William F. Buckley, Jr., and the case for a well-stocked national digital library system

imageimageOn the Atlantic site this morning, you’ll see my call for a well-stocked national digital library system, along with comments from James Fallows, once a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter.

But who says the proposal is just for Democrats and liberals? In fact, my own interest in such a system arose originally from a comment by my political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. (right photo!), who complained that students were spending too much time reading information off CD-ROMs and not enough time reading actual books. My response was this. Why not get the books online—contemporary works, not just the classics—in a massive, systematic way? And thus was born the library proposal, known over the years as TeleRead and including far, far more than just books.

WFB went on to promote the library idea in National Review and his syndicated column, while I pushed it in the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, an MIT Press information science collection and elsewhere. Among other things Bill liked the concept of popularizing tablet computers that would excel not just for reading but also as platforms for electronic forms and other bureaucracy-reducing applications. This was in the early 1990s. Without knowing it, he and I were talking about iPad-style machines. Although hardly a programmer or engineer—I’m not either—Bill was uncannily prescient about the possibilities of technology.

imageSimply put, the library proposal is nonpartisan, and I hope that Republicans as well as Democrats will follow Jim’s suggestion to give it a good look. Long term, by reducing healthcare costs and in other ways, the related national information stimulus plan would actually shrink the deficit. Ideally many conservatives will pick up on the focus on personal responsibility (for example, use of the tablets as a way of more effectively managing healthcare costs at the personal level) and self-improvement (through that most traditional of tools for those purposes—libraries, the favorite cause of Andrew Carnegie, whom WFB cited in advocating a national digital library system).

Among my favorite reactions to the library idea so far: A clueful tweet from Tom Killalea, VP for technology at Amazon, who homed in on just right excerpt from the Atlantic piece: “Real goal should be to grow total number of book-lovers and knowledge-lovers in the general population." Librarians are also taking notice—Resource Shelf‘s Gary Price calls the essay a "must-read" for people interested in national digital libraries, and Tom Peters, a well-known library consultant as well as a contributor to the American Library Association’s TechSource blog, is organizing an online discussion on the library proposal. It’ll happen November 17 at noon Eastern Time, and Tom and I will be eager to hear feedback from other participants.

Related: One-on-one NYT interview with Vivek Kundra, chief U.S. information officer.

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David Rothman

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