Low-income people vs. e-books? Illinois controversy shows why the Harvard-based e-library initiative must not downplay nonelite’s needs

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The e-book debate in Rockford, Illinois, was bound to happen somewhere.

And, as a way of spotlighting the need for a national digital library system for all Americans, not just the affluent, I’m glad it did.

The local NAACP and others in Rockford are protesting the local library system's plans to spend about a quarter of its $1.19-million collection budget on e-books. And I can understand the anger of low-income people who fear they'll lack the resources to enjoy the digital books. Exactly! Local and national organizations should complain to the library trustees—contact information is here—before the meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Monday, January 23.

image“The library would only purchase print in the event that no digital version is available for a needed item,” officials propose for the long term. Reportedly the goal would be for 95 of 100 books to be digital, and most librarians would lose their jobs.

Making 50 Kindle e-readers available by spring for loans—the solution the library system has in mind, according to a report in American Libraries—won't be enough. The number is pathetically small. About 33 percent of Rockford's 153,000 people live in poverty by one 2009 estimate, and about half the African Americans and Hispanic and Latino people there do. Rockford’s child poverty rate is said to be the highest of Illinois’s ten biggest cities. Complicating matters for low-income users is that a library patron who finally can borrow a Kindle might not be able to enjoy an e-book that he or she wants, because it, too, has people waiting for it. Depends on how many simultaneous checkouts are allowed. But that still leaves open other issues, such as the fact that some vision-impaired patrons may not find that the Kindles offer enough contrast between the background and the text. On top of that, some big publishers such as Simon & Schuster do not even let public libraries lend out their e-books.

imageI’m not in Rockford and don’t know all the facts there. But the envisioned 50-Kindle scenario reminds me of the current deficiencies of many American libraries, where kids from the wrong side of the tracks can enjoy only limited time on PCs. Computer lines, real or virtual, are great for making budget arguments for libraries, but they’re oh so lousy for the young people and others who depend on the machines, whether for e-books or Internet access.

Alas, Rockford's local e-book issues can't be separated from the need for a well-stocked national digital library system serving the entire country, not just the upper socio-economic groups. With all expenses considered, libraries often are paying more for each e-book than they should, and quite logically, skeptics worry about recurring costs. The best solution would be a national digital library system with enough leverage to bargain fairly but effectively with publishers while respecting traditional library values. I'd also recommend that publishers and libraries spend less time fighting the copyright wars and more time fighting for library budgets at all levels of government. The more library books and other media available via libraries, the less of a piracy problem.

For now, in Rockford's place, I would greatly increase the number of e-books purchased but not to the level now planned, considering the risks of  current e-book licensing arrangements and the large number of people in the town without the financial resources or technical skills to deal with e-books.

Meanwhile, without splurging, I would cautiously experiment with used iPads, suitably configured Android tablets, or other devices that low-income people could use for many applications such as library books, early childhood education and family literacy, e-forms and interaction with social workers, healthcare providers and teachers. Cost-justify! Net video is cheap to use and endlessly more engaging than the telephone alone. I would not rely on the gadgetry to reduce traditional face-to-face contact; rather, to augment it for better results in health and other areas. What's more, librarians and teachers ideally could offer both technical support and the literacy-related kind, and local agencies, such as those providing healthcare and other services, would be suitably equipped. Early childhood education would be my favorite of all the apps—here are some specifics. Yes, all this is deep in Reinventing Government territory, but worth the time and money to try out in a small way, given the potential savings down the road. If the pilot projects worked, then taxpayers and foundations would be more open to a major expansion.

As a safer experiment, in Rockford’s place, I would at least check with an e-reader maker about buying up a number of used machines and give away as many as I could afford to low-income people. Bought in bulk, used e-readers might go for $60 or $70 each. That’s perhaps the cost of a dozen or so library checkouts.

Those are the kinds of issues I've been begging the Digital Public Library of America to take action on, either directly or through alliances with other organizations of all kinds. Unless the DPLA and others pay more attention to the needs of the nonelite, e-books will widen rather than close up the digital and academic divides. As evident in a Washington Post article, unfortunately, even affluent areas have their own e-book crises, and while U.S. libraries could show more ingenuity than they have so far, the main villains by far are in Congress and the White House. Why haven’t President Obama and others cared more about the e-library issue, which is really a K-12, poverty and jobs issue in disguise?

Meanwhile I would encourage people to read a library report from Rockford to understand the economic challenges there. I totally agree with the officials that e-books could save money. I just don’t want to see libraries downsized in ways that so directly harm low-income people and others most in need of library services.

Instead let’s reinvent libraries in ways that most efficiently serve typical citizens and in fact will greatly multiply the number of library books and other items and make family literacy more of a cause than it is in America today. Children are far, far less likely to become readers if their parents are not. I hope that Rockford officials will study LibraryCity.org and come up with imaginative new scenarios for the digital era rather than rashly stranding the people most in need of public libraries.

From the Rockford Register Star: Rockford Public Library fans uneasy about digital shift and Rockford Public Library’s digital strategy defended. Also see other items via Google as well as commentary in the Rock River Times from a library user distressed that the Rockford library system did not sound out the public sufficiently. And last but not least—the Save Our Rockford Library blog.

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8 comments to “Low-income people vs. e-books? Illinois controversy shows why the Harvard-based e-library initiative must not downplay nonelite’s needs”
8 comments to “Low-income people vs. e-books? Illinois controversy shows why the Harvard-based e-library initiative must not downplay nonelite’s needs”
  1. Pingback: Non vogliamo ebook nella nostra biblioteca! | Tropico del Libro

  2. David, thank you for your blog article. It is very well done and thought-provoking. I have only one point of contention, and that is regarding the use of electronic screen devices in the childhood years. I am not arguing against their use completely. I just think we need to be careful when they are introduced and how they are used. I think we need to be careful to not increase the EMF load on developing bodies. And, I think we need to be cautious of the way that screen time and software design effects and conditions developing brains.

    If you haven’t run into it already, you might find the work of Charlotte Iserbyt interesting. She wrote and compiled the book, “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America.” There is a section of a documentary interview with her on YouTube that I’d draw your attention to.

    Interview with Charlotte Iserbyt

    While the whole interview is eye-opening, you can drop in to the relevant section at about 23:06. Iserbyt talks about operant conditioning, and the way that software is used in education to facilitate it, and how dangerous it is. While this quote concerns interactive programs (not static e-books), I still think it is important to be aware of, as the whole tablet/app world moves into the hands of children.

    “We had free will until we got to the computer. … I have one incredible paper in my book written by a leading educator in the 60s. … And that paper talks about the need for computers, and how wonderful they’re going to be and all. But he says, ‘If you don’t agree with the message morally and ethically that’s going onto that software, DO NOT do it!’ That’s coming right out of the mouth of an educator involved in it. He says, ‘You have to have a conscience… Because that software is so powerful that no matter–you may think, “Oh, well. The person on the other end, he can do what he wants and make up [his own mind]…” No!’ [He says that] once it’s in the software, and once the child is clicking away on the computer and getting the little happy face as the reward… …That’s what happens. We all know that feeling when we get something good on the computer… …He’s not going to ask any questions. That’s it. Finished. And it can bring the student to a certain totally opposite position in their thinking using Socratic questioning. So, it’s very dangerous. I can’t tell you how dangerous it is. I mean, how dangerous is a method that can actually change–actually destroy–one’s conscience.” (23:50-25:49)

    Charlotte Iserbyt posted “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America” as a PDF on the website, “American Deception.” (Scroll down to the d’s–you’ll find it!)

    Thank you, David, for weighing in on behalf of Rockford, Illinois! Warm regards, and all the best to you as you advocate for your e-book lending model!

    • Andy, many thanks for taking time to write such a detailed note. I can’t do justice to it in merely a few paragraphs. But here are some of my own thoughts:

      1. I myself think we could consider a mix of paper and e-books if need be for young children, so that would help address some of the possible health issues. There is also a pro-e-book angle when it comes to the young, or at least their brains. The young brain is rather plastic, and if we can get e-books right, imagine the upside.

      2. How right you are about software! I’m concerned about drill-and-kill programs for the nonelite, while encouraging children in the upper-socioeconomic classes to think for themselves. Access to a wide selection of books, and encouragement from teachers and librarians, could go a long way to smart up everyone in a flexible way, not just the elite. I don’t want kids Skinnerized.

      3. Books of any kind are not a total solution, of course. How about the ways they’re absorbed? And we’re talking about many other complexities, such as prenatal nutrition. I’d actually like to see e-book-friendly tablets used for many purposes beyond books–such as guidance in text and multimedia for young mothers on matters ranging from nutrition to other aspects of childcare.

      Warmest regards right back, and best of luck in your local library war!

      David Rothman
      (who looks forward to following those links)

      • David, You are going to have an absolute field day at the “American Deception” website. It is a collection of documents of the kind that were meant to be hidden in plain view, if you know what I mean. Dangerous, dangerous stuff that will keep you busy for days! You’ll love it!

        If you could, I would like your thoughts on two other things regarding e-books. You may be aware of the work of Creative Commons activist Richard Stallman. Being a bear of little brain, I am not what you would call entirely “up” on the Creative Commons movement, its implications and its meanings (although what I understand of the idea, I like). Anyway, I recently became aware of two things that Stallman is advancing, and I wonder if, when you have time, you would please comment on them, or, if you have already commented on them or know where others have reflected on these ideas, could you point me in that direction?

        The Danger of E-Books (pdf)

        Amazon’s Kindle Swindle

        Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the links, Andy. I won’t get into CC–really the creation of Larry Lessig and colleagues–but you can find out more at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_commons

    Briefly, I agree with Richard Stallman about the evils of DRM–it subtracts from the value of books as a permanent medium, and that’s bad for both readers and writers. But my solutions are rather different. See:

    Toward an e-library ecosystem: Public libraries will screw themselves if they don’t learn from Amazon’s comprehensive ‘seamless’ approach: https://www.librarycity.org/?p=3161


    Ten ‘musts’ for an e-library ecosystem—to fight off bullying by content-providers and respect traditional library priorities: https://www.librarycity.org/?p=3267


    • Ah-ha! “Toward an e-library ecosystem” and “Ten ‘musts'” are very thoughtful and cogent! Thank you for setting me on the path to understanding this messy problem.


  4. Pingback: eBooks, Human Rights and Social Justice | The Information Activist Librarian

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