The First iPad User: Will President Obama work toward a truly public national digital library system, full of e-books and other goodies for K-12 and many other purposes?

imageAt TheAtlantic.com and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I chided Barack Obama for dismissing the iPad and similar devices as distractions for the young—even when many White House people were toting them.

I’m happy to report some progress, whether or not the President read of my grumpiness on this specific (I voted for him and would do so again despite various differences).

imageBarack Obama is now The First iPad User. Congratulations, Prez!

Does this mean you’ll be reading e-books on your iPad, setting an example for millions of young tech-oriented people, among others? Could you even go on to proclaim Read an E-Book Week, which the White House has refused to do so far, despite support from both the industry and e-book users at the grassroots level?

imageOf greater importance, Mr. President, I hope you’ll soon endorse the concept of a well-stocked national digital library system—see some related writings. If nothing else, that would fit in with your broadband ambitions. Better that kids download books, not just YouTubes. As we know, the best education can’t happen without good content and dedicated teachers to help students absorb it, ideally with assistance from school librarians.

Along the way, I hope you’ll prefer a genuine public system that would be well blended in with local libraries and schools and more easily allow for cost-justification of the kind I’ve described in depth (first TheAtlantic.com link).

Frustratingly, the Digital Public Library of America (hosted at the Berkman Center, a part of Harvard Law School, the venerable institutions that both the you and First Lady Michelle Obama attended) has refused so far to drop “Public” from its name despite the resultant franchise and branding issues for genuine public libraries.

I commend DPLA for having a scholar-friendly vision, a “must.” But that is not the same as a true public system with a wide range of content and services, and with K-12 and workforce education and training among the main priorities.

The DPLA’s rhetoric sounds good. But so far no K-12 educators sit on its 14-member steering committee even though I’ve suggested some; and as shown by the branding issue, the organization could also treat public libraries better.  The wrong kind of virtual library system could accidentally drain resources from public libraries rather than enriching them (e.g., “Who needs traditional public libraries when the DPLA can always provide services over the Net?”).

Besides, do we really want our public library system online to be governed by foundations and nonprofits? The Library of Congress or a publicly financed consortium would be a better host for the library system. Perhaps the DPLA could turn its name over to the actual public system.

Many librarians in many locations could participate. The system should have responsive, democratic governance, (small d, of course), a mix of funding models (public and private), tight integration with brick-and-mortar libraries (as opposed to replacement of them), as well as cooperation with nonprofit libraries (a wonderful bulwark against censorship given the route-around possibilities). This inclusive approach would reduce the risks of libraries becoming gentrified eventually for “achievers” and elite.

imageWhat’s more, with a public approach, cost-justification would be easier and more practical. The same tablets useful for reading and media consumption could work in a number of areas ranging from government paperwork reduction to more efficient healthcare and improved doctor-patient communications.

Many if not most federal tax returns are filed electronically by taxpayers or services. But we need to encourage still more of this, not just on the public side but also the private side, and well-done iPad apps can especially simplify matters. Follow the first TheAtlantic.com link for the story of my own little healthcare-paperwork nightmare, actually rather tame compared to the bureaucracy-inflicted suffering that many in my place would have endured because their insurance plans were worse.

Already iPads are about to become standard tools in medicine and many other fields. The challenge is to use tax laws, technical standards, and other strategies to make the technology more affordable and otherwise practical for the masses—parents and children alike, especially if we want to meld technology with family literacy. No, I don’t want an Apple monopoly. I envision the use of iPad-style machines, just as I did in the early 1990s when I wrote about the digital library idea—in a different form, since it’s constantly evolving—in the Computerworld issue of July 6. 1992.

Ideally politicians of both parties will keep open minds, and liberals won’t write off conservatives. In fact, although my own politics run on the progressive side, conservatives already have a stake in this, beyond the cost-justification aspects. None other than the late William F. Buckley Jr. was among the early endorsers of the basic vision put forth in Computerworld, and, yes, cost-justification was among the major attractions for him. What a legacy a well-stocked national digital library system could be for WFB and President Obama alike!

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