Dwarf-sized public e-libraries vs. abundance: Listen to veteran publishing guru Brian O’Leary and librarian Sarah Houghton

bexarcountyPeople in Bexar County, Texas, should be excited about the 10,000-e-book “BiblioTech” library system that the country is starting from scratch—without paper books.

This is reportedly the first U.S. public library system to shun paper, cardboard and ink, except for computer printouts.

Any books are better than none, and besides, the 10K figure encompasses only copyrighted books, not the tens of thousands of free classics that library patrons will be able to read electronically. What’s more, Bexar will add to the 10,000. County Judge Nelson W. Wolff, the main brain behind the plan, deserves praise for his open-mindedness about e-books, their cost-saving potential and other advantages. Many people, especially dyslectic Americans and especially senior citizens in need of large “print,” are starting to prefer E. As a babyboomer, I do. My sister is a retired teacher and likewise reads faster in E. The technology is good now and will only get better for all ages. Nice going, Judge.

Judge Wolff and other Bexar Countians, however, should look beyond the current vision of a library branch whose possible appearance brings to mind an Apple Store. Even with many more e-books added, 10,000 will still be a dwarf-sized library compared to the possibilities beyond physical walls.

NelsonWolffHowever modern is the planned library, it is no replacement for two well-stocked and tightly intertwined national digital library systems, one public and one academic, serving up more books than Google and Amazon combined. A mere dream? Not necessarily—if policymakers, publishers, writers, literary agents and others in the content industries can work toward the creation of Library-Publisher Complex, efficient and taxpayer-sensitive. Most American adults own library cards. The political muscle will be there to grow library appropriations at all levels of government; and we can help fill in the gaps through philanthropy, subscription plans with special breaks for the poor, and other means. The key is to get librarians and content-providers in sync for library users to enjoy a cornucopia of e-books and additional items matching their needs and interests—so, so important to K-12 students and their role models, their parents. Ten thousand books is far from a total disaster for a local branch, real or virtual; but remember that among the AWOL books will be many bestsellers and other titles that the children and their parents are most eager to read. Here’s to family literacy campaigns, including early-childhood efforts, among the best re-enforcers of K-12-related literacy!

With the above in mind, Bexar County people should also read the writings of a Harvard MBA named Brian O’Leary, a distinguished publishing industry expert, as well as the comments of Sarah Houghton, a librarian in San Rafael, California, who understandably worries about the number of bestsellers and other e-books available to public libraries, in addition to related restrictions. The headline over a just-published O’Leary piece says it all: “(Market) Size matters. The biggest threat to publishing: people not reading.” Also extra-worthy of your time would be a 2011 post from him, The opportunity in abundance.

Like Brian O’Leary, I don’t mean abundance by expecting publishers to give away their wares to libraries for free. Via the economies of scale, we could make them better off while at the same time driving down costs to the public.

Not that e-books are an instant panacea. As Sarah Houghton has noted in an NPR interview and as I myself would recognize, not everyone today would favor E; and if nothing else, what about young toddlers who may take better to the paper variety initially? Not to mention other factors. I don’t want a library looking like an Apple store. I’d like it to be full of comfy chairs of all kinds and make young people, especially, feel welcome. No small issue. But, yes, just as Sarah has said, issue number #1 is content. Dwarf-sized digital public libraries—the result of excessive vendor domination of the e-library world, as well as too much fixation at the local level on Everything Invented and Done Here—are not what we need to help keep the United States competitive in the 21st century. Local libraries, even with a national approach, could still exercise independence by way of the content they most prominently played up on their Web sites and in in-person programming. Let national empower local! Let San Antonio-area schoolchildren and their parents enjoy access to virtually every book written on the Alamo, as well as related material from historical societies and universities there and in other locations.

Besides the content issue, I also wonder if the forthcoming Bexar e-library will offer enough desktop computers and borrowable e-book readers to accommodate peak usage. A county news release mentions plans for “100 e-readers for circulation, 50 pre-loaded enhanced ereaders for children, 50 computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets to use on site; additional e-reading accommodations will be made for the visually impaired.” Enough if this library system really catches on? This is one reason why I favor a separate public digital system at the national level, since academics don’t fret as much over digital divide issues and the availability of the right hardware and technical support. I also advocate cost-savings through libararies’ buyout of OverDrive, the main e-book supplier for libraries—perhaps a purchase through philanthropic contributions via the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America initiative.

Of course, libraries are about a lot more than books and gadgets, and for a general overview of the possibilities, Bexar Countians might also check out It’s time for a National Digital Library System. But it can’t serve only the elites, commentary in the February 24, 2011, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yes, not just the elites! Bexar Countians’ per capita income as of the 2000 census was just $18,363, and even more than a decade later, I doubt that it is in the same league as, say, Beverly Hill’s or that of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well-stocked national digital library systems could help rich and poor areas alike but be especially beneficial to places like Bexar and the state of Texas as a whole. In fiscal year 2009, according to a report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Texas spent $2.61 per capita operating expenses on books and other items, compared to an also-stingy $4.41 for America as a whole. Properly thought out, national digital library systems could go a long way toward narrowing the gap.

This is a cause dear to me. I’ve been on the national digital library cause for two decades and am endlessly thrilled to see County Judge Wolff sharing my passion for E even if I’m hoping for some tweaks in his plan (from afar he strikes me as the kind of fellow who would be reasonable on such issues as paper books for, say, those toddlers who respond best to them). Recognizing the potential of libraries as cost-effective life-enrichers—in line with Andrew Carnegie’s vision—William F. Buckley Jr. wrote two “On the Right columns” in the 1990s for the national digital library vision. Time for President Obama to catch up in a serious way and include the digital library issue in his 2013 State of the Union Address?

Meanwhile my message to Judge Wolff and Bexar County is this:

Enjoy your spiffy new e-library when it’s done, but push the White House and Congress to take a little time off from Fiscal Cliffing and aim for a truly strategic vision for U.S. libraries. Think of this as an existential issue like national security, in fact a form of it. If we want to call the enabling legislation The National Defense Digital Library Act, that’s fine by me. Just get it passed!

Detail: Sarah would really like Bexar to wait another decade or so. I myself see the virtues of experimentation as long as ample provisions are made for paper book stalwarts. I wonder if people in the new all-E library will be able to order pulped-wood loaners from afar. But that still isn’t the same as having them on the shelves—or low tables—for toddlers to play with.

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on “Dwarf-sized public e-libraries vs. abundance: Listen to veteran publishing guru Brian O’Leary and librarian Sarah Houghton
One Comment on “Dwarf-sized public e-libraries vs. abundance: Listen to veteran publishing guru Brian O’Leary and librarian Sarah Houghton
  1. Pingback: Reading about eReading this week 1/28/2013 « Allegany County Library System Director's Notes

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