Update, December 3: My defense of the Gates survey against a Southern librarian’s thoughtful criticism of it.
In an even more wired future, what will be the needs of public libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere? Just what’s the role of libraries if “a person can access much of the information in the world from a device”? How to bring about the right kind of “lasting changes”?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries Initiative is asking some well-crafted questions of this kind in a survey that I’d urge you to fill out.
A big conundrum for present and future libraries is, how to pay for content? The Net teems with free facts, raw information, as well as public domain and Creative Commons-licensed books and ad-supported content. But all too often, without our public libraries truly going online, readers will still suffer the torturesome and tortuous constraints of copyright law in the States and other countries.
Here’s an example of the good that the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies could do for libraries online and the rest of us while respecting copyright and still supporting physical libraries.
In June 1997 I suggested that Bill Gates turn The Great Gatsby and other masterpieces loose on the Net by paying their owners fair compensation. It made sense. Gatsby was his favorite book—it remains mine and perhaps Gates still feels the same—and he even owned several rare editions. But how to share his enthusiasm in countries where the book is still under copyright? Published in 1925, Gatsby will be locked up until January 1, 2021. The magic date is less than a decade away, meaning that Gates would enjoy extra bargaining power with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descendants and anyone else involved; but with so many dollars from media and entertainment companies flowing toward Capitol Hill, we just might see copyright terms extended in the future. Buying up Gatsby and other greats would be one way of coping with the realities of the here and now, in legal ways, whether not billionaires like Bill Gates can afford to subsidize everything (no, even they can’t). And don’t let anyone argue: “Next thing you know, they’ll use Gatsby and other classics to sell shaving cream.” Gatsby-level literature will thrive with the extra exposure.
Time, then, for the Gates Foundation to think about all the potential here? For that matter, I’d love to see the foundation aggressively encourage others to do the same. Gluejar/Unglue.it, run by accomplished technical people and content experts with whom Foundation Co-chairs Bill and Melinda Gates might well click, now exists to buy up rights with the needs of both libraries and book-lovers in mind. While Gluejar appeals primarily to the masses for donations, I hardly doubt that it or another content-oriented nonprofit would reject money from the Gates Foundation.
Needless to say, at a more cosmic level, I also would like to see the foundation help finance the creation of two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems, one public and one academic—which could happen via the Digital Public Library of America initiative, which has already drawn some interest from the foundation. The two systems could share a common technical services organization that addressed training, accessibility and digital divide issues, building on the good work of the Gates-funded Web Junction and maybe even incorporating that organization; and much and perhaps even most of the content would overlap. The DPLA is a great starting point, just so we understand there really should be two systems in the end, given the differing needs of users. For instance, I can envision the national public system serving local library systems and schools through the establishment and support of family literacy programs to help Americans enjoy and absorb library material regardless of the business models used. The same dual-system approach could work not just here but also in many other countries.
This and related issues should transcend ideology. In an “On the Right” column in 1993, my political opposite William F. Buckley Jr. even urged Gates to buy my TeleRead national digital library plan for $1 and “make a gift of it to the American people” (a more recent version of the plan is online via the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the LibraryCity site includes other updates of the much-evolved original). Like others, WFB recommended Andrew Carnegie as a role model for Gates. Actually he wrote two columns on behalf of my proposal; and the DPLA, originated at Harvard and supported by a number of important policymakers in government and the library world, is a way for his hopes to become a reality. Instead of competing with the DPLA, Gates should combine forces. Not that the TeleRead vision ever was for sale for the DPLA’s use or others’, but I’ll cut the price to a penny. Fair enough?
In an era when “digital library system” can mean a lot more than books alone, however, let’s not allow Gatsby and other important works to be lost in the shuffle. This is no small detail. Over the years the Gates Foundation has been far more interested in helping to wire up schools and libraries and in developing library leaders than in helping to arrange for sizable and sustainable financing of library e-books and other content. We should be grateful to Bill and Melinda Gates for the many millions spent in the former two ways, as well as for the billions for fighting AIDS and other scourges—a far, far cry from the time when just a minuscule speck of the Gates’ wealth was going for charity. But, Bill, I’m not going to forget the content-related suggestions I made for you in the 1990s, including the Gatsby one. In fact, the need for e-content for libraries is a zillion times greater, now that e-books are for Kindles and Nooks and cellphones, not just fuzzy-screened PCs and PDAs. Just look at this Kansas newspaper clip and a Washington Post article, as well as Pew research showing that more than a fifth of U.S. adults read an e-book in the past year, but that three-fifths of library cardholders don’t know that libraries can loan out E. What happens when still more people learn of the possibilities here, especially with e-books taking over so much of the publishing industry? Will Bill and Melinda Gates care enough to do more than the foundation is now (ideally by way of serious financing of both an academic digital library system and a public one, with sizable endowments and grants for procurement, creation and curation of content, as well as related access issues)? I’d hope so. Significantly, traditional literacy boosts health literacy, and vice versa, so, in helping the world’s libraries more than he is doing now, Gates would also aid his health efforts.
Granted, Bill Gates very possibly thinks of Microsoft as partly a content provider, and maybe he wonders how appropriate it would have been for Andrew Carnegie to give away steel. But he is 57 years old now; so, beyond citing the demand that better-stocked digital libraries would help create for Microsoft tablets among others, I’ll remind him of his legacy. Isn’t Carnegie’s library-related charity one of the main reasons we remember him but not the typical mogul of his era? And while the Gates family’s other donations are laudable, wouldn’t his imprint on American life and the national memory be greater if he generously funded the DPLA and related efforts and finally gave us the full digital library capabilities we were expecting when the press hailed him as a new Carnegie? The old issues from the ‘90s more than simply abide; and, if nothing else, let’s not forget how Gatsby ends.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Update, 10 a.m., December 3: I’ve expanded the end of this post and made additional refinements. Meanwhile I’m pleased to see librarians and others tweeting the link to the commentary (http://librarycity.org/?p=6256) and also mentioning it on Facebook and LinkedIn. Within the next few weeks, it will appear in LLRX, an online magazine published by Sabrina Pacifici, a veteran special-librarian honored by Library Journal as a Mover and Shaker.
Update, 1:33 a.m., December 4: I added mention of the connection between traditional literacy and the health-related kind. The more easily the world’s people can understand health information, the more likely they are to follow the advice of health workers. What’s more, greater mass-literacy means more prosperity, which in turn means more resources for health. In the other direction, of course, healthier people end up as better learners.