‘Dueling national digital library visions’: Library Journal site writes up mine vs. Harvard Library Director Robert Darnton’s

imageRoy Tennant, a digital library maven, Library Journal columnist and OCLC program officer, has just posted Dueling National Digital Library Visions on the LJ site. It’s my plan on the Atlantic site vs. Harvard Library Director Robert Darnton’s proposal  in the New York Review of Books.

If this is new to you, go to the TheAtlantic.com and check out A national information stimulus plan: How iPad-style tablets could help educate millions and trim bureaucracy–not just be techno toys for the D.C. elite and Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System, as well as Jim Fallows’s introduction to the latter. The Darnton proposal is here and here.

For latecomers, let me list a few differences between the two plans and related philosophies:

image –Prof. Darnton, a highly respected professor of 18th century cultural history as well as the Harvard library director and author of The Case for Books, envisions a foundation-based approach. I myself would want a national digital library system to link to private collections and accept donations, not just rely on tax money. But the actual organization should be a genuine public library system started with tax money, closely integrated with brick-and-mortar schools and libraries, and answerable to the nation at large—not simply the usual foundation suspects. I want public, K-12 and academic librarians in many cities involved in administration and collection development.

–The professor strikes me as rather book-centric and classics-centric, while I want a modern full-service public library system with books (oldies included), other text, multimedia for job-training (not just education, culture, research and other purposes), as well as healthy balance between the humanities and other areas such as science and technology. I also favor a high level of interactivity for library users who desire it. Nothing against traditional books! I’ve written seven of them. But especially in this Great Recession, libraries need to serve Americans outside the academic and literary elites; and features such as full-fledged interactivity would be a great help to Harvard researchers, too, including those in the humanities.

–Unlike Prof. Darnton’s vision, mine calls for cost-justification—which ideally he’ll add to his plan, since foundations enjoy a fortune in tax breaks at the expense of the rest of us, even if the foundation big shots, rather than the citizenry at large, are the main ones deciding how the money is spent. The same tablet computers useful for reading text would be good for electronic forms and other purposes, particularly healthcare, where we squander countless billions in paperwork related expenditures (imagine reducing just slightly the several hundred billion we appear to be spending each year). I’d like to see Americans be able to use automation to track their medical bills effortlessly and more effectively question the iffy ones. Here’s to more power for patients—and individual responsibility! I can also envision Americans using the technology to follow their doctors’ instructions better. Sounds basic, but the failure to do so is probably costing the health system many billions. Those are just a few examples of the possibilities that a coordinated approach, with appropriate technical standards and protocols, not just better cooperation between the public and private sectors, would allow.  Library applications (in the computer sense) and tax breaks could encourage people to buy tablets to use for many bureaucracy-reducing purposes in addition to reading.

Cost justification was one reason why the late William F. Buckley Jr.—who, along with Barry Goldwater, would most qualify for the title of “Mr. Conservative” in modern times—wrote two friendly columns about my TeleRead library plan. I’m a gung-ho liberal, progressive, whatever you want to call it, but as WFB himself did with John Kenneth Galbraith and countless others, I believe in reaching out to political opposites and not making dogmatic assumptions even in times as contention-filled as the current era. Years ago the state government in Raleigh forced the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to ban communist speakers. Goldwater, when I queried him for the student newspaper, actually opposed the ban.

–I’ve shared considerably more details in public about my evolving plan—thousands and thousands of words in Computerworld, the Washington Post, a MIT Press/ASIS information science collection and elsewhere—than Robert Darnton has about his. No, I have not worked out every detail. This should be an open process with many participating online, as opposed to closed-door conferences for the elite.

I also drew reactions from TheAtlantic.com readers—with more than 130 giving the new library essay a thumbs-ups on Facebook. Via the Atlantic site’s comments area, I enlightened some good people who believed I wanted libraries to adjust to the e-book formats of Amazon.com and its Kindle rather than vice versa. In addition, I made it clear that my plan would pay writers and publishers fairly and could allow for delayed releases of, say, bestsellers in order to protect bookstores and private subscription services.

Roy sensibly suggested action, not just discussion, and I could not agree more. In fact, I wrote the latest piece for the Atlantic Web site while consulting closely with the ALA’s Office of Informaton Technology Policy, where I found Carrie Russell, director of the Program on Public Access to Information, to be most open minded personally. But Carrie says buzz will be needed if the national digital library issue is to get on the ALA radar screen as more than just a blip. Then maybe ALA can crank up a full-fledged campaign for the digital library idea to get funded. Roy’s blog item helped, and even though I don’t agree with every syllable he wrote, I’m grateful for the exposure within the library world. What’s at stake here is the future of librarianship—not just the public’s need for a full-service library system online and our country’s need for long-term budget-deficit reduction.

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David Rothman

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