national digital librariesLibraryCity has just posted a major series telling how an initiative for national digital libraries could serve ordinary people here in the U.S., not merely the American elite.

Sounds like a given. But it isn’t, alas. The Digital Public Library of America is a wonder, but judged by the Five Laws of Library Science, it is more for academics and others in the elite than for the country as a whole. I’m reminded of the old Literary Digest poll saying that Alf Landon would wallop FDR in the 1936 election. The Digest relied too much on well-off respondents and was out of touch with the masses.

That’s the university-dominated DPLA, even though, yes, I can see some gems from its collection showing up in K-12 curricula. What the DPLA isn’t doing is offering a comprehensive plan to use digital libraries to help typical American library patrons change their lives for the better. Even if it does, I’m skeptical that the academics dominating DPLA could execute it well despite their excellent intentions and their brilliance in their specialties.

So what’s an alternative vision, more respectful of the non-elite’s needs, especially those of the low-income people who want to improve themselves—with help from teachers and librarians (content alone isn’t enough!)?

Here are the three posts in my LibraryCity series, which also might be of interest to people outside the States:

jimduncanA related series, by LibraryCity contributor Jim Duncan (photo), executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, concludes with a deftly argued call for the two separate national digital library systems, one public and one academic, as well as the endowment. He is a veteran librarian with experience in the academic world, not just on the public library side.

Both of us want close cooperation between the two systems, somewhat overlapping boards, a joint technical services and infrastructure organization, and a lot more content from the academic world in public libraries. We simply don’t want even top-tier, well-regarded academics to impose their particular visions on smart and dedicated public librarians already expert in such issues as family literacy and the digital divide.

Perhaps also of interest: An earlier post on the ground-breaking Bexar County BiblioTech project, a digital library for the San Antonio area in Texas. Just this afternoon, a Bexar County official told me that BiblioTech is up to 11,500 cardholders in only about two months, or 1,500 more than the figure the new LibraryCity series mentions. Imagine how much Bexar, which has 10,000 e-books, a nice start but no Google Books, could benefit from well-stocked national digital collections.

What Bexar does offer besides e-books? Librarians and tech support staffers. Without shelving chores and the like, staffers can engage in more patron contact and more outreach. In the end, E can lead to more of a human touch. Let’s just make certain that the collections are more than big enough and that the business models are more friendly to libraries than they are today (certainly endowment money could help address the latter issue by making libraries more important and thus more influential in the e-book market).

I’m not saying, “Toss out all paper books tomorrow.” But libraries need to speed up the digital shift or, as Part Three in the latest series warns, the library world could be “Amazon’s Oyster.”


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