Mindful of the record number of poor Americans, a thoughtful “Front Line Librarian” in a Southern state is asking an essential question in effect: Why care so much about library e-books and the rest when millions of low-income people lack computers or at least the skills to use them?

Front Line says more reliance on the Net will make their lives harder, not easier.

“The digital divide has not gone away,” he writes in response to my suggestion that library-lovers fill out a Gates Foundation survey on the needs of future, more digitally oriented libraries. “If anything, it is worse now than it ever has been…

“On a daily basis I am helping people who struggle with literacy, never mind using a computer, to apply for jobs like cook, janitor, deck hand. When to apply for a job flipping burgers at a fast food chain requires that you fill out a web form, complete with the ‘captcha’ spam shield, I know there is a problem.”

This was not the Front Line’s intent, but he is strengthening my argument that America urgently needs two intertwined but separate national digital library systems—one public and one academic. I myself worked as a poverty reporter eons ago in an Ohio factory town, and believe me, I of all people know the gap is alive and wide. At the same time, wouldn’t efficient use of technology by libraries and other agencies better satisfy the demands of politicians to “do more with less”? No panacea. But the digital can help, one reason why I like the Net-aware survey even if I also can appreciate Front Line’s concerns. Here are a few points for him and others to consider:

1. The way to narrow the digital divide isn’t to dumb down everyone, but to help those on the wrong side—through training, Net-smart family literacy programs tied in with digital libraries, and other means (hello, Gates Foundation and other philanthropies?). Younger Americans are far, far more comfortable with technology than, say, the librarian’s brother who lacks a smart cellphone. We have a knowledge and attitude gap, not just a wealth one, in this case. I daresay that more than a few ghetto dwellers own smart cellphones even if most don’t. I’d like them to be able to use larger-screened reading devices if desired, but the cellphone example is one illustration of the danger of lumping all low-income people together.

2. The battle is over. Like it or not, U.S. libraries will be much more fully online in the future than they presently are. Now we need to avoid gentrifying the masses out of their own public libraries, both physical and virtual, and to tackle access issues ranging from ergonomically appropriate hardware for reading to the availability of e-books and other items for the cash-strapped. And what about the creation and support of family literacy programs, hardly a core interest of academic librarians?

3. I fear that one humongous digital library system, blending in public and academic libraries, would be dominated by the American elite without sufficient interest in grassroots concerns, including, yes, the availability of the bestsellers that taxpayers demand. Shared content in many and perhaps most cases? Shared technology! Yes! But don’t weaken the digital branches of public libraries by depriving them of the right to form their own national system online. While greater efficiencies would make it desirable to have a common technical services organization for both public and academic libraries, the former need their own national digital system to which the technical services organization is highly responsive. If the services organization is not helpful, then the money won’t be coming from the public library system. Let public libraries deal with this as a true national system whose leaders enjoy the time and preparation to guard their turf.

4. The technical service organization should help libraries line up appropriate hardware for low-income people to use not just in libraries but at home, with proper training available. Far better than just confining them to paper. There is a reason why so much of government and business is online—digital information is so much more timely and so easier to collect, manipulate and absorb. Almost from the first, 20 years ago, I proposed “TeleReaders” (a generic name, not a particular company’s commercial product) that could be used not just for books but also for electronic forms to help cost-justify a national digital library system. A more recent version of this evolving vision is online at TheAtlantic.com.

5. The cost of the hardware has plummeted. In India, the talk is of $20 tablets, and here in the States, the rumor is that Google will release a $99 version of the Nexus 7. This is today. The hardware will only get better and cheaper. Kindle are already in use as readers for African children in the bush, and I’d guess that the wholesale price of the devices is now less than $50. I would not recommend a $50 device as a replacement for elaborately illustrated science textbooks. But imagine the possibilities for encouraging children to enjoy reading, especially for recreational purposes, which can contribute to academic success. If you can go E and if the online library system I’ve envisioned is in place, then you’ll enjoy a much wider selection of books than in print. Remember: students will be more eager readers if they find books matching their precise interests, including in some cases local works In digital form.

6. I am gung ho on the continuation of many librarians’ role as, in effect, social workers. That means help face to face and over the phone in most cases, not by computer. Who says this must disappear with e-books? What’s more, the survey itself gives respondents a chance to rate the importance of “appealing physical space,” so it clearly isn’t as if the Gates people expect physical libraries to vanish entirely.

7. Also, must we immediately have to get rid of all paper books and magazines? This is a process of evolution, not instant revolution. Long term, however, the digital will prevail because of the enticing efficiencies, and the Gates Foundation is absolutely right to plan for this online future—just so libraries can sufficiently address the access issues and related ones, which a two-system approach would make easier.

8. May the Digital Public Library of America—the national digital library initiative with the greatest chances of succeeding, despite its shortcomings—pay attention! Two systems, please.

9. Let the public one include people with the sensitivities of a DPLA participant named Dwight McInvaill, a librarian who serves a county with an illiteracy rate of almost 30 percent. Yes, some experimentation with Kindles and the like is going on in Georgetown County, South Carolina.

10. The above is what we need, as opposed to, “Let’s slow the move to digital because it’ll hurt the poor.” Get them the resources to come along for the ride; encourage well-targeted spending by philanthropies; and remember the efficiencies here, and in seeking government money don’t count people out because of their politics, especially whenWilliam F. Buckley Jr. was an ardent supporter of the TeleRead plan.

Meanwhile I’m grateful to Front Line for speaking out, even if he’d prefer not to use his name right now; yes, a quick online check shows he is authentic. In fact, he was in an email conversation with me and other people a few years back on another matter.

Editor’s Note: This article, which originally appeared on David Rothman’s LibraryCity.org, is Creative Commons-licensed content.

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  1. According to a recent Nielsen Company study, almost 98 percent of Americans own TVs. A 2010 “Wireless” survey said that 85 percent of Americans own cell phones. The Nielsen Company estimated last year at this time, that 1 in 2 Americans had a smart phone with Internet connections. A Seagate survey from 2005 said that 76 percent of Americans own computers.

    All this proves that all but the poorest of the poor will buy the technology they want, and right now, computers aren’t a must have for many, particularly those not born after computers became mainstream.

    A vast majority of Americans don’t read for entertainment or education, and the literacy rate is appallingly low. We need more literacy programs. If people start reading, then a digital library may follow.

  2. @Marilynn: You and I certainly agree on the need for literacy programs! I have trouble envisioning a good national digital library system without them – ideally tightly integrated with the offerings online. As for computer and cell phone ownership, not all devices are well-suited for extended reading by their particular owners. One piece of encouraging news Is that the owners of e-book device tend to read more than those without them, even taking into consideration the cause-effect factor. – David

  3. Loss of focus for an organization (or profession) can be disastrous. Libraries need to focus on what only they can do. They can’t take on the role of schools, much less those of food banks or homeless shelter. And what they do still helps. The public library where I often write has a number of guys who come in who, I know for a fact, often sleep in the bushes at night. They haven’t had any problem learning to use computers online. The library is doing enough by having those computers.

    The causes of illiteracy lie elsewhere, mostly in schools crippled by unionism. That’s what needs to be fixed. And as Harper Lee so aptly described in To Kill a Mockingbird, a lack of interest in reading is often born at home, where parents can’t pass along what they themselves don’t have. Adults who love to read are often children whose best memories of growing up are of their parents reading to them. Story time at libraries can help, but only if parents have enough time and concern to take their kids there.

    Perhaps most depressing of all is Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In the 1960s, some writers warned of dangerous trends in poorer black neighborhoods such as rising rates of out–of-wedlock births and fatherless households. They were attacked by those who thought every problem was rooted in racism and solved by federal programs. Racism was hardly the cause. Murray documents that the same trends are now destroying what used to be the white working class.

    Perhaps his most telling criticism is noting that breakdowns (i.e. rising divorce rates) occurred at all levels of our society in the 1970s, but that the educated, professional classes quickly realized that those breakdowns led to disaster and corrected their own lifestyles. But their response was totally selfish. What they didn’t do was exert who influence they had to convey the same message to those less well off than they. As a result, the majority of births to women under thirty are now to unmarried women.

    And a woman who’s trying to be two parents in one often doesn’t have the time or energy to read stories to their kids. One blighted life produces another. All the library programs in the world aren’t going to solve that problem.

    And we’re certainly not going to solve our problem electing a president who claims that the government (in a campaign add about “Julia”) is the solution to those problems. Federal programs didn’t help that growing black underclass. They made it far worse. They won’t that of whites either.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Michael. TeleRead normally isn’t a place to
    debate national politics – far better to stay on topic – and I’ll get
    to library e-books in time. But since you broached certain issues, let
    me first say that billionaire-friendly tax laws, union busting and
    badly crafted “free trade” legislation have made it more difficult for
    many Americans of all races to live “middle-class” lives. Financial
    challenges are major cause of broken marriages.

    Likewise marriages don’t thrive when a husband, wife or both must hold
    multiple jobs or do too much overtime just to maintain living
    standards at a reasonable level.

    While I agree with Murray and the late Sen. Moynihan that stable
    households are better for children, and while I think that schools
    could prepare future workers better, I’ll look beyond those factors
    for the ultimate blame.

    Libraries are hardly a cure-all, but I love the idea of family
    literacy programs (including home visits) for single-parent families
    and Ozzie and Harriet-style ones alike. I do confess to appreciating
    public libraries as ways to complement schools. Furthermore, library
    e-books can make it easier for children to read for recreation –
    benefiting their academic achievement – even if they’re not always
    able to get to the library. Beyond that, society owes it to families
    and children to at least allow them a chance to improve themselves.
    Methinks Andrew Carnegie would have agreed. Probably Atticus Finch,

    The easier we can make it for children and parents to catch up with
    and care about books, E or P, the better.

    (Wearing his ex-poverty-beat reporter’s hat)

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