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Real Books on the Internet

The op-ed article below appeared in the Washington Post of Aug. 21, 1996. Feel free to spread it around with proper credit.-DHR

By David H. Rothman

Paul Roberts writes little snippets on dead composers, and other encyclopedia-style material, for electronic "books." In a recent issue of Harper's Magazine, he warns of a "Virtual Grub Street" of writers cranking out hackwork for CD-ROM producers and computer nets, as opposed to creating traditional, full-length works.

Roberts is hardly the only one grouchy about the new media's treatment of books. In the best-seller Silicon Snake Oil, Cliff Stoll takes one potshot after another at the idea that the Internet is a godsend for schools, libraries and society in general. Bemoaning the scarcity of true books on-line, he says the Net lacks easy answers to such questions as, "What political compromises caused Bismarck to become the capital of North Dakota?" and "What's the history of the Ruhr Valley, and what are the implications of its new Eastern European competition?"

Suppose, however, that we could get our public library system on the Net, with the full texts of real books -- not just electronic catalogues or multimedia snippets. It's a timely question right now. Washington is considering the National Information Infrastructure Copyright Protection Act of 1995, which, in the opinion of many law professors, would encourage "metered knowledge" or licensing arrangements that poorer school districts could not afford.

In other words, instead of getting books free at your local library, you might have to pay. Libraries could cough up money and license works from publishers for free distribution to patrons, but the inequalities between school districts still would go on-line. Beverly Hills, for example, has budgeted $34 per citizen for library materials, while Shasta County in the same state has set aside 25 cents. The average American school district is spending just $125 per child per school year on intellectual property, which can include everything from The Great Gatsby to a driver's ed video.

This miserliness toward books -- coupled with the talk of more restrictive copyright law -- isn't good news for children and the rest of us. Like nothing else, books encourage sustained thought. Many Americans, however, would rather spend big money on glitzy interactive entertainment than pay to read books off computers ill-suited for the task. At the same time, millions of young people are growing up accustomed to screens rather than "pulped wood," as they call it.

So how can we ensure the survival of traditional books -- and at the same time also help disadvantaged children in budget-strapped schools and bookless homes? Here is a three-part plan, which I call TeleRead.

As Part I, we would start a federal program for schools and libraries to help them buy small, tablet-shaped machines with screens sharper than those of typical portables today. Such hardware would be useful not just for e-books but also for electronic magazines and newspapers. Obviously, with detachable keyboards, TeleReaders also could be used for electronic mail and for other Internetting, not to mention educational purposes in general.

The school-and-library market could serve as a carrot for Silicon Valley to develop "TeleReaders" selling for, say, $99.95 at the local K-Mart. Prices would not drop that low in a blink, but judging by past technological trends, they'd get there sooner or later. TeleRead would speed up the process. The idea wouldn't be to get every American a free computer. Rather it would be to popularize the right machines and slash the cost so almost everyone could afford them and use them.

Part II would be a well-stocked library -- available through the Net -- that would offer fiction and nonfiction on a wide variety of topics. Publishers and writers would be paid according to the popularity of their works, just as they are today. Mechanisms for counting the use of individual books would be akin to those of pay-per-read plans, except that the money would come from a national library fund and there would be much less incentive for bootlegging. The technical means exist to protect readers against Orwellian monitoring of their reading habits.

Many librarians in many cities, not just Washington, would choose books eligible for royalties. Publishers and writers could gamble money to bypass the librarians, or to qualify for higher payments; market incentives would survive and thrive in a new form. What's more, as a final safeguard against bureaucrats dictating our reading tastes, we could allow rejected publishers and writers to distribute books directly through the Internet or, yes, on paper. Even if accepted, books still could be published independently on "pulped wood."

But how could the country pay for TeleRead itself? This is Part III. We could start small with a series of meaningful demonstration projects; and we could justify the program's costs by using TeleReaders for purposes such as electronic forms. In our $7 trillion economy, we're spending hundreds of billions in time and money on paperwork. Reduce that amount just slightly, and we'll more than justify a well-stocked national digital library. Washington might take a hint from companies such as Federal Express, which lends computers to some shippers for free and gives away software.

Sophisticated electronic forms could guide us through tax matters step by step and reduce the number of questions from the IRS or other tormentors.

Clearly, even in an austere era, politicians need to consider this child-friendly alternative to onerous copyright laws for "protecting" books. Wouldn't it be ironic if Washington, in its zeal to safeguard books from piracy, actually killed off the medium?

David H. Rothman is an author who writes about the Internet.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company