And, as a way of spotlighting the need for a national digital library system for all Americans, not just the affluent, I’m glad it did.
The local NAACP and others in Rockford are protesting the local library system's plans to spend about a quarter of its $1.19-million collection budget on e-books. And I can understand the anger of low-income people who fear they'll lack the resources to enjoy the digital books. Exactly! Local and national organizations should complain to the library trustees—contact information is here—before the meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Monday, January 23.
“The library would only purchase print in the event that no digital version is available for a needed item,” officials propose for the long term. Reportedly the goal would be for 95 of 100 books to be digital, and most librarians would lose their jobs.
Making 50 Kindle e-readers available by spring for loans—the solution the library system has in mind, according to a report in American Libraries—won't be enough. The number is pathetically small. About 33 percent of Rockford's 153,000 people live in poverty by one 2009 estimate, and about half the African Americans and Hispanic and Latino people there do. Rockford’s child poverty rate is said to be the highest of Illinois’s ten biggest cities. Complicating matters for low-income users is that a library patron who finally can borrow a Kindle might not be able to enjoy an e-book that he or she wants, because it, too, has people waiting for it. Depends on how many simultaneous checkouts are allowed. But that still leaves open other issues, such as the fact that some vision-impaired patrons may not find that the Kindles offer enough contrast between the background and the text. On top of that, some big publishers such as Simon & Schuster do not even let public libraries lend out their e-books.
I’m not in Rockford and don’t know all the facts there. But the envisioned 50-Kindle scenario reminds me of the current deficiencies of many American libraries, where kids from the wrong side of the tracks can enjoy only limited time on PCs. Computer lines, real or virtual, are great for making budget arguments for libraries, but they’re oh so lousy for the young people and others who depend on the machines, whether for e-books or Internet access.
Alas, Rockford's local e-book issues can't be separated from the need for a well-stocked national digital library system serving the entire country, not just the upper socio-economic groups. With all expenses considered, libraries often are paying more for each e-book than they should, and quite logically, skeptics worry about recurring costs. The best solution would be a national digital library system with enough leverage to bargain fairly but effectively with publishers while respecting traditional library values. I'd also recommend that publishers and libraries spend less time fighting the copyright wars and more time fighting for library budgets at all levels of government. The more library books and other media available via libraries, the less of a piracy problem.
For now, in Rockford's place, I would greatly increase the number of e-books purchased but not to the level now planned, considering the risks of current e-book licensing arrangements and the large number of people in the town without the financial resources or technical skills to deal with e-books.
Meanwhile, without splurging, I would cautiously experiment with used iPads, suitably configured Android tablets, or other devices that low-income people could use for many applications such as library books, early childhood education and family literacy, e-forms and interaction with social workers, healthcare providers and teachers. Cost-justify! Net video is cheap to use and endlessly more engaging than the telephone alone. I would not rely on the gadgetry to reduce traditional face-to-face contact; rather, to augment it for better results in health and other areas. What's more, librarians and teachers ideally could offer both technical support and the literacy-related kind, and local agencies, such as those providing healthcare and other services, would be suitably equipped. Early childhood education would be my favorite of all the apps—here are some specifics. Yes, all this is deep in Reinventing Government territory, but worth the time and money to try out in a small way, given the potential savings down the road. If the pilot projects worked, then taxpayers and foundations would be more open to a major expansion.
As a safer experiment, in Rockford’s place, I would at least check with an e-reader maker about buying up a number of used machines and give away as many as I could afford to low-income people. Bought in bulk, used e-readers might go for $60 or $70 each. That’s perhaps the cost of a dozen or so library checkouts.
Those are the kinds of issues I've been begging the Digital Public Library of America to take action on, either directly or through alliances with other organizations of all kinds. Unless the DPLA and others pay more attention to the needs of the nonelite, e-books will widen rather than close up the digital and academic divides. As evident in a Washington Post article, unfortunately, even affluent areas have their own e-book crises, and while U.S. libraries could show more ingenuity than they have so far, the main villains by far are in Congress and the White House. Why haven’t President Obama and others cared more about the e-library issue, which is really a K-12, poverty and jobs issue in disguise?
Meanwhile I would encourage people to read a library report from Rockford to understand the economic challenges there. I totally agree with the officials that e-books could save money. I just don’t want to see libraries downsized in ways that so directly harm low-income people and others most in need of library services.
Instead let’s reinvent libraries in ways that most efficiently serve typical citizens and in fact will greatly multiply the number of library books and other items and make family literacy more of a cause than it is in America today. Children are far, far less likely to become readers if their parents are not. I hope that Rockford officials will study LibraryCity.org and come up with imaginative new scenarios for the digital era rather than rashly stranding the people most in need of public libraries.
From the Rockford Register Star: Rockford Public Library fans uneasy about digital shift and Rockford Public Library’s digital strategy defended. Also see other items via Google as well as commentary in the Rock River Times from a library user distressed that the Rockford library system did not sound out the public sufficiently. And last but not least—the Save Our Rockford Library blog.
- E-book strategies for Rockford, Illinois: LibraryCity’s guest column in local daily
- With so many U.S. kids in poverty, a national digital library and hardware program could be a godsend for children’s e-book publishers
- Penguin ditches OverDrive’s public library side: Another reason for libraries to take over the distributor and gain more clout
- U.K.’s planned library closings show risk of NOT digitizing U.S. libraries
- 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