Digital library race: Education, ‘October Sky,’ and the Sputnik factor

Digital library race ahead?

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik—setting off the space race.

Most of the action, though, happened back on Planet Earth. American scientists and politicians saw Russia’s triumph as a sign of a less-than-perfect educational system in the U.S. Why weren’t we first?

The movie October Sky, although filmed decades later, vividly conveys the urgency that so many citizens felt after hearing Sputnik beeping away on the radio.

In a grimy West Virginia coal town, a small band of high school students shot model rockets into the sky. Along the way Homer Hickam (photo) and friends studied the accompanying math and other disciplines, aided in part by a school librarian who ordered a book on rocket design.

Clearly the real race was not in space but in schoolrooms and libraries—the enablers of knowledge, culture, technology and so much else.

Why, then, should the United States end up behind other countries, many of which care endlessly more about national digital library systems? Our Library of Congress has digitized books and many other items, but these collections are tiny compared to the possibilities seen elsewhere. More importantly, they are not an integral part of our schools and libraries, with all teachers and students systematically prepared to find and absorb them.

imageThat is a crucial component of the LibraryCity vision for a universal digital library system for all Americans. Technology and the proper pedagogy could promote knowledge, literacy and cultures at different levels and make a wide variety of e-textbooks and countless other kinds of items available to future Hickams living in the middle of nowhere. If nothing else, the numbers argue for this approach. According to the latest estimates, America’s population is now about 312 million, just a fraction of China’s 1.34 billion. If long term we’re to stay ahead in areas such as technology, that makes it all the more essential to tap the brains of our Homer Hickams, not just the children of the American elite. Hickam himself, in fact, went on to become a rocket scientist with NASA.

I know: electronic libraries can transcend national borders far, far more easily than the physical libraries can, and as author of a proposal for an electronic peace corps, I’m hardly against America’s sharing knowledge with others. Despite the headline in this post and a recent New York Times article, I do have some reservations against the use of a term like “digital library race” regardless of its crowd-pleasing potential. Libraries and universities at their best are inherently places of cooperation, no matter what the geography. If you survive because of a Beijing genius’s miracle cure for cancer, just how much time will you spend fretting that it came from overseas and worsened our balance of payments?

But our first responsibility should be to American citizens—hence, the need to integrate a national digital library system with existing U.S. institutions, not just let individuals here and elsewhere access the library directly, even though we should encourage that, too (within the limits of, say, copyright laws). Our schools should teach the library system. Teachers and librarians should teach the system to students and learn from them as well, given the impossibility of immediate and full mastery of all of the system’s facets.  We can’t just reinvent American schools by encouraging the creation of larger or smaller institutions or tweaking their business models or formulas for teacher compensation or fixating on test scores. Rather we should also expand the range of books and other items meeting students’ exact needs and interests and urge them to follow their passions to the fullest, just as Homer Hickam and friends did in the October Sky movie (inspired by his book Rocket Boys). In the LibraryCity vision, this should be far from the only goal of a well-stocked national library system, but it should be the main one, since, as I’ve often noted, even high-level research institutions are working with the products of American high schools.

With so many overseas graduate students returning in time to their native countries, rather than staying in the States—and with so many others starting to receive first-class educations at home—the U.S. cannot forever rely on imported brains. No xenophobia, of course; I’m all in favor of an open door for the world’s talent. But we must not neglect our Hickams. A genuinely public and well-stocked national digital library system and the accompanying support—everything from teacher and librarian training to cheaper and better broadband connectivity and the popularization of appropriate hardware fit for reading and other good uses—could help immeasurably.

Recommended reading: How E-Books Could Smarten Up Kids and Stretch Library Dollars: A National Plan in the Huffington Post, A National Information Stimulus plan: How iPad-style Tablets Could Educate Millions and Trim Bureaucracy and Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System on the Atlantic’s Web site, and Playing Catch-Up in a Digital Library Race in the New York Times.

How you can help: Write essays for this site on the need for a well-stocked national digital library system. And speak up to congress members and other policymakers, regardless of parties. This is a nonpartisan idea that the late William F. Buckley Jr., my political opposite, talked up in two columns.

Details: (1) While the Sputnik comparison has been on my mind from the start, I’m not certain if I used it before James Fallows did in his introduction to one of my essays on the Atlantic site. (2) I'd hope that Homer Hickam would like the idea of a well-stocked national digital library system, but I don’t know his opinion on the issue. He is in no way connected with the LibraryCity site. Still, as I see it, his "rocket boys" experience is a good example of the desirability of providing the e-books and other digital content (including the interactive variety) that American students need to follow their passions all the way and fully develop their talents.

Correction, Jan. 15, 2011: I’ve fixed an error in Sputnik’s launch date. Ouch. There’s a reason why the movie is called October Sky.

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