Southern librarian’s thoughtful criticism of Gates Foundation survey unwittingly shows need for TWO national digital library systems—one public, one academic

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highest standard of livingMindful of the record number of poor Americans, a thoughtful “Front Line Librarian” in a Southern state is asking an essential question in effect: Why care so much about library e-books and the rest when millions of low-income people lack computers or at least the skills to use them?

Front Line says more reliance on the Net will make their lives harder, not easier.

“The digital divide has not gone away,” he writes in response to my suggestion that library-lovers fill out a Gates Foundation survey on the needs of future, more digitally oriented libraries. “If anything, it is worse now than it ever has been…

“On a daily basis I am helping people who struggle with literacy, never mind using a computer, to apply for jobs like cook, janitor, deck hand. When to apply for a job flipping burgers at a fast food chain requires that you fill out a web form, complete with the ‘captcha’ spam shield, I know there is a problem.”

This was not the Front Line’s intent, but he is strengthening my argument that America urgently needs two intertwined but separate national digital library systems—one public and one academic. Among other complications, a single system wouldn’t provide enough attention to the needs of the poor. I myself worked as a poverty reporter eons ago in an Ohio factory town, and believe me, I of all people know the gap is alive and wide. At the same time, wouldn’t efficient use of technology by libraries and other agencies better satisfy the demands of politicians to “do more with less”? No panacea. But the digital can help, one reason why I like the Internet-aware survey even if I also can appreciate Front Line’s concerns. Here are a few points for him and others to consider:

1. The way to narrow the digital divide isn’t to dumb down everyone, but to help those on the wrong side—through training, Net-modern family literacy programs tied in with digital libraries, and other means (hello, Gates Foundation and other philanthropies?). Younger Americans are far, far more comfortable with technology than, say, the librarian’s brother who lacks a smart cellphone. We have a knowledge and attitude gap, not just a wealth one, in this case. I daresay that more than a few ghetto dwellers own smart cellphones even if most don’t. I’d like them to be able to use larger-screened reading devices if desired, but the cellphone example is one illustration of the danger of lumping all low-income people together.

2. The battle is over. Like it or not, U.S. libraries will be much more fully online in the future than they presently are. Now we need to avoid gentrifying the masses out of their own public libraries, both physical and virtual, and to tackle access issues ranging from ergonomically appropriate hardware for reading to the availability of e-books and other items for the cash-strapped. And what about the creation and support of family literacy programs, hardly a core interest of academic librarians?

3. I fear that one humongous digital library system, blending in public and academic libraries, would be dominated by the American elite without sufficient interest in grassroots concerns, including, yes, the availability of the bestsellers that taxpayers demand. Shared content in many and perhaps most cases? Shared technology! Yes! But don’t weaken the digital branches of public libraries by depriving them of the right to form their own national system online. While greater efficiencies would make it desirable to have a common technical services organization for both public and academic libraries, the former need their own national digital system to which the technical services organization is highly responsive. If the services organization is not helpful, then the money won’t be coming from the public library system. Let public libraries deal with this as a true national system whose leaders enjoy the time and preparation to guard their turf.

4. The technical service organization should help libraries line up appropriate hardware for low-income people to use not just in libraries but at home, with proper training available. Far better than just confining them to paper. There is a reason why so much of government and business is online—digital information is so much more timely and so easier to collect, manipulate and absorb. Almost from the first, 20 years ago, I proposed “TeleReaders” (a generic name, not a particular company’s commercial product) that could be used not just for books but also for electronic forms to help cost-justify a national digital library system. A more recent version of this evolving vision is online at

5. The cost of the hardware has plummeted. In India, the talk is of $20 tablets, and here in the States, the rumor is that Google will release a $99 version of the Nexus 7. This is today. The hardware will only get better and cheaper. Kindle are already in use as readers for African children in the bush, and I’d guess that the wholesale price of the devices is now less than $50. I would not recommend a $50 device as a replacement for elaborately illustrated science textbooks. But imagine the possibilities for encouraging children to enjoy reading, especially for recreational purposes, which can contribute to academic success. If you can go E and if the online library system I’ve envisioned is in place, then you’ll enjoy a much wider selection of books than in print. Remember: students will be more eager readers if they find books matching their precise interests, including in some cases local works In digital form.

6. I am gung ho on the continuation of many librarians’ role as, in effect, social workers. That means help face to face and over the phone in most cases, not by computer. Who says this must disappear with the rise of e-books? What’s more, the survey itself gives respondents a chance to rate the importance of “appealing physical space,” so it clearly isn’t as if the Gates people expect physical libraries to vanish entirely.

7. Also, must we immediately have to get rid of all paper books and magazines? This is a process of evolution, not instant revolution. Long term, however, the digital will prevail because of the enticing efficiencies, and the Gates Foundation is absolutely right to plan for this online future—just so libraries can sufficiently address the access issues and related ones, which a two-system approach would make easier.

8. May the Digital Public Library of America—the national digital library initiative with the greatest chances of succeeding, despite its shortcomings—pay attention! Two systems, please.

9. Let the public one include people with the sensitivities of a DPLA participant named Dwight McInvaill, a librarian who serves a county with an illiteracy rate of almost 30 percent. Yes, some experimentation with Kindles and the like is going on in Georgetown County, South Carolina.

10. The above is what we need, as opposed to, “Let’s slow the move to digital because it’ll hurt the poor.” Get them the resources to come along for the ride; encourage well-targeted spending by philanthropies; and remember the efficiencies here, and in seeking government money don’t count people out because of their politics, especially when William F. Buckley Jr. was an ardent supporter of the TeleRead plan.

Meanwhile I’m grateful to Front Line for speaking out, even if he’d prefer not to use his name right now; yes, a quick online check shows he is authentic. In fact, he was in an email conversation with me and other people a few years back on another matter.

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6 comments to “Southern librarian’s thoughtful criticism of Gates Foundation survey unwittingly shows need for TWO national digital library systems—one public, one academic”
6 comments to “Southern librarian’s thoughtful criticism of Gates Foundation survey unwittingly shows need for TWO national digital library systems—one public, one academic”
  1. This is not limited to just the US, either. And it has significant public health implications. this blog by a UK GP suggests that the people who MOST need digital access are the ones least health-literate and thus the ones most able to benefit from it, but they are also the ones most often denied it.

    • Totally agree, Rigel. In the post made before this one, I mentioned the connection between health literacy and the traditional kind, which online access can helo. And, yes, these are global issues. Meanwhile thanks for the link. David

  2. Digital Library fragmentation is already pretty bad. Bedoin Music archive here, ACM digital library over there, Overdrive at the public library and federated databases at universities.

    A national digital library should be a public library that caters to *all* of the public. Children, the poor, academics, and other groups shouldn’t be excluded from a national endeavor because we are afraid that they are going to be ignored. A truly national digital library would have different divisions to cater to a diverse variety of needs. Digital libraries aren’t monolithic, but a national digital library should be a monolith that partners with other libraries and has a broad mandate.

  3. @JDMLIS: An intersystem catalog and joint discovery tools and other sharing could help address your concerns. I want universal access as a goal and lots and lots of common content. But what about, say, expensive and highly specialized academic resources? How much content like this should public libraries pay for? In the other direction, do academic libraries and universities in general want to help finance digital divide-related efforts?

    The overall user bases and needs are just too different, and I am concerned about public librarians being overseen by university-oriented people more accustomed to the needs of the elite than those of ordinary Americans. The library world is too hierarchial, too status conscious, for the academics not to prevail, even with divisions in existence. Beyond that, two intertwined but separate systems would increase accountability.

    Finally, given the disgraceful salary escalation among administrators at many universities at the expense of teaching assistants and other plebes, including the students facing ever-increasing tuition, I am less than impressed by universities as bastions of democracy and social responsibility. Public libraries are not always role models in those regards, but certainly do better than academia. If you care about accessibility of popular library services and about narrowing the digital divide, please think about the dual-system approach.


    P.S. Meant to answer this earlier. Sorry for the delay.

  4. “The battle is over. Like it or not, U.S. libraries will be much more fully online in the future than they presently are…” – I have to disagree with you on this word choice, David. I know very few libraries that actively ‘fought’ moving services online. Libraries, before most, were early adopters of online systems and were innovating before becoming swept into the Web tidal wave with the rest of the world.

    The reality is that the library of the future already is and will continue to be a hybrid: living in brick-n-mortar as well as online spaces. The best libraries in our industry show that they understand the need to deliver a fully-blended experience for their customers, and are actively continuing to develop the ways they can respond and even ANTICIPATE future needs: through resources, programs, community support, and best-of-breed services.

    Now in terms of DPLA: in my opinion – what a national DPLA really needs to offer is cost-effective resources and online tools in innovative ways that can be utilized flexibly by ALL types of community-anchored libraries. Many state libraries and other central library service agencies/organizations already are well positioned to leverage their relationships with these multi-type libraries, in support of emerging tools/systems/online services that could be developed by DPLA.

  5. @Jim: Nice hearing from you. I agree that some librarians have shown much foresight, but having tracked these issues for two decades, I can also remember the days when few in the profession could envision the huge popularity of e-books. Networked online catalogs were amazing enough. And even today, although recent library school grads are more tech-hip than before, the library world abounds with well-meaning people like Front Line Librarian who seem to have mixed feelings about technology. Meanwhile as shown in the latest LibraryCity post, e-book demand is racing ahead of supply. It’s bad today in places like Washington, DC, and will be much worse elsewhere than it is now, as more Americans take up e-reading. E is the future—that battle is over, whether or not certain librarians recognize this. The issue is how to adapt.

    E-books are disrupting existing business models, and unless public libraries band together with their own system with their own priorities, they may lose bargaining power with content providers and others. Even terrific state library organizations like Colorado’s can do only so much by themselves. I am all in favor of public libraries at all levels working closely with and sharing in countless ways with the DPLA and vice versa. But for maximum leverage, including purchasing power, they really need a separate national system—not just the ability to blend services from the DPLA and other sources. If nothing else, consider that not all state library organizations are blessed with the same resources that Colorado’s enjoys.

    Regarding the need for both virtual and brick & mortar, I couldn’t agree more. I have already addressed that in such posts as the approving one on “social worker librarians.”

    Best wishes for the New Year.


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