passing on research costs and other special expenses to public libraries, a major risk if a one-system approach prevails.

9. Embrace openness. While many academics at Harvard and elsewhere love collegiality, in public institutions this can at least unwittingly lead to cronyism and to exclusion of outsiders with uppity new ideas. Last I knew, routine steering committee meetings of the DPLA were still closed. The meeting set for Washington in October will be available on the Web, and that is exactly what how the DPLA should handle all other committee meetings, with rare exceptions such as the most sensitive personnel matters, which could be addressed in closed sessions. In addition, all DPLA working groups should offer public mailing lists—both unmoderated and, for the busy, unmoderated. And their own key meetings and ideally all of them should be broadcast both real time and in delayed form.

10. Work for the separate public and academic systems to cooperate not just on sharing of resources but also on fund-raising and to position themselves as synergistic answers to national and personal challenges, not just library ones. Libraries empower patrons with knowledge of new options and opportunities, whether the issue is choice of presidential candidates, medical treatment or a job-training programs. What a contrast to, for example, traditional welfare-handouts. Using the most cogent arguments, the current DPLA or successors might be able to draw far, far more contributions from the “$600 billion challenge” that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have made to America’s billionaires—to pledge at least half of their net worths during their lifetimes. The $600 billion would dwarf the amount now given; what’s more, I suspect that quite a few of the wealthy would rather that libraries not promote civic involvement, just as politicians and library officials in some and perhaps many localities might resist the idea. But we need to begin in places where enough well-meaning people of all political stripes are receptive to the possibility, and let success lead to more of the same.

11. Get the word out that national digital library efforts will happen—through philanthropies and the participation of interested states and localities—whether or not certain extremists or publishing executives want this to. Bypass the Tea Party’s Washington gridlock by way of thoughtful outreach to state and local governments as well as major philanthropies. Ideally President Obama will understand the bypass possibilities as well as the contributions that libraries can make as problem solvers in areas ranging from employment-related training to nutritional information. COSLA has already explored the scenario of national procurement pools, a good start but not enough by itself. At any rate, philanthropy alone won’t do; public libraries need public money. On both the academic and local public sides, libraries could divert increasing amounts of money from purchases of paper books to digital content in that format and others.

If too many publishers balk at making material available for use on library servers on reasonable terms, libraries should place more emphasis than before on development of original content without recurring costs. Today Libraries often may end up renting rather than truly owning content. Maybe that will be necessary in the future. But in exchange, publishers and writers could and should agree to much shorter copyright terms. Both sides, librarians and content-providers, should spend more time working together for more library money and less time on the constant copyright-wars. The DPLA should not rely on possible legislative or courtroom successes as substitutes for adequate library funding—especially given the current power of the copyright lobby over Congress and given the many judges predisposed to favor business interests.

12. Help local libraries create snazzy-looking “civic dashboards” that as a default would come with links to librarian-and-journalist-curated statistics, news stories from professionals and citizen bloggers, and other information of local interest. A dashboard could show up as part of a regular library site or within an app for the iPad or Android machines or others (new Web technical standards open up a number of possibilities for the sites). Furthermore, the dashboard system could email alerts to citizens on issues of special interest to them.

Civic dashboards could be part of the curricula of K-12 schools and ideally follow a standard visual format, so that no matter where students ended up, they could rely on local libraries for well-organized news of direct interest to them but neglected by the media. Perhaps local educators and students, members of neighborhood groups, and other volunteers could assist librarians in the preparation of the dashboards, complete with clearly labeled opinion sections, with wiki technology available for collaboration. Experience with local issues is one of the best ways of understanding national ones. The focus would be on truth-seeking as opposed to the media’s “cult of savviness,” its fawning focus on politicians’ ability to kowtow to ignorant voters (a priority that Rosen so correctly decries).

Already the DPLA is wisely positioning its technology as a potential platform through which many in the library world could make contributions. Now imagine the specifics, and not just on national issues alone. What about proposed zoning changes? Schools news? City deficits? Local environmental information, such as the anti-pollution progress or lack of it that a local factory is making? Or Congressional redistricting news or changes in voting laws, such as more onerous registration requirements? Groups such as ProPublica and the League of Women Voters could suggest templates for the dashboards, subject to local review, and they could also offer content of their own. If local public library systems could not offer dashboards due to political pressure or for economic reasons—obviously libraries are not drowning in cash—then perhaps the academic system could cooperate with alternatives within the limits of its own resources. This would be tie in well with Levine’s recommendations that universities promote development of information networks in their communities.

Less than perfect civic dashboards would be better than none at all and help justify public libraries’ continued existence—including the brick-and-mortar kind; the dashboards could lead to links on local civic events held within the physical libraries where citizens and policymakers met face to face. And, of course, the dashboards could point to timely paper and e-books alike, for example environmentally related books. While some city governments do post information on zoning, taxes, and other matters, it is often poorly organized, easy to overlook, and out of context.

Via promotion of the dashboards and in others ways, the DPLA could help voters enjoy more control over their futures. Walter Lippmann, author of Public Opinion—yes, a Harvard man—actually subscribed to the theory that voters needed experts to herd them along. The typical citizen is not going to spend hour after hour perusing information on the worst belchers of smoke or on plans for a huge shopping center near his or her neighborhood. But at least the interested could benefit from the opportunity to do this conveniently from home, especially in an era when so many Americans are pressed for spare time.

Here in Alexandria, Virginia, a city served by the Washington Post among others, news organizations failed the public in not paying sufficient attention early enough to a $1B+ high rise. It arose near me in Alexandria, Virginia—a veritable Quarter Pentagon, with 6,400 workers on the way and with scary security vulnerabilities documented belatedly in Time Magazine. With a civic dashboard and better informed voters, might not the outcome have been different? For reasons like the above, I’m hardly surprised that the media are no longer as respected as in past years. Librarians, on the other hand, still enjoy high credibility, and the dashboard concept would be one way to leverage this in a socially useful way.

Even newspapers could benefit in the end, given the increase in interest in civic matters, especially as a result of a more practical, more relevant approach to civics in schools. News reports could rely more on fact and informed opinions—from experts and citizens linked from the dashboards or contributing directly—and less on special interest groups and partisans. Large metropolitan dailies can no longer cover suburbs in sufficient detail despite all the talk about hyperlocal journalism. With civic-dashboard arrangements at libraries, they could more easily pick up both breaking news and trends. Furthermore, the existence of the dashboards would not preclude good newspapers from offering civic coverage in their own hyperlocal editions. The challenge is to get local dailies to provide in-depth coverage, period. And start-ups like Patch and many local blogs? They are too busy fighting to stay alive to give civic affairs the coverage it deserves. As I, of all people, know first hand, a blogger can do only so much. Even as a group, bloggers can’t provide comprehensive coverage, and all too often they are writing about sports, food, or other personal interests as opposed to civic ones.

Local television news? It’s the main local news source, as documented by a recent Pew study. The trouble is that it focuses on “weather, breaking news, and traffic,” not zoning and local budgets. Even newspapers don’t practice civic related, data-driven journalism—with accompanying people angles—to the extent they could. And among the main reasons for insufficient coverage, whatever the media—newspapers, television or the internet? Simple lack of interest. The civic dashboard concept could educate and engage a whole generation students that Newspapers in Education has failed to win over. In the most practical ways students would learn to research and write on civic matters, improving their language skills, not just their analytical ones, and learning to work in groups. Prepublication, their thoughts would be subject to review not just by peers and teachers but by actual editors and librarians. All students would participate, with the teachers choosing which ones to send on for possible dashboard use, so the evaluators were not swamped. Along the way, librarians could steer students to books and other content that strengthened their understanding of the issues about which they wrote. Jeremy York, a HathiTrust project librarian, and an assistant librarian at the University of Michigan, has helpfully reminded the the DPLA of the value of Primary Sources and Technology in K-12 Education. Time to encourage teachers and young people to apply the same precepts to coverage of civic news in their communities, not just history, especially if the two areas can converge?

By growing interest in civic matters, the dashboards could provide new audiences for the content financed by funds for national and local news, envisioned by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr., and Columbia University professor Michael Schudson. A debate has raged within journalism about whether the business model would be good for freedom of the press since it would be so reliant on tax money (although it would hardly be the only source for news organizations). I myself have mixed feelings; I’d rather newspapers be supported by the traditional mix of subscriptions and advertising (with some miraculous way found to completely fend off pressure from pushy advertisers). But given the current shortcomings of local news, I am all in favor of experimentation. The existence of multiple information sources on the civic dashboards would reduce the risks. Downie and Schudson, incidentally, have suggested that universities could play a role, with the journalistic equivalents of teaching hospitals.)

I can also envision a new kind of library job, a cross between librarian and editor. Time for changes in library school curricula in this and other respects—another way in which Harvard (home to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard) and the DPLA might be useful? For now, consider the legions of laid-off journalists who could help local libraries start civic dashboards.

Henry Adams: Harvard Man and Infrastructure Booster

Let me conclude with a few words from Henry Adams (1838-1918), one of the most distinguished Harvard graduates and faculty members. Adams was a vicious anti-semite, an all-around-bigot in fact, and hardly a complete paragon of democratic beliefs; but he was capable at times of brilliantly encapsulating the better part of the traditional ethos of a school from which have graduated seven future presidents of the United States. In The Education of Henry Adams, he recalled a trip over horrid roads to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, just a few miles from where I am writing the current essay. “To the New England mind, roads, schools, clothes, and a clean face were connected as part of the law of order or divine system,” Adams said. “Bad roads meant bad morals. The moral of this Virginia road was clear, and the boy fully learned it. Slavery was wicked, and slavery was the cause of this road’s badness which amounted to social crime….” Might not our underfunded libraries and oft-overcrowded schools be a little like the bumpy roads of old Virginia, with today’s American elite dodging their responsibilities in other ways?

A civic-aware vision from the DPLA and its hosts at Harvard, jibing with the egalitarian sentiments of a modern good-roads advocate, the law school’s own Elizabeth Warren, needs to prevail over the shortsightedness of the Tea Party, greed-driven multimillionaires with polluting factories to protect against the Environmental Protection Agency, and their future equivalents. Do we really want to risk remaining in the endless loop?

Note: This is a living document and may change as I fix errors or make other refinements. I’ll welcome suggestions via e-mail or the comments area. I’m also reachable at 703-370-6540. For the benefit of latecomers: I’m a writer in Alexandria, VA, have been a national digital library advocate since the earlier 1990s, and have written on the topic in places ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education and an MIT/ASIS information science collection to the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and the Atlantic’s Web site. I founded TeleRead, the oldest site devoted to general news and views on e-books and related topics such as digital libraries. In early 2011, I participated in a DPLA workshop. The late William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite, wrote two columns in the 1990s endorsing my basic vision of a well-stocked national digital library system integrated with local schools and libraries, and with hardware and other access issues addressed. The above opinions are my own, not necessarily anyone else’s. – D.R.


image1. Public debate in the U.S. is increasingly dumbed down—filled with falsehoods, which the media often tolerate in the interest of “objectivity” or “the cult of savviness.”

2. Too many politicians are swayed by rich campaign donors, “kept” think tanks, and the Koch-encouraged Tea Party.

3. Compromised legislators at all levels of government work to slash rich people’s taxes at the expenses of the rest of us who must make up the difference in payments or reduced government services.

4. Our schools and libraries—not just frills like money for bridge repairs—are frequent cost-cutting targets.

5. As cuts happen, whether in library spending, K-12 budgets or student loans, intelligent civic debate will suffer. How many Americans know, for example, that about 23 percent of income goes to one percent of our population, compared to this elite’s nine percent of income 35 years ago? See Figure Two in a paper by the economist Emmanuel Saez.

6. If ignorant of essential facts and truths, Americans will keep electing and reelecting corrupt, short-sighted politicians who inflict yet more damage.

7. Online libraries must not become propaganda machines, and they should serve people of all political beliefs, including any Tea Partiers in search of the facts. But they can help break us out of this endless loop simply by accurately enlightening Americans on timely and relevant matters. They can also promote practical and meaningful civic opportunities and education similar to the kind advocated by Tufts University Prof. Peter Levine. Digital media is cheaper than paper at spreading around knowledge. And it’s easier for people to talk back—whether to each other or the elite. The challenge is for truth-seekers to seize control on the Net and in the legacy media from propaganda-focused think tanks and similar organizations that for decades have dominated civic debate on behalf of the special interests bankrolling them.

8. As one of many goals, the Harvard-hosted Digital Public Library of America should seek to upgrade the quality of civic life—taking advantage of links and interactivity. The DPLA will most likely rely heavily on private funding. Part of it could come from foundations, certain wealthy individuals looking beyond their direct business interests, and others worried about the endless loop. Likeminded people, not necessarily the same ones, could also be sources of funding for virtual civic activities at local libraries. These activities could benefit from participation from journalists and from appropriate changes in library school curricula and continuing education, so that library professionals could better serve as online editors and moderators. Teacher training also could be updated.

image9. Harvard itself has certain civic and other moral obligations to the country as a whole. Billions from the rich have flowed to Harvard and other Ivy League schools, thanks partly to tax breaks, some rather problematic. Harvard Law Prof. Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. Senate candidate, has called for the wealthy to pay their fair shares of the upkeep of roads, and of other public services such as police protection. Mightn’t the same concept apply at least indirectly to the institutions benefitting from the donations of these wealthy recipients of services? Warren is not attacking wealth per se, not calling for the rich to give away their entire fortunes, just fulfill their moral obligations. That is how I feel toward Harvard, which should devote far more resources to the current DPLA effort, both the academic and public library parts, as long as the end result is two different systems online—academic and public.

10. Yes, the DPLA should help America’s public libraries establish their own national digital system focused most of all on common needs, such as K-12 education, whether public or private. The Harvard-based group should not insist on "one big tent," where Ivy League academics far detached from the concerns of ordinary citizens would most likely be the main ringmasters. Instead the current DPLA needs to turn into an university-focused system, accessible to all Americans just like the public digital system. The smarter the citizenry by way of this dual-system approach, the more likely we can break out of the endless loop and see American politicians more seriously care about such trifles as "consent of the governed." Both of these two intertwined but separate digital systems should avoid the phrase "public library" in their names to respect the branding and franchise of existing local institutions. One technology organization could serve both systems to reduce wasteful redundancies. It could make content-sharing easier between systems and work with governments, corporations, and nonprofits to address such access issues as hardware and connectivity.

Art credits: The first image, of Rick Perry, Texas governor and no-longer-quite-so-leading Republican presidential candidate as of this writing, was posted to Flickr by Ed Schipul and is CC-licensed. The second image, here under fair use, shows a school-librarian-layoff story from the online version of School LIbrary Journal. The third image is of Harvard Square, was taken by Wikipedia user Chensiyuen, and is GNU/CC-licensed. Snapped in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2009, the third photo, of Tea Party protestors, is a Creative Commons-licensed image from NYYankees51. The fourth image shows Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor and U.S. Senate candidate, and is public as a work of the federal government.

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One comment to “Digital libraries vs. our national dumb-down: Could ‘civic dashboards’ and other innovations help America break out of an endless loop?”
One comment to “Digital libraries vs. our national dumb-down: Could ‘civic dashboards’ and other innovations help America break out of an endless loop?”

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