Not enough library e-books to feed your new gadget properly? Well-stocked national digital library systems could help

By David H. Rothman, Published on January 19, 2013

newspaper graphic If you can’t find the right library e-books for your new Kindle, Nook, iPad or other gizmo, you’re not alone.

More than 100 patrons of the District of Columbia Public Library were lined up electronically [on December 31, 2012] for 10 e-book copies of The Racketeer, John Grisham's new novel about the murder of a federal judge. Some 400+ D.C. library users awaited 60 electronic copies of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the best-selling fiction title on the New York Times list. And a digital version of The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, was not even in the catalog of the D.C. public library system.

library graphic Could a well-stocked national digital library system--in fact, two of them, one public, one academic--be a solution for Washingtonians and others?

My political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote two "On the Right" column in favor of the idea in the 1990s. President Obama and Congress should catch up with WFB. I myself have been on the case for the past two decades.

The national digital library issue, a K-12, jobs and poverty issue in disguise, merits at least a brief mention and ideally more in the State of the Union address. No question about the need. Washington library patrons are hardly alone in their plight, as shown by similar statistics from some other major library systems and by recent coverage on National Public Radio, where, among other things, you'll find that Random House can charge a library $100 to license a new e-copy (see Library Journal for yet more details).

At the same time the Pew Foundation Internet and American Life Project says that "in the past year the number of those who read e-books increased from 16 percent of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23 percent." Coincidentally or not, Pew says "the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72 percent of the population ages 16 and older to 67 percent."

worldreader.org graphic The e-library issue goes far beyond bestsellers and other entertainment. A relationship exists between children's academic achievements and the number of books they can enjoy at home, and potentially e-books could be huge encouragers of family literacy. One of the best ways to get students reading is for their mothers and fathers to act as role models, even if parents' books are about their own diverse interests rather than their children's. (Yes, more e-books of appeal to low-income people and members of minorities would help.)

With colorful pop-up art and other treats, paper books can be a great way to turn toddlers in time into readers. But when it comes to slashing costs and increasing availability of titles matching K-12 students' precise interests, nothing beats the possibilities of e-books. The technology is only going to get cheaper and better, as shown by Worldreader's successful use of Kindle E Ink machines in schools in the African bush (above image). Kindles once were $399 luxuries. Now they go for as little as $69 retail and eventually, I suspect, will cost a fraction of that.

Publishing is a conservative industry, and many tradition-bound publishers still don't understand that e-books can make public libraries far more of a financial opportunity. An analyst for Bernstein Research has determined that 40 percent of Americans lack disposable income after paying for necessaries. We need for as many books as possible to be free or at least irresistibly affordable. Current business models for book publishers deserve reexamination. Of the $2,700 that the average American household spends annually on entertainment, according to Department of Labor statistics reproduced by Visual Economics, just $118 goes for books and other reading. That's a disgraceful .2 percent of "U.S. Consumer Unit Expenditures" excluding taxes. Ever-more restrictive copyright laws and stricter technological controls on e-book use--when even now you typically can't legally pass on copy-"protected" digital books to your children--would backfire and make books even less competitive financially against movies and computer games.

Society and the industry alike need a new and better approach, then, especially with so many publishers under siege. Hello, former Congressman Tom Allen (president and CEO at the Association of American Publishers and an ex-Rhodes Scholar as well as a Harvard Law graduate)? Maybe your New Year's resolution should be to convince publishers to spend a little less time on copyright fights with libraries and a lot more time working with them toward well-funded national digital libraries, with, of course, fair compensation for writers, publishers and other professional content creators. Ideally the military-industrial complex will inspire the creation of a publisher-library complex.

Allen's bio page on the site mentions the AAP's mission as "protecting copyright" and helping publishers "meet 21st-century challenges." But regardless of copyright's importance--I, too, am a believer--mightn't the second mission count even more?

Does the AAP care more about publisher-perfect copyright law or the prosperity of its members? And what about Allen's description of himself as "passionate about books and reading my whole life"? A publisher-library complex--and, yes, I would expect compromise from the library community, too--would not only enrich his members but also help him share The Love.

Some related ideas:

Even the best-stocked national digital library systems aren't necessarily going to propel you to the top of the list for a free loan of the latest Grisham, but whether the cause is education, family literacy, or preservation of books as an important medium in our culture, digital libraries could be a life-improver for many and help ailing publishers along the way.

Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission, from his blog, Library City.