K-12 led my list of priorities in the 1990s for a well-stocked national digital library system blended in with local schools and libraries.
Along the way, I suggested that Washington nudge Silicon Valley to come up with affordable iPad-style devices with high-resolution color screens and multimedia capabilities.
Originally called TeleRead, this vision has evolved since my 1992 Computerworld article, but a major constant has remained, among others--the need to make it affordable, easy, and enticing for K-12 students and their parents to read books. That must have been on Al Gore's mind, too, when he called for the digitization of the Library of Congress.
Now let's see if the following language jibes at least somewhat with the above. "So what we're going to be able to do is to get companies to compete to create affordable digital devices designed specifically to these new connected classrooms. I want to see a tablet that's the same price as a textbook. I want to see more apps that can be instantly updated with academic content the day it's available, so you don't have old, outdated textbooks with student names still in them from years ago."
President Obama spoke those words in a speech June 6 in Mooresville, North Carolina. Ideally now, he and others in his administration will appreciate other components of the original TeleRead vision. Specifically, American libraries should do more to meet the digital content needs not just of K-12 students but also of their parents and other Americans.
For now, public library spending for both digital and paper content is pathetic--just $1.3 billion a year, which, per capita, means no more than the cost of a somewhat upscale hamburger, or around $4.22 at last count. We shouldn't replace brick-and-mortar libraries in our efforts to make scarce dollars go further. Rather we should empower libraries and their patrons with two tightly intertwined but separate national digital library systems, one public, one academic, since the content requirements of upper-level researchers diverge so much from those of Americans at large. The purchase of OverDrive, the leading e-book supplier for schools and libraries, would be a good start.
A national digital library endowment could help pay for this and help provide libraries with the funding they needed for fair treatment of writers, publishers and other providers of content. To avoid competing constantly with local library foundations, the endowment could focus on wooing super-wealthy donors such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Let's not expect even billionaires to pay for everything. But with net worths greater than those of the bottom tens of millions of Americans, they could finance plenty. The endowment would fit in well with the pledge of Gates and dozens of other wealthy people to eventually give away at least half their wealth to charity.
Other revenue sources for the two national digital library systems in time might range from a small telecommunications tax to a subscription plan with a tax check-off for Americans wanting immediate digital access to popular library books rather than waiting in an electronic line as is the case now. Hate additional taxes of any kind? Well, that's a matter to be debated down the road if need be. The endowment without taxes, or the without the voluntary subscription service, would still be an improvement over the status quo. The idea of philanthropy financing libraries goes back to the days of Andrew Carnegie and perhaps earlier; and a coordinated national approach would be better than disjointed efforts going off in a million and one directions--given the efficiencies, exponentially greater book choices, and other advantages.
Income could also originate from a percentage of book sales resulting from links on library sites to commercial e-bookstores. Money, too, at least in the case of local library systems with a strong interest in e-books, could come from spending diverted from paper books.
We need both electronic and paper books, of course, especially for toddlers learning to read. But e-books and other digital content would be a cost-effective way to enrich the American home intellectually, given the reduced costs of distribution. Research studies indicate a connection between access to books and children's academic success, and that the mere presence of books can help, not just the socioeconomic standings of the mothers and fathers. No panaceas here, of course. We'll still need caring parents and teachers to inspire and guide and use dinner-time conservation, posters and other techniques to keep e-books on young people's minds. But does it not follow that we can better encourage children to read if they benefit from a wide range of titles reflecting their needs and interests? That is true whether or not you agree with the core curriculum goals adopted by most states.
In a related vein, as the TeleRead site envisioned from the start, we need a true family-literacy approach for the digital transition, keeping in mind that parents are children's primarily role models. "Family" includes single-parent households, by the way, and if anything, fatherless homes need e-books more, given the difficulty that many tired mothers have in taking their daughters and sons to the library after work. E-books are no substitute for visits to libraries for story-telling hours and much else. But they are better than nothing at all, especially if libraries can teach parents how to teach their children to be better readers, whatever the medium. This could happen both in person and through videos, with special emphasis placed on encouraging fathers to participate, particularly considering the results of a recent UK study. Let's not fixate just on the classroom. Much and perhaps most learning takes place at home, one reason I'm pleased to see the Obama administration so gung ho on broadband for all despite the current emphasis on the K-12 variety.
Not that the parents are the only ones in need of help. A national professional development program--part of the national public system--could teach librarians to deal with the e-books and other technology. Provide libraries with the means to buy e-book-capable machines for the librarians to use personally, just as The Annoyed Librarian, a Library Journal blogger, suggested recently. Possible for all libraries? Maybe not, but ideally at least the poorer districts should get some meaningful federal assistance beyond present levels. I simply will not buy excuse of some librarians that they are not in the IT business. If e-books are too complicated, then national digital libraries with a seamless ecosystem should make them easier to use (even though professional development is still a "must").
On the positive, e-books gizmos are much cheaper than when I first proposed TeleRead, and more and more low-income people and members of minority groups own smart phones and other devices that can display e-books, even if many readers would still prefer tablets and even if digital divide issues remain. Furthermore, guess who is acting in the spirit of the old TeleRead vision of the new technology as a promoter of family literacy? None other than the National PTA and Amazon, which is now sponsoring a PTA Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle--now the "Official E-reader of the National PTA."
Mind you, this is far from the optimal scenario for kids, parents, schools, and libraries. Should the PTA in certain ways function as a marketing arm for Amazon? I'd prefer that the PTA objectively evaluate a variety of e-readers rather than officially endorsing one brand, which, even with different models, might not meet the needs of all children. To give one example, Kindles cannot use the Voice Dream program. Significantly, this app can read iPad-and-iPhone books aloud and simultaneously display them in a variety of typestyles, and it can run the standard ePub format. Voice Dream is potentially a life-changer for people with dyslexia and for older Americans with failing vision. Software developers, along with K-12 and the rest of us, are caught in the middle of wars between the clashing technologies of large companies like Amazon and Apple. Voice Dream cannot read books with proprietary digital rights management schemes in place. Imagine the potential of our libraries as promoters of e-book standards rather than letting contractors call the shots!
Moreover, even if Amazon donates thousands of Kindles to low-income schools, this will be a drop in the bucket compared to actual hardware needs--the limit is apparently ten Kindles per school. Ideally the PTA can learn from the Amazon partnership, then move on to a multivendor approach in partnership with libraries. Meanwhile it should endorse the concept of a national digital library endowment and the separate public and academic systems (for which Amazon and other companies could serve as contractors).
Despite the flaws of the Amazon-PTA effort, I still love the family literacy strategy. With Kindles in households, parents can purchase e-books not only for themselves but for their children--well, within family budgets, so often stretched!--and the program is at least making polite noises about kids and parents visiting libraries and checking out paper books, too. Who cannot object to the talk of students getting library cards at an early age? Simply put, the Amazon-PTA program is better than nothing, just as indicated by statistics in the accompanying literature online:
* "One-third of public school fourth graders score below basic levels on reading exams.
* "Two-thirds of low-income families in the U.S. have no age appropriate books in their homes for children.
* "About half of parents say their child does not spend enough time reading for fun" --and e-readers have proved to be popular with many students, especially boys.
Parents can "download a set of free activities that you can use at home to help improve your child's reading fluency, comprehension, and passion"; "check out a list of the books PTA families love to read together"; and get "10 tips from the PTA to help inspire your child to read more." The program is to address areas ranging from phonological awareness to fluency and comprehension.
Regardless, this is no substitute for a full-scale, noncommercial execution of the holistic approach that LibraryCity has urged over the years, such as in a 2011 article headlined The nuts and bolts of using tablet computers, e-libraries, and family literacy initiatives to encourage young children to read.
Granted, there is the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America--valuable as the beginning of a national digital academic library. But the DPLA is a long way from a school library system or a general public library system encouraging family literacy and addressing the related digital divide issues and many others. Even when judged mainly by academic-library standards, the DPLA so far has fallen short despite its brilliant people, good intentions, and immense potential. Ideally, in co-operation with a public library organization, such as COSLA, Inc. (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies), the DPLA will fork into public and academic systems, sharing a common technical services organization and infrastructure.
Such a scenario can best happen with sufficient money materializing from the proposed national digital library endowment and other sources. Let's hope that President Obama, Congress, the FCC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the rest of Washington will care--along with Gates, Buffett, and other potential benefactors. This mustn't be a partisan or ideological issue. In fact, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the godfather of modern conservatives, was an enthusiastic TeleRead supporter in two "On the Right" columns. I can just imagine WFB giving Washington a piece of his mind.
Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission from his blog, Library City.