Can you really Google your way out of poverty—no small issue when 146 million Americans are poor or at least in the “low income” category?
The Digital Public Library of America isn’t saying that, but so far, the DPLA has shown more interest in upper-level academic needs, such as better-than-Google reference tools, than in libraries as poverty fighters and life-improvers in general. The good news is that the DPLA is still in flux and has drawn some dedicated and well-meaning librarians into the fold. Moreover, Steering Committee Chair John Palfrey has a new incarnation ahead at a prep school, raising the possibility that the DPLA may become more sensitive to the needs of K-12 education even if one would never confuse Phillips Academy with the typical American high school.
With the non-elite in mind, let me provide him and the DPLA’s other well-meaning people with ammunition in the form of a stunningly negative example of the risk of over-reliance on tech and insufficient interest in the people using it.
A freelance Forbes blogger named Gene Marks (photo) has sparked a firestorm of outrage over a post headlined If I Were a Poor Black Kid. He does mention non-silicon beings such as guidance counselors but blithely writes how he’d “become an expert in Google Scholar” and an eager user of Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg, among others. Problem is, how many low-income kids even know of the existence of Google Scholar? And countless other issues abound such as lack of constructive pressure from peers and parents. Simply put, kids need tools and inspiration and the resultant motivation
This is why I believe that the DPLA should not only address upper-level academic needs (essential!) but also work closely with local public libraries and schools and family literacy programs and systematically study such issues as the best e-book apps and hardware for early childhood education, as well as the popularization of traditional family literacy in the Internet era. Beyond the DPLA’s current resources and perhaps even the contemplated ones? Of course. But if the organization is calling itself the Digital Public Library of America, then it needs to think and act accordingly, striking alliances along the way to spread the work around. The inclusion of some good public librarians in the the DPLA’s Audience and Participation Workstream is progress. But at least as of now, the priorities of the DPLA’s tech side are still heavily weighted toward scholars, metadata nerds, and other library techies and not enough toward general societal needs. See why I think the DPLA should study Marks’s post for how-not-to purposes?
Point by point, I could rebut Marks’s misconceptions. If appropriate hardware and adequate connectivity were not major issues for the poor—he tries to downplay them both—then why would lines at public libraries be so long for Internet-connected computers? Rather than go on, however, let me point you to some excellent rebuttals from Meg McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates at TheAtlantic.com, Senior Editor Cord Jefferson at Good Magaine’s Web site, and Forbes Staff Writer Kashmir Hill. Especially I would call attention to Ms. Hill’s statement that "Marks’s current piece would have been far less offensive had it not been about race, if it had instead been framed as a piece about poor kids in terrible schools and the resources on the Internet they can use to supplement their educations (assuming they have high-speed Internet access)." Such tools exist. But we need more of them and improvements, as well as related initiatives to help educate local librarians and educators and literacy volunteers in the best use of them in the era of e-books and Wikis. A national digital literacy corps, already proposed by some, might also help, and perhaps a connection with it could exist for the DPLA.
Through encouragement, content, templates for local action, precisely targeted grants, and in countless other ways, DPLA-style efforts potentially have a valuable role to play here in ways beyond sheer tech. Gene Marks is not totally wrong, but he is rather myopic. The DPLA mustn’t repeat his mistake if it wants to be optimally fundable and useful as a tool of mass enlightenment. Improved education is a long-term solution as a poverty-reducer, not an instant panacea, but of all of the DPLA’s possible priorities, this could well be the most important.
Related past posts: The nuts and bolts of using tablet computers, e-libraries, and family literacy initiatives to encourage young children to read; How a national digital library system could help promote early childhood learning—and academic and vocational success later on; More ammunition? Thanks, Messrs. Kristoff and Friedman; The frugality factor; and The connection between access to books and student achievement. Also see It’s time for a National Digital Library System. But it can’t serve only elites in the Chronicle of Higher Education.