E-books vs. movies and other streamed media: Which should be first priority at Library of Congress?

imageWith so many local libraries facing cutbacks, the case for a well-stocked national digital library system grows stronger each day.

At TheAtlantic.com  I’ve written of the possibility of a decentralized public library system existing within the Library of Congress but run by librarians in many cities, so that Washington does not dictate to America what to read, hear or see. I’ve been working on this cause since the 1990s.

Now here’s another issue. Which should come first, movies or books, or should priorities be the same within a national digital library model?

In comments to the Washington Post, picked up by Federal Times and the Engadget blog, the head of the Library of Congress has talked of items from LoC’s National Film Registry going online via the library’s own servers. Among works named for the registry this year are such classics as All the President’s Men and The Exorcist (both with Washington settings).

I love  LoC Librarian James Billington‘s streaming idea and  would hate to see a national digital library system that did not offer movies at some point. Same for  great sound recordings still under copyright.

But for now there is the ticklish issue of the price tag, with so many movies costing tens of millions of dollars to make, distribute and market. Let’s hope that Billington  can work out arrangements, that Hollywood copyright holders will be accommodating. But meanwhile in the interest of literacy and economy,  he’d do better to focus on getting modern books on the Net first—not just out-of-copyright titles, but also modern classics from a variety of writers ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Toni Morrison.

Of course, within the area of movies, one possibility would be for the usual commercial outlets online, such as Netflix, to make the films available with the LoC’s encouragement, and in fact that’s the tack the library is already taking.

But if the Library itself is to offer modern copyrighted works to the country in a major way, then books should come first, in the interest of literacy

And if/when films do go online for free from LoC directly, then I hope that the library will at least try to offer not just the cinematic adaptations but also the free versions of the great books that inspired them (always with proper payment to writers and publishers).

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David Rothman

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