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Monday
Mar042013

One Man's vision of a national digital library endowment: thoughts and reactions

Harvard's Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative has been around, at least as an idea, since 2010. David Rothman, co-founder of LibraryCity blog and founder of TeleRead, a website dedicated to sharing news about e-books, presents a vision for the funding of not one but two national digital library systems (one public, one academic) in his February 11 blog post "A national digital library endowment: How America’s billionaires could be modern Carnegies for real."

He certainly presents some challenging and at times inspiring ideas in his proposal of what an endowment from the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other billionaires could achieve for public and academic libraries. Among his visions and ideals for what his proposed National Digital Library Endowment are key components such as expanding free WiFi, creation of what he calls a "Library-Publisher Complex," and a system like Netflix for books where library patrons could pay to bypass a wait time for popular e-book borrowing.


Claiming that publishers should focus less on copyright restrictions and instead try to grow profits from book sales, he banks on the idea that if library users saw a link to purchase an e-book while using their library's website, they would. This seems far fetched even with his citation of an online poll as evidence that "borrowers become buyers" (though the poll was done in part by OverDrive, an e-book distributor). Concern for low-income populations seems at odds with Rothman's efforts to convince publishers that they would benefit and see increased sales from his proposed "Library-Publisher Complex." This tactic also minimizes and ignores important evolving issues of copyright, piracy, and licensing tied to specific ereaders, as if to say "don't worry about those things, just focus on increasing profits for publishers and patron use for libraries." (You may have read our previous blog post about print vs. digital books. For another view of publishers' changing roles see this George Washington Law Review article by Niva Elkin-Koren.)


But at the crux of his argument is the need to persuade us all that a national library system, if there ever would be such a unified system, should specifically be digital, that we're all ready for it, and that the demand for primarily digital public libraries actually exists. Walden Library's director, Jennie VerSteeg, reacted initially that the Rothman "dramatically overstates the ease of use, the ubiquity and the usefulness of ebooks," and I agree. Throughout his proposal he returns again and again to that topic to convince readers and his preferred, potential investors that we're all ready, from our laws to our technology infrastructure, to make the digital dive. Or, at least, that we'll all catch up in due time.

We're interested in what you, our readers think. Had you ever even heard of the DPLA before this?

What do you think of the idea of "forking" a proposed national digital library into two parts, one public and one academic? ROthman's juxtaposition that "public libraries exist to please taxpayers and academic libraries are for such purposes as the growth and spread of knowledge, as well as cultural preservation" seems perhaps simplistic to the mission and goals of public libraries.

Do you think America's wealthy are even likely to get involved in such efforts?

As librarians we all love the idea of expanding access to information, making digital content accessible, easy to use, and cost effective.  These are commendable if not daunting visions given the equally large kinks and cracks that would have to first be addressed.

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Reader Comments (5)

Hi, Erin. Many thanks for reading my proposal for a national digital library endowment, and thanks, too, for your kind words. Here are some points I’d like to make:

1. The DPLA is a valuable group, but it’s rather late to the national digital library discussion. As one example, see the much-evolved TeleRead proposal as it existed in 1992: http://booknewz.com/computerworld.htm---complete with references to a somewhat iPadish tablet.

2. Yes, I see publishers benefiting from links within library catalogs, just as industry gurus such as Joseph Esposito do. But I hardly regard this as the main revenue stream. The endowment proposal mentions several; see below.

3. I’m a former poverty beat reporter, and in making the proposal I have more in mind the welfare of society as a whole than that of the publishing industry. But we certainly can reconcile both society’s needs and those of the industry. We’re not talking about a zero sum game here. Money from the endowment would of course send more money in the direction of books, but I’m also proposing a massive paid subscription plan in which one could enroll through a check-off on an income tax forms. I note how little the public is now spending on books and other texts under the current business models, compared to other expenditures such as entertainment. Part of the reason is that tens of millions of Americans lack discretionary income. I call for publishers to work more closely with libraries to increase the number of readers; library-linked family literacy programs, for example, would be wonderful market development for the industry that would happen as a positive side effect. In both literacy- and tech-related ways, libraries can help narrow the digital divide and thus help expand the market for e-books. They and publishers would be pulling in the same direction---just as they would through the creation of a library-publisher complex to lobby for more library funding. So long and so furiously have librarians and publishers been at war with each other that many on both sides have trouble grasping the far, far greater potential of a collaborative approach. It hasn’t worked that badly, in many cases, for the Pentagon and its contractors!

4. You write that the vision of the library-publisher complex’s collaborative approach “minimizes and ignores the important evolving issues of copyright, piracy, and licensing tied to specific readers, as if to say ‘don’t worry about those things, just focus on increasing profits for publishers and patron use for libraries.’” On the contrary! We can’t realistically expect that the copyright wars will stop. But we can hope that libraries and publishers will spend more time growing the pie and less time squabbling over the division of the slices. Furthermore, my proposal is rather copyright friendly. I propose ways for books to go into the publish domain sooner through buyouts, for example, and I also suggest compromises such as publishers agreeing to shorter copyright terms in return for libraries’ being more open to pay-per-access models in some cases (actually I favor a mix of business models). Even within existing copyright law, such trade-offs could happen on individual properties: just look at what Larry Lessig has been able to accomplish through CreativeCommons. What’s more, in keeping with my proposal years ago for Bill Gates to buy books like The Great Gatsby and turn them loose on the Net, Unglue.it is now doing just that. As for piracy, what better way to minimize its effects than by making e-books more convenient and convenient to obtain? Finally, in regard to books tied to specific reader hardware, that’s hardly the way most library patrons read e-books, which they access through their own machines.

5. I respectfully disagree that I “dramatically overstate the ease of use, the ubiquity and usefulness of e-books.” Why would I be doing that when I talk of the need for “training for librarians and patrons, as well as the right tablets and other hardware to encourage reading (this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach)”? For years and years I ran an e-book site with global traffic; I, of all people, know of the complexities. But we can overcome them. My wife and sister both feared the technology. Now they find they can read more easily with e-books, and in fact, my wife hates it when library books are available only in P. Talk about usefulness! The tech is only getting to get MUCH better. Mind you, some digital textbooks can be hassles, but better navigation and less use of PDF would go a long way in reducing the challenges; and what about the positives, such as the potential for truly interactive reading fare? Also remember I am proposing libraries of much more than simply books alone; what about curated stand-alone forums and wikis, for example? Or multimedia? Or related local-state-national partnerships to encourage the use of digital libraries to promote such technologies as 3-D printing? Finally, keep in mind the huge growth in E compared to P even if the growth isn’t as rapid as before. You can’t argue with sales stats and long-term trends. This is why most large publishers today are probably publishing most books in E, not just P, and why we may eventually reach a tipping point where paper publication just doesn’t make sense except through print on demand. Even now, e-books are the “’dominant single format’ in adult fiction sales” (http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ebooks-are-now-the-dominant-single-format-in-adult-fiction-sales_b54587).” Talk about ubiquity! Meanwhile millions of out-of-print titles have been digitized, and once the orphan works controversy has been settled, that number can only grow.

6. Yes, public libraries exist mainly to please taxpayers or at least to serve them, and their mission are rather different from those of academic libraries---intended to serve the much smaller population of students, scholars and researchers. It’s unfortunate to see academics try to minimize the differences. Some public libraries, as I recall, are even within parks and recreation departments. I favor lots and lots of overlapping content, but just a minority of public library users will want scholarly monographs---far fewer than those demanding bestsellers. Furthermore, academic libraries are not as nearly concerned with digital divide issues.

7. If librarians understand the potential here, it will be easier to convince the wealthy to support the proposed initiative. I hope that you and others associated with Walden, including executives with the parent corporation, Laureate Education, Inc., will consider joining in, now that I’ve addressed the issue you’ve raised. If nothing else, remember that distance learners, especially, would benefit from the initiative. Furthermore, students and faculty at both traditional and for-profit universities, including Walden, could benefit.

I’ll welcome further dialog with you and others associated with directly or indirectly with Walden and Laureate---in keeping with the Walden motto: “A higher degree. A higher purpose.”

Best,
David Rothman
davidrothman@pobox.com
703.370.6540

March 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid H. Rothman

Hi, Mr. Rothman: this is Jennie, the Walden University library director, and we are giddy that you took the time to respond to Erin’s blog post! I can’t really speak for Erin, but I can speak as an enthusiastic amateur here about your proposal and what I see as challenges to its success, not the least is probably individuals like me, who may be too jaded for their own good or so accustomed to life in the information search trenches that we can’t see the forest for the trees.
My first big question was let’s say this endowment is created, and two national digital libraries come into existence. To me, this would mean that the initiative would have dozens, hundreds, of information providers on board: the EBSCOs of the world, smaller academy presses, ERIC, etc. So we’d still be working with the copyright holders and licensees. We can’t really just go to libraries with endowment money and say “ok, digitize away with this nifty new machine the endowment bought you” as we’ve seen from the Google Books project’s trajectory.
This would also mean that publishers and even more to the point, aggregators, found a way to turn enough profit to make participating in the two libraries. What happens next? Carnegie’s libraries became self supporting eventually, and there was, if I remember correctly, an understanding that the libraries would contribute X percent of the endowment amount. My first library job was in a 1903 Carnegie where at the last minute they could not afford the fireplace the plan called for, and to that day, there was a big empty space where the library that West Liberty could not afford would have been. So, for this somewhat similar endowment, when does the endowment step away and ask the participants to foot some or all of the bill?
This might also mean that digital libraries already in existence might need to be subsumed into the digital libraries, one or both, somehow, and trade off a little local control for what I’d presume would be an economy of scale. Or would they continue as they are, and the national libraries would be adjunct, opt in, rather than opt out? What would that do to their budgets, their priorities for collections and services?
The other issue I see, and though it might be considered beside the point, or the cost of doing business, what about those who do not want their “content” delivered digitally? I fear for tiny public libraries with boards which see a way to save a great deal of money by opting into the national digital public library in toto, eliminating the purchase of paper media, eliminating services staff… no one gets up in the morning and says “I’m going to hurt the community” but I was wondering what you would see as the incentive for smaller libraries to retain their own collections when this attractive possibility is available? Or would you not see this as an issue, or just outside the scope of the proposal?
I’d also point out that the new digital divide, or the one that is looming is not a divide of access. As I type that, I realize one of my staff members said that not long ago, but I can’t remember which: so shout to staff member, whoever you are. Right now, most can get to digital content at a public or academic library. The divide now is that of actual use. I see, in my darkest hours, a vast digital library the no one uses because they don’t know how…. You mention training for staff and the library patrons, but I’d love to hear more about that. I’ll amend that. I’m desperate to hear more about that!
You write “in regard to books tied to specific reader hardware, that’s hardly the way most library patrons read e-books, which they access through their own machines.” I am not sure what you are saying there, so rather than react to it, could you elaborate?
You know, thinking about this, copyright, although it is a huge morass heaven knows, is not so much the issue here, but digital rights management, and licensing terms. These issues are creeping into the popular press now, but for the most part, I think many are still wrapping their heads around the fact that you rarely actually purchase an ebook. Also, I’m glad you said that “I am proposing libraries of much more than simply books alone; what about curated stand-alone forums and wikis, for example? Or multimedia?” because that was actually my very first question, and nagging irritation about much one reads about libraries in the popular media: always with the book, the book, the book. Books are my life, but they aren’t the only “container” one can or should expect to get at a library. How would you envision that the digital libraries would provide access to other information containers? Working with publishers or perhaps working directly with authors?

You say “You can’t argue with sales stats and long-term trends” when it comes to the ubiquity of ebooks. True, but I’m not yet convinced that we’ve hit on exactly what or how to count such use: I imagine as goes a trade association or Publisher’s Weekly so goes the rest of us, but I’ve seen sales and use sliced and diced in many different ways. Even the article you cite says “eBooks exploded in the adult fiction category last year, accounting for 30 percent of net publisher …” I would hardly call a third of sales ubiquity. I have no doubt that in the near future we will see ebook adoption overtaking the sale of print books. Just not yet.
We will have to agree to disagree regarding the differences and similarities of public and academic libraries. Both must serve their communities, and both answer to someone or something that helps fund and guide services, and from the users’ standpoint, the differences are either invisible or beside the point. Particularly for distance learners, the population with which I work, they are looking at all libraries as being a part of a mesh of library services, and many strongly prefer to go where they are comfortable, often the public library in their community. I think if you told the Friends of the Library at a large public library that they aren’t in the same business as the library of the small liberal arts college down the street, you’d be in for a fight. As well, your assertion that academic libraries are “not as nearly concerned with digital divide issues” reflects, I think, narrow experience with academic libraries. Certainly colleges which serve first generation students, non-traditional students, community colleges in particular, fight the divide daily. Rather than two digital libraries, which would, I would predict, compete and confuse, how about a single system with a cafeteria of services and options libraries could opt into or out of as needed?
Aside from my many questions above (To reiterate, when does the endowment step away from direct funding, or do they, what exactly were you saying about the way readers read ebooks, how would you see the digital libraries dealing with documents other than monographs), the big question for me is what can individual libraries do to help the initiative? Have you come up with an advocacy guide of some kind? If so, would love to see it.

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennie Ver Steeg

Thanks for your detailed reply, Jennie. You questions are excellent, and this week or next, I'll respond with a Q & A on the LibraryCity site and include a link to the Walden blog. It's a real tribute to you and Erin that you are taking time to ask questions! I hope you'll both keep open minds. Remember, even my 5,000-word-plus post could not anticipate everything. To address one concern, I want MORE empowerment of local libraries, just as I tried to make clear through the paprika example (later I'll further address the financial aspects of the super-important local autonomy issue--I've already said that local libraries need to be free to offer items not in the national systems). It isn't just the job of librarians to provide content, but also to help patrons find and benefit from it. The more choices of valuable content, the more need for local librarians who can highlight relevant items with their communities' needs in mind. The endowment plan would be far better for both local librarians and patrons than are the current oft-dwarf-sized paper collections that do not lend themselves to localization to the extent that digital content from a national collection would (both books and no books). What's more, I want to see more "born local" content in digital form, and local librarians could facilitate its creation and refinement. Simply put, rather than downplaying local libraries, I am calling for modernization to help them thrive in the era of Google and Amazon. I am zealously pro-local public library. In fact, as I see it, the Digital Public Library of America initiative should drop the P word from its name to reduce the risk to local public libraries' franchises.

Stay tuned for more. I especially liked your question, "What can local librarians do to help the initiative?" I'll do my best to reply. For now, the most meaningful way to help is to keep asking questions that I can either answer or use to refine the plan. Mere advocacy is not enough; well-informed and fully felt enthusiasm is a must. I'll also welcome your own ideas---on the proposal and ways to popularize it---and Erin's and anyone else's!

Thanks,
David Rothman
LibraryCity.org
703-370-6540

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Rothman

Hi, Jennie and Erin. I haven't forgotten you. The FAQ, longer than I expected, should be online later this week at LibraryCity.org. If you have any additional questions---or comments---post them here or send them via email. Same for anyone else reading this. Among other things I'll be discussing the issue of local vs. national endowment funds; actually I see room for them both. But I will say we can't instantly grow Gates-sized donors for neglected regions of Appalachia, one reason we urgently need a national endowment. I also have an answer for those hoping for tax-funded solutions. I'd like them one, too, and of course have called for the creation of a library-publisher complex to lobby for bigger library appropriations at all levels (I'll trot out a parable from Life of Pi to make my point), but don't count on immediate miracles here. Here again, one approach alone isn't enough.

Thanks,
David
davidrothman@pobox.com
703-370-6540

March 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid H. Rothman

Morning, Jennie and Erin. You can find the FAQ at http://librarycity.org/?p=6933. Even at close to 8,000 words, it isn't as comprehensive as I'd like, but it ideally will be a start toward a real endowment. One step would be for forward-looking librarians to undertake a collaborative wiki discussing details. Then with the material at hand, they could lobby both other librarians and policymakers and turn out shorter documents based on the longer one.

Further reaction welcomed. Because of the length, I don't expect anything immediately from you. But email me when you're ready. One matter I didn't discuss was digital divide challenges of four-year institutions with affluent students vs. those for K-12, community colleges and remote learning. Students without WiFi-enhanced campuses will suffer DD issues more. I still maintain that the current DPLA just isn't sufficiently interested in digital divide matters at any level and this is one reason for there to be two separate but closely intertwined systems, one public and one academic, as well as a common technical services organization. Receiving money from the public system, not just academia, the services organization would be more responsive to DD-related requests than the current DPLA is. And people enrolled in schools at any level could benefit from the work the tech services organization did--for example, in working with other groups to create free community WiFi, which the digital library endowment could help pay for in at least some low-income communities where it was most needed. Yes, libraries have WiFi. But as we know, so much of learning happens at home even though we badly need libraries as places to do homework (among other roles).

Thanks,
David

P.S. While I focused above on connectivity, I acknowledge that the DD issue has other key components, ranging from hardware needs to familiarity with and comfort with technology. And it's more than an income issue. Some low-income folks can come up with hardware, used or new, and do just fine. By contrast, some well-off people never do feel comfortable around tech.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid H. Rothman
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