How e-libraries and other tech could fit in with literacy efforts: Stellar local priorities from DPLA’s newest steering committee member

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imageSometime in the next few weeks I’ll review Saving Our Public Libraries: Why We Should. How We Can, by Janet Jai—“must” reading for participants in the Digital Public Library of America.

Literacy, lifelong learning for the masses, patrons’ economic advancement, and promotion of democracy are foremost on her mind.

Culture and heritage would fall within the learning category, but clearly Ms. Jai recognizes the need for balanced priorities—something missing from the current university-dominated DPLA, one reason why LibraryCity favors the creation of intertwined but separate public and scholarly digital library systems, with somewhat overlapping boards. Don’t get rid of any of the current DPLA participants. Just reorganize and let them focus on their strengths, while creating a technical services and infrastructure organization serving both the public and scholarly sides. That way, we can avoid wasteful redundancies and create synergies without losing anyone’s priorities in the shuffle.

In real life, what public library systems have the balance I’m seeking—especially in cash-strapped cities and in rural areas with limited resources? I’ll welcome your thoughts via e-mail or the comment area for this post.

imageHere’s one great example: the Georgetown County system in beautiful rural South Carolina (picture)—run by Dwight McInvaill, whose appointment to the DPLA steering committee is an extremely encouraging sign of progress by the Harvard-based initiative. No, I don’t know where he stands on the separate digi-system issue. But from afar at least, I love what his local system is doing, both on- and off-line. With Dwight’s permission, I’m reproducing an email showing his abundant awareness of the potential of digital technology for encouraging literacy (while also serving the cultural and other needs that preoccupy the present DPLA):

Dear David,

imageYou are indeed a kindred spirit! I appreciate your sending me this email along with the invitation to participate on LibraryCity. I’m under some intense deadlines during August and September, but I look forward to this opportunity at a later date. I am also intrigued by your suggestion concerning ruggedized tablets for low-income parents with young children. I am additionally glad to represent as much as possible the perspective of medium-sized and smaller public libraries, particularly rural ones during the DPLA process.

To me, rural libraries offer a real opportunity to experiment for community good. Here are some things we’ve done here during the last decade:

  • Established book and music collections at 40 child care centers with a visiting storyteller incorporating enjoyable education for tots with onsite guidance for childcare workers
  • Furnished childcare providers with training for certification
  • Worked with low-income parents on parenting skills related to preschool literacy
  • Developed a communitywide group concentrating on promoting the health and intellectual development of preschoolers through four preschool centers of excellence
  • Created with the school district a collaborative library/adult learning center; we are now establishing also an entrepreneur center for potential small business owners and workers
  • Led the production of a digital library of 18,000 items called the Georgetown County Digital Library ( ) through a collaboration with nine other cultural agencies
  • Built a heritage center showcasing over 200 locally produced digital oral history videos in a café setting with seven large-screen monitors, wireless headsets, and computer tablets
  • Incorporated digital arts production as a standard library service for teens: the youngsters have interviewed oldsters and have created PSAs on topics ranging from Smart Investing to dealing with natural disasters like hurricanes
  • Combated our local high-school dropout rate with an interactive video and board gaming program at all branches with about 350 participants (mainly African-American male teens)
  • Introduced circulating Kindles at all branches with preloaded content (50 titles each): these have been really popular; also, as you’ve noted, we introduced OverDrive service locally. In October, we will be buying more circulating Kindles while loading them with titles on money management and smart ways to deal with the current Great Recession.

    All of these efforts are still ongoing which presents a challenge to the 28 full-time equivalent staff of our 4-branch system. But we’ve got to work hard to remain relevant to the current and upcoming generations while promoting literacy. During the past three years especially, our usage has increased well, and our library system has been full of people every summer. Sometimes, there are more folks here than at the mall!

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured our Carvers Bay Branch Library in a video in 2007 along with several other libraries. You can check that out on YouTube: .

    Isn’t it great to be a librarian now?! [Just to be clear—I’m a long-time digital library booster and a former poverty beat reporter, but not a librarian. – D.R.] Thanks again for your email.

    Best regards,


    Dwight McInvaill
    Georgetown County Library
    405 Cleland Street
    Georgetown, SC 29440


    Notice? As shown both by his comments to me and the actual activities of the Georgetown system, Dwight McInvaill can see how technology can help respond to the most urgent needs of America’s public library patrons, not just advance the likewise-important goals of the academic elite. And it’s easy to extrapolate from his thoughts. For example, what if low-cost, picture-book-friendly tablets ended up in the hands of low-income parents and childcare providers, with proper support from librarians and others? And suppose local library systems encouraged the providers to talk up the technology to the parents. Gently but constantly nudge mothers and fathers to participate in new ways in related library, health/nutrition, and job-finding and -training programs, with text and multimedia from the tablets to back up other efforts. Everything and everyone should tie in together, with the library at the center, as a way to direct parents to the right services! In the first sentence of Part I of Janet Jai’s book, based on numerous interviews with librarians in many states, she writes: “The core of a library is interaction.” That is what the use of tablets and other technology should be all about—as opposed to gadgets for the sake of gadgets. No gizmos without lots of human guidance (for those in need of it), especially inspiration!

    Oh, and you’ll notice that Dwight is hardly oblivious to the usefulness of tech for the preservation and spread of culture and knowledge of local history. It’s just that he has not forgotten general public library priorities—with mass literacy clearly at the top of his list, just as it is in Janet Jai’s case. He is hardly alone in the public library world, and I’d like to see the DPLA follow up with the appointment of a liked-minded innovator, ideally from another small, non-university town with a high illiteracy rate and credible efforts to reduce it.

    Detail: Open meetings for the DPLA steering committee—at least public except in very special circumstances—would be an excellent way of recruiting other first-rate participants with a results-and-people-oriented approach. To use a little geekspeak, they’ll see openness as a feature rather than a bug. The more the public knows about the DPLA’s actions and reasons for them, the more input it can provide. Secrecy is the enemy of essential feedback, not just of accountability

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