Making the national digital library dream come true for the Hernandezes—not just the American elite: Strategies for librarians and public officials

Note: This is the last article in our current series mapping out a path for planners of America’s digital libraries. Part One encouraged librarians to be open to new ideas like BiblioTech, especially from friends outside the profession. Part Two featured the Hernandez family in a 2020 scenario telling how national digital libraries could benefit the nonelite.

LiteraryDigest2The odds overwhelmingly favored Alf Landon over FDR in the 1936 presidential election. So predicted a respected newsweekly called the Literary Digest. Ouch. Critics faulted the Digest’s disastrous straw poll for relying on the magazine’s subscribers and other Americans with then-luxuries such as telephones and automobiles, not reaching out to the population at large.

Such a postmortem may or may not have been exactly on the mark. Clearly, however, the Literary Digest was out of touch with the masses.

Alas, the same can be said of the Digital Public Library of America, a promising nonprofit that has been a de facto think-tank for the Obama Administration on national digital library matters. I want the DPLA to thrive as an academic digital library. But as Jim Duncan of the Colorado Library Consortium has amply documented, the DPLA is not a true public library organization.

No current school librarian, for example, sits on the DPLA’s nine-member board, nor is there an educator from a public school system. Never mind that a credible Pew poll shows that Americans want closer coordination between local schools and libraries. Literary Digest redux, in the sense of the DPLA, not Pew, being out of touch? I think so. The DPLA is more for academics, techies and the cultural elite than for the Hernandezes, the hypothetical Texas family in Part Two of this series. Yes, I’d love to see historical and cultural gems from the DPLA show up in local school curricula, but the organization is a far cry from a genuine school or public library.

dplaLOGOWithin Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a big gap separates DPLA stalwarts from Americans at or near the bottom. The DPLA cares less about causes such as family literacy and about the availability of Nora Roberts novels than about digitized historical research and scanned images of art in museums.

MaslowEverything mentioned here should count: both mass and class.  Instead of “one big tent,” however, America deserves two national digital library systems, one public, one academic, with a joint digital catalog for those wanting it, as well as intertwined boards of directors and a common technical services and infrastructure organization. Let there be synergy and many gigs of shared content, but also healthy separation to respect the needs of different groups of typical patrons. Read the writings not just of S. R. Ranganathan but also of R. David Lankes, a well-known information scientist at Syracuse University. In Chapter 3 of Expect More: Demanding Better Libraries for Today’s Complex World, Prof. Lankes urges libraries to write their mission statements for their communities. That obviously would apply to both physical and virtual varieties of communities.

So how can the library world and enlightened public officials come up with good strategy balancing mass and class and appealing to the right people—ranging from the public at large to potential funders? Here are some points for ALA and government policymakers to consider:

1. Don’t tarry. DPLA academics are good, well-meaning people, but have made the mistake of thinking that the private sector will graciously avoid preempting public libraries with competitors such as the Oyster subscription service (an Amazon buyout target in time, along with OverDrive?). Forrester Research estimates that the number of U.S. adults reading e-books could reach 60 million in just two years. That statistic may or may not pan out, but e-book use will only grow over time. Unfortunately I do not see the needed sense of urgency from the DPLA. Despite talk of trying harder to include recent copyrighted books, the DPLA so far has been more eager to offer unencumbered content and gird for the copyright wars than to give public library patrons the books they most want. I applaud the DPLA’s idealism. But what about patrons’ here-and-now needs? Public libraries are service institutions for the masses, not law schools on the march toward new legal horizons.

Compare the DPLA’s priorities to Massachusetts’s efforts toward a statewide e-book library offering copyrighted books. Meanwhile the Colorado Library Consortium and its innovative partners at the Douglas County Libraries have received a $209,000 federal grant to help Colorado libraries develop the infrastructure to buy and deliver e-books without all the expenses of OverDrive, the main supplier of library e-books in the U.S. That’s what real public librarians do. Copyfighting is important, but must not prevail over the American public’s immediate needs.

2. Tell the DPLA it will be valuable as an academic library with rich resources to augment public libraries and school libraries, but that the real McCoys, public librarians already expert on literacy campaigns, digital divide issues, and others, should set up a separate system. They don’t need powerful academics second-guessing them from above. At the same time the DPLA could provide advice and other help to the public digital system and collaborate on various projects from the start.

3. Follow up on a resolution of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and urge the DPLA to remove the “Public” from its name so as not to jeopardize the branding of brick-and-mortar public libraries. This isn’t as small a detail as it seems.  Zealots are questioning the very reason for the existence of traditional local libraries. The last thing the DPLA needs to do, even unwittingly, is to give the crazies ammunition, so they can say: “Don’t worry about local libraries. Just call up in the DPLA on your Web browser.”

4. Acknowledge that many in the publishing industry just do not see libraries as a very important market, and that librarians don’t enjoy nearly as much bargaining power as they would like to think, even though the ALA has made some valuable progress. Yes, Big Five publishers have offered concessions. But there are catches such as high prices or onerous restrictions on usage. And libraries still have not yet sufficiently won the publishers over, long term. Mike Shatzkin, an influential publishing consultant, recently said that as more books and other content go online, the need for people to "go to libraries for information is going to diminish… Publishers should not expect the library market to grow for the next 20 years. There may not be much of a library market in 20 years."

The  creation of a well-funded national digital library endowment might make library skeptics less so. Perhaps ALA can even help them understand the possibilities of a Library-Publisher Complex—government institutions and vendors working closely together, just as the Pentagon and defense contractors often do through the military-industrial complex. Result? More money for libraries and vendors alike. Let this new complex, however, strive for efficiencies greater than those of the other, so the taxpayers get value.

5. Library-advocacy groups and the like needn’t be shy about accepting money from organizations such as the Gates Foundation—the ALA hasn’t been—but please assure us that the cash comes with no strings. Spurn it otherwise. And try not to rely on validation from the super rich or their foundations before speaking out.

Now let’s consider those matters in the context of the national digital library endowment question. I’d love to see the public libraries and the DPLA push for national digital library endowment and tap billionaires and their foundations for contributions. Bill Gates should support the idea, right? No such luck so far, however. Gates has declined to share his opinion on this issue despite my queries through e-mail and through PR representatives, and I’m starting to wonder if Gates might even get in the way, seeing the endowment as an invasion of his private turf even if libraries these days aren’t high on his list of priorities.

How can I write this heresy? Just look at the Gates Foundation’s annual reports from recent years. The 2012 report mentions only $37.4 million in spending on “Global Libraries,” and even if other money could be tucked away in different categories, the amount seems disappointingly small for an organization that in the same year dispensed more than $3 billion. Assets were reported at $37 billion. Yes, Gates has doled out grants for such laudable purposes as library advocacy. But how about serious money toward a national digital library endowment to finance not just content but also its absorption, such as through the hiring of school libraries in the very poorest districts? If we go by performance metrics—statistics on money donated, compared to resources available—Gates today is absolutely no Carnegie for public libraries. Maybe ALA’s Gates-funded campaign can educate him. Love or hate standardized tests, but the researchers have found that a good full-time school librarian make a conspicuous difference in student test scores, especially for kids from low-income or African-American or Hispanic families;  and more and better content is bound to help, too, just so the right people are there to help students benefit from it.

No, I won’t give up on Gates. Make a compelling enough case, show him how libraries can in fact turn around the lives of the Hernandez family and others, and perhaps the library world can convince him to up open up his wallet for real.

Just don’t dillydally on the endowment and twin-systems ideas merely because they currently lack the official blessing of Gates or his foundation. The clock is ticking away, not only in terms of more competition from the Oysters but also in terms of a higher price tag on OverDrive, a buyout possibility for the endowment. OverDrive is the leading provider of e-books to public libraries (with Amazon as an important strategic partner) and is working toward a winner-takes-all scenario. Far better to buy out OverDrive for the public rather than end up with what in effect is a privatized public library system, given the move to digital. See Point #10  for other OverDrive-related thoughts, as well as Part One of this series.

6. Speak up—locally as well as nationally—in favor of the national digital library endowment and separate public and academic systems. Here is an example of a resolution that local governments and library organizations could pass.

7. The real audience of the resolutions should be a mix of government officials, philanthropists, and foundation executives. Funders want to make an impact. Remind them of the potential resources out there if we think big enough, beyond even the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge campaign aimed at the super wealthy. Recently the New York Times told of a proposal to create a NASDAQ for funders to reward the best performing nonprofits. A government endowment, more transparent and more accountable to the public and more future-oriented, would be far superior.  But the dollar figures in Times caught my eye: "By some estimates, if just 1 percent of the money in the portfolios of wealthy individuals in the United States was directed to nonprofits through new financial instruments like social impact bonds or Ms. Beck’s exchange, the nonprofit world would be sitting on $1 trillion."

Imagine if even a mere fraction of the one percent of the portfolio money went to the library endowment, given that we’re spending only about $1.3 billion a year on content for public libraries, or approximately $4.20 per capita—less than the cost of a slightly upscale hamburger.

Isn’t that something to ponder, considering that the top one percent of all U.S. households owned 35.4 percent of all privately held wealth in 2010?

8. Organize grassroots campaigns to support the national digital library initiative. Reach out to library Friends groups and others, and bring the latest e-reading gadgets along to show them that E is the future, even though paper will also count for a long time. As I’ve discovered, many older library advocates have been sadly out of touch with the technology, despite all the blessings it could bring them—such as the ability to blow up type for easier reading.

9. Get natural allies such as the PTA and AARP on the our side in these matters. At the same time educate them about library values. I’d rather that the PTA not endorse the Kindle as its “official E-reader,” when it’s not always best for individual consumers and when Amazon pushes its proprietary e-book format. How frustrating that the PTA seems to closer to Amazon right now than to the ALA, even if I can understand why the endorsement came—given the organization’s eagerness to promote family literacy through Amazon’s Kindle donations and otherwise! Can’t librarians and the PTA work together on a multi-vendor program?

10. Play up today’s success stories and potential success stories, and incorporate them into your plans and PR and lobbying campaigns. One good move for the proposed foundation, as noted earlier in Point #5,  would be a buyout of OverDrive, as soon as possible. OverDrive is what so many librarians and patrons are used to. It has many flaws—it’s still too complicated to check out nonKindle books through OverDrive—but OverDrive is has not done that badly in some important respects. From a public library perspective, especially with recreational reading in mind, compare the usability of the DPLA’s demo site with that of typical OverDrive-powered sites offering e-books. Even by the site  layout alone, you can tell that OverDrive takes recreational reading far more seriously than the DPLA does.

Similarly play close attention to librarians’ existing efforts in Colorado, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to acquire books in new ways less reliant on OverDrive. Such state and local initiatives, if scaled up nationally, could save the taxpayers countless millions in middlemen’s fees over the years. That would especially hold true if the joint technical services and infrastructure organization of public and academic systems could include the real OverDrive.

11. Proactively counter the public’s skepticism toward large government initiatives, especially in the wake of the startup challenges of Healthcare.gov.

Read a smart commentary in The Verge, as well as a New York Times op-ed from Clay Johnson and Harper Reed. Get ready to tell how the national digital library endowment and the twin systems can forestall woes similar to those that beset the healthcare site. We need to to streamline government procurement to keep up with fast-changing technology and hold contractors more accountable with more of a step-by-step approach as opposed to the awarding of long, long rides on the gravy train. Also separate procurement a lot more from politics and other kinds of old-boy networks. Here’s to merit and careful screening of contractors, with due diligence about their track records! All this should apply whether a digital library system is mostly a federal undertaking or is mainly a multi-state project.

I know. Many smart, hardworking librarians in the upper ranks of the profession are swamped with their everyday duties and lack much time to mull over all the business complexities here in Part Three and the rest of the LibraryCity series. What’s more, I suspect that ALA staffers are spread thin. I get it. Still, if librarians cherish public libraries as responsive civic institutions, they need to care about the specifics and pursue the endowment and twin-system ideas as well as the OverDrive purchase one. Same for us library-lovin’ patrons. Do we really want the library world to be Amazon’s Oyster?

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