If anyone ought to be pro-public library, it’s the comedian Bill Maher, the scourge of know-nothing politicians.
Maher favors social mobility, smarter voting, and the rest, correct? And aren’t public libraries a path to mass enlightenment, especially for people long out of school? What better recruit than Maher for a local Friends of the Library?
Wrong. Listen to this YouTube where Maher says—in all seriousness as far as a Los Angeles librarian and I can determine from the video: “We have the Internet. We don’t need a library at all.” I can’t quite make out every word in the YouTube, given the overlapping dialogue between Maher and Penn Jillette, the libertarian comedian; but apparently the former said: “I don’t know anybody who’s gone to a public library since 1998.” Talk about a gap between the haves and the have-nots! Maher in this case might as well be Donald Trump.
In fact, even The Donald might be smarter on the issue than Maher is. Bill Buckley certainly was in writing two “On the Right” columns in favor of a 1990s version of my national digital library proposal. Time for Maher to catch up with the writings of Andrew Carnegie, the old robber baron who, remembering his days in a bobbin factory, doubled as the patron saint of American libraries? Maher shows how out of touch our country’s pampered elite is. He’s in the best tradition of the FDR-era pollster who, relying on telephone directories and car registries to forecast the election for Literary Digest, forgot that the related technology was far, far from universal.
Maher’s comments matter a lot in light of the “Public” in the name of the “Digital Public Library of America.” America has its share of rich, lucky, overpaid people who, even if they have not spoken up, would love to see public libraries abolished or severely trimmed to lower taxes. By insisting so far on the use of the P, the DPLA risks jeopardizing the branding and franchise of actual brick-and-mortar public libraries at this crucial time, just as the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and others worry. One thinks of the recent talk of a library branch in Balboa, California, being possibly replaced with a community center and an “Internet Library” consisting of little more than computers. Forget about in-person help from a full crew of caring librarians or about the social-worker aspects of the profession.
I’m all in favor of a well-stocked national public digital library system, carefully integrated with school and local public libraries, which, even in the Internet era, should continue to exist as, for example, safe places where children can do their homework—and as centers for civic discussion and other community activities benefitting from proximity to librarians. But even a genuine public system at the national level should leave the words “public library” to the traditional brick-and-mortar versions, lest the Mahers and libertarians like Jillette think that tax-funded local public libraries can be replaced. And no, Penn, private funding isn’t the full solution—not when America’s billionaires have been so stingy with money for actual content. Far better to spend the money on bribing Congress, eh?
The best solution for public libraries would be public funding with, of course, acceptance of private funding when it was available. But don’t count on it.
In a related vein…
Given the clearly diverging interests and economic conditions of the haves and have-nots, I would encourage the DPLA to show more social-mindedness than Maher did. It should work toward two separate digital systems—one public and one academic, with a COSLA-type library group or someone else from the public library world running the former. The DPLA and Harvard, its organizational host, could and should help the national public library system get started. But the DPLA should not preempt or subsume the public digital system, especially since public libraries need help now, while elite academics can afford to be a bit more leisurely.
E-book downloads for the public library in Brookline, Massachusetts, not that far from Harvard, increased 400 percent from September 2009 to September 2010, and meanwhile public libraries are entrusting their books to companies like Amazon, OverDrive and 3M despite the complications this could bring in the future—whether the issue is overpriced e-books or privacy for readers. Alas, one DPLA steering member, Charles J. Henry, has even been quoted as saying that the term “library” is a misnomer in the DPLA’s case since “it wouldn’t own anything.” If accurate, that’s certainly at odds with my own hopes for the DPLA—that it will work toward a two-system approach, with a common technical organization to address issues such as servers for hosting books and to deal with access issues such as hardware and connectivity. Meanwhile, both independently and separately, the two library systems could obtain books at lower prices for local systems and enjoy far more leverage with publishers and other content providers than they can with the present system dominated by OverDrives and the like. (Local libraries could still buy books independently, of course, rather than rely on bulk procurement.) Along the way, the public system could focus on such issues as digital family literacy, while the academic side dealt with the needs of major research institutions and the Ph.D.s working there. All Americans could still access the National Digital Library (Public) or the Scholarly Digital Library of America (academic), both directly and through local libraries.
The good news is that it is not too late for the DPLA, meeting in Washington tomorrow, to reorganize in accordance with the above. Today John Palfrey, chair of the DPLA Steering Committee shared the goals-and-functions question—among others—with the organization’s e-mail list: “Are we just adopting common standards or are we building a full system of some sort…?” In terms of infrastructure, especially, the answer should be “full system.” Use contractors if need be to get the system built. Just don’t delay; and let the contractors serve public libraries rather than vice versa; don’t demote libraries to mere corporate affiliates. Otherwise, with profit-driven corporations so eager to take over library functions, public libraries will matter less and less. And, more and more, people will ask, “Why mess with a public library when I can get my books now from Amazon or whatever?” In many if not most cases, I’d love to see Bill Maher’s wishes prevail. But definitely not here! Hey, Bill, I like your work as a whole when I get a chance to tune in. Care to recant what I hope was just a momentary lapse?
- Smug about OverDrive? A whopping 39 percent of U.S. public libraries don’t offer downloadable e-books. Does D.C. care? E-textbooks are no substitute, Mr. President
- “Newport Beach may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library”: Many are shunning books. How to restore their popularity—and protect the public library model?
- Jim Duncan, Colorado Library Consortium executive director, speaks out in LibraryCity series on public libraries and the Digital Public Library of America
- Well-stocked national digital library systems, please, Mr. Clinton—not a ‘Ministry of Truth’ or other police agency
- On gadgets and gumption and a Forbes blogger’s myopia: You can’t just Google your way out of poverty. Lesson for the DPLA here?