New Pew survey helps show need for full-strength digital libraries—especially if we’re to help Hispanics, African-Americans and the poor

pewcharthispanicsandblacksShould Pew researchers survey Americans on the need for a national digital library endowment and two separate digital library systems—one public and one academic? Definitely, if you extrapolate from a new Pew poll.

Those issues do not directly come up in the current survey, which shows robust support for public libraries for now, despite some ill omens for the future. But Pew does find that “books and media” are “very important” library offerings for 54 percent of the country as a whole. That is the highest of nine categories, and the endowment could be a major funding source for the e-books and other digital items for which demand has zoomed upward.

Alas, only around 13 percent of U.S. public libraries’ operational spending goes for actual content, either traditional or digital.

Furthermore, in FY 2010 the libraries were spending only $4.22 per capita on content, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That was a mere $1.3 billion—about the cost of just one terrorist-friendly military office complex in Northern Virginia.

A national digital library endowment could help multiply the number of books and other items available through local libraries, which could cobrand digital catalogues from a national collection. Digital items come with inherent efficiencies, such as ease of storage and elimination of such needs as costly physical storage, shelving and manually performed checkouts. Paper books could remain on library shelves. But shouldn’t libraries expand particularly in ways offering the most value for library patrons and taxpayers? That means E.

Libraries are and should be about much more than books. But no matter how often some librarians talk of “repositioning” or whatever the most fashionable marketing term is nowadays, it would be folly to downplay the importance of “book warehouses”—physical or electronic. Books are public libraries’ calling cards.

pewchart1In other significant findings, Pew reports that 62 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent of Hispanics say “books and media” are “very important,” compared to 54 percent for the whole country. And 61 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year selected “very important,” a heftier percentage than the 49 percent among those with incomes of $75,000 and higher. A racial and class gap when it comes to library content?

Yes, and the Pew results jibe well with the facts in my own city, Alexandria, VA. It’s the country’s Number One city in the latest Amazon ranking of books bought per capita, even though there were only 7.5 library checkouts per capita compared to 13 in neighboring Fairfax County in FY 12. We know well-off Alexandrians are reading. But what about their poorer neighbors, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, who almost surely rely more on libraries for content?

Significantly, Alexandria’s per capita spending on library content is still less than the national average despite all the BMWs around here, even after we library advocates fought off planned cuts.

OK, so what’s Washington doing about popular-level library e-books  for the typical patron? Not nearly as much as it could despite some notable exceptions. I voted for Barack Obama and am a lifelong Democrat. But his record on digital public library issues so far is not distinguished. The Obama Administration in effect has farmed out discussion of national digital matters to a nonprofit originated as a project at Harvard Law School, the President’s alma mater. The Digital Public Library of America is the start of a very, very promising academic system for the U.S., but as the beginning of a public collection serving mainstream needs, it is a failure.

The DPLA’s major interest has been in assembling links to public domain books and historical documents and other items—not in creating a funding-and-acquisitions process to help buy the recent copyrighted books that public library patrons overwhelmingly prefer. Susan Flannery, director of libraries in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in 2012: “The books we purchased in last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year,” while “The rest went out 2.44 times.”

The real solution would be a mix of a national digital library endowment and two digital library systems—a public system focused on mass needs and an academic one building on the DPLA’s highly useful work.

Let the twin systems collaborate endlessly and share plenty of content, somewhat overlapping boards and a common digital catalogue and a joint infrastructure and technical services organization (ideally with help from a buyout of OverDrive, the main supplier of library e-books). And let everyone be able to access the academic system directly. But please do not confuse the main missions of public and academic libraries and try to turn the former into the latter or even risk doing so in the future. No public library gentrification, please.

A good start for the bright and well-intentioned people at the DPLA would be to rename the organization the Digital Academic Library of America and work with COSLA, a legitimate “public” library organization, to start a separate public system called simply the National Digital Library of America. Don’t use “Public Library” in the name. Save that phrase for the branding of local libraries.

More attention to these issues from the U.S. media and top policymakers would be welcome. Few Americans are truly aware of the pittance that our country spends on public library content—the very stuff that counts so much in bringing them to libraries in the first place and can help fuel such initiatives as family literacy campaigns.

Even if the library crisis isn’t a burning issue for the most of the American press right now, perhaps the Pew Foundation can poll Americans on the endowment question while adding a little background to put the issue in perspective. Here are two suggested questions:

1. “American public libraries are spending only around $4.20 per person on books and other content each year. How much do you think the figure should be?” Pew could report the average answer given for the country as a whole and also by region and for various ethnic and income groups.

2. “Do you like the idea of a national digital library endowment—started almost entirely with voluntary contributions from the super rich? It would help public libraries buy more e-books and also help pay for the training and hiring of school librarians, among other things.”

With or without a Pew poll, shouldn’t Washington care? Consider this finding from Pew: “95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading.” Via the endowment and twin-systems concepts, here is a chance for President Obama and Congress to reinvent public libraries in ways that dramatically advance those popular goals.

Furthermore, given the interest of both major parties in courting Hispanic-Americans, it would be a lost opportunity for both to neglect the content issues of special importance to this ethnic group. If nothing else, remember that in the next few decades, nonHispanic whites will be a minority of the U.S. population.

Let me add that laws to prevent content-providers from gouging libraries would also be desirable. E-books are inherently more efficient to distribute than paper books are, as noted, and publisher must not be allowed to get in the way of this. No anti-publisher sentiments, though—just the opposite. In fact, we’re talking about huge opportunities for publishers and ideally even a Library Publisher complex in time, if the digital library systems prove as popular as I’m confident they will be. That’s where the money is for both sides.

Libraries’ importance as study havens: Fifty-one percent of the respondents believe it is “very important” for libraries to offer “quiet spaces” (even if many youth-oriented librarians would object to the word “quiet”). And that’s one reason I’m so gung ho on neighborhood libraries, no matter what the medium—E or P.  The danger is that as the publishing industry goes digital, there may not be paper copies of many books in the future. And print-on-demand is not nearly as cost-effective a way of serving patrons as “pure” E is.

Bad news: More immediately, the Pew poll says: “52% of Americans say that people do not need public libraries as much as they used to because they can find most information on their own, while 46% disagreed.” That 52 percent could portend trouble. So could the fact that 34 percent don’t think libraries keep up well with technology. Unless libraries show more openness toward digitization and above all unless funding improves—librarians can’t control that!—the percentage could expand beyond 34. And just like the need factor, that could ultimately help reduce taxpayers’ interest in supporting public libraries. Likewise of concern, library use has already declined a little. Fifty-four percent of us used a public library or its Web site in the past year, or five percent fewer than in 2012. How much of the decline is due to the partial easing of the recession, making patrons more likely than at its worst to buy rather than borrow books? And how much of it is part of a long-term trend? While many in the media are ballyhooing the survey as great news for libraries, I agree with the assessment in Publishers Weekly that the message is “mixed” even though current support is strong.

Also of interest: The newest LibraryCity series on the need for the digital library endowment and two separate national digital library systems, as well as related insights by Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium.

Sadly, though funding is one other major obstacle, many librarians have not been as open minded on digital issues as they should be, and this unfortunate shortcoming is the focus of the first part of the new series, which is targeted mainly at them. Perhaps the latest Pew findings will encourage librarians to be more responsive to the public’s demand for books and other items, and more appreciative of digital technology’s promises as an efficient deliverer of content even though paper will still have a role (for example, for mothers who prefer paper picture books for reading to toddlers).

The series’ second part focuses on the hypothetical Carmella Hernandez and her  family in San Antonio to show exactly how digitalization would help the masses, while the third part offers strategy tips for librarians and policymakers.

Note: Updated on December 16 to include more statistics.

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