Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and I’m glad it did. The local NAACP and others in Rockford, Illionois, are protesting the local library system’s plans to spend about a quarter of its $1.19-million collection budget on e-books. And I can understand the anger of the low-income protestors, who fear they’ll lack the resources to enjoy the digital books.
Making 50 Kindle e-readers available for loans—what the library system proposes, according to a report in American Libraries—won’t be enough. The number is pathetically small, given that more than a fifth of Rockford’s 153,000 people live in poverty.
Complicating matters is that someone at the top of the wait list for a Kindle may not be able to access to e-book that he or she wants, because it, too, has a list. Alas, Rockford’s local issues here can’t be separated from the need for a well-stocked national digital library system serving the entire country, not just the upper socio-economic groups. With all expenses considered, libraries are paying more for e-books than they should, and quite logically, skeptics worry about recurring costs. The best solution would be a national digital library system with a robust ecosystem to give it enough leverage to bargain fairly but effectively with publishers while respecting traditional library values. I’d also recommend that content providers and libraries spend less time fighting the copyright wars and more time fighting for library budgets at all levels of government. The more library books and other media available via libraries, the less of a piracy problem.
For now, in Rockford’s place, I would greatly increase the number of e-books purchased but not to the level now planned, considering the risks of current e-book licensing arrangements and the large number of people in the town without the financial resources or the knowledge to deal with e-books.
Meanwhile, without splurging, I would cautiously experiment with used iPads, suitably configured Android tablets, or other devices that low-income people could use for many applications such as library books, early childhood education and family literacy, e-forms and interaction with social workers, healthcare providers and teachers. Net video is cheap to use and endlessly more engaging than the telephone alone. I would not rely on the gadgetry to reduce traditional face-to-face contact, rather to augment it.
What’s more, librarians and teachers ideally could offer both technical support and the literacy-related kind, and local agencies, such as those providing healthcare and other services, would be suitably equipped. Early childhood education would be my favorite of all the apps—here are some specifics. Yes, that’s deep in Reinventing Government territory, but worth the time and money to try out in a small way, given the potential savings down the road.
If less adventureous, I would at least check with an e-reader maker about buying up a number of used machines and give away as many as I could afford to low-income people. Bought in bulk, used e–readers might go for $60 or $70.
Those are the kinds of issues I’ve been begging the Digital Public Library of America to take action on, either directly or through alliances with other organizations of all kinds. Unless the DPLA and others pay more attention to the needs of the nonelite, e-books will widen rather than close up the digital and academic divides.