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New Pew survey helps show need for full-strength digital libraries— especially if we’re to help Hispanics, African-Americans and the poor.

Should Pew researchers survey pewcharthispanicsandblacks[1]Americans on the need for a national digital library endowment and two separate digital library systems—-one public and one academic? Definitely, if you extrapolate from a new Pew poll.

Those issues do not directly come up in the survey, which showed robust support for public libraries. But Pew does find that “books and media” are “very important” library offerings for 54 percent of the country as a whole. That is the highest of nine categories, and the endowment could be a major funding source for the e-books and other digital items in increasingly high demand.

Alas, only around 13 percent of U.S. public libraries’ operational spending goes for actual content.


Furthermore, as of FY 2010 the libraries were spending only $4.22 per capita on content, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That was a mere $1.3 billion—about the cost of just one military office complex in Northern Virginia.

A national digital library endowment could help multiply the number of books and other items available through local libraries, which could cobrand digital catalogues from a national collection. Digital items come with inherent efficiencies, such as ease of storage and elimination of such needs as costly physical storage, shelving and manually performed checkouts. Paper books could still exist. But let’s expand particularly in ways offering the most value for library patrons and taxpayers.

Libraries are and should be about much more than books, but no matter how often some librarians talk of “repositioning” or whatever the most fashionable marketing term is nowadays, it would be folly to downplay the importance of “book warehouses”—electronic or physical. Books are public libraries’ calling cards.


In other significant findings, Pew reports that 62 percent of African-Americans and 67 percent of Hispanics say “books and media” are “very important,” compared to 54 percent for the whole country. And 61 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year selected “very important,” a heftier percentage than the 49 percent among those with incomes of $75,000 and higher. A racial and class gap when it comes to library content?

Yes, and the Pew results jibe well with the facts in my own city, Alexandria, VA. It’s the country’s Number One city in the latest Amazon ranking of books bought per capita, even though there were only 7.5 library checkouts per capita compared to 13 in neighboring Fairfax County in FY 12. We know well-off Alexandrians are reading. But what about their poorer neighbors, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, who almost surely rely more on libraries for content?

Significantly, Alexandria’s per capita spending on content is still less than the national average despite all the BMWs around here, even after we library advocates fought off planned cuts.

OK, so what’s Washington doing about popular-level library e-books  for the typical patron? Not nearly as much as it could despite some notable exceptions. I voted for Barack Obama and am a lifelong Democrat. But his record on digital public library issues so far is not distinguished. The Obama Administration in effect has farmed out discussion of national digital matters to a nonprofit originated as a project at Harvard Law School, the President’s alma mater. The Digital Public Library of America is the start of a very, very promising academic system for the U.S., but as the beginning of a public collection serving mainstream needs, it is a failure.

The DPLA’s real interest has been in assembling links to public domain books and historical documents and other items—not in creating a funding-and-acquisitions process to help buy the recent copyrighted books that public library patrons overwhelmingly prefer. Susan Flannery, director of libraries in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has said: "The books we purchased in last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year,” while “The rest went out 2.44 times.”

The real solution would be a mix of a national digital library endowment and two digital library systems—a public system focused on mass needs and an academic one building on the DPLA’s highly useful work.

Let the twin systems collaborate endlessly and share plenty of content, somewhat overlapping boards and a common digital catalogue and a joint infrastructure and technical services organization (ideally with help from a buyout of OverDrive, the main supplier of library e-books). And let everyone be able to access the academic system directly. But please do not confuse the main missions of public and academic libraries and try to turn the former into the latter or even risk doing so in the future. No public library gentrification, please.

A good start for the bright and well-intentioned people at the DPLA would be to rename the organization the Digital Academic Library of America and work with COSLA, a legitimate “public” library organization, to start a separate public system called simply the National Digital Library of America. Don’t use “Public Library” in the name. Save that phrase for the branding of local libraries.

More attention to these issue from the U.S. media and top policymakers would be welcome. Few Americans are truly aware of the pittance that our country spends of public library content—the very stuff that counts so much in  bringing them to libraries in the first place and help fuel such initiatives as family literacy campaigns.

Even if the library crisis isn’t a burning issue for the most of the American press right now, perhaps the Pew Foundation can poll Americans on the endowment question while adding a little background to put the issue in perspective. Here are two suggested questions:

1. “American public libraries are spending only around $4.20 per person on public library books each year. How much do you think the figure should be?” Pew could report the average numbers for the country as a whole and also by region and for various ethnic and income groups.

2. “Do you like the idea of a national digital library endowment—started almost entirely with voluntary contributions from the super rich? It would help public libraries buy more e-books and also help pay for the training and hiring of school librarians, among other things.”

With or without a Pew poll, shouldn’t Washington care?Consider this finding from Pew: "95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading." Via the endowment and twin-systems concepts, here is a chance for President Obama and Congress to reinvent public libraries them in ways that dramatically advance those popular goals.

Furthermore, given the interest of both major parties in courting Hispanic-Americans, it would be a lost opportunity for both to neglect the content issues of special importance to this ethnic group. If nothing else, remember that in the next few decades, nonHispanic whites will be a minority of the U.S. population.

Let me add that laws to prevent content-providers from gouging libraries would also be desirable. E-books are inherently more efficient to distribute than paper books are, and we want to make certain that publisher don’t get in the way of this. No anti-publisher sentiments, though—just the opposite. In fact, we’re talking about huge opportunities for publishers and ideally even a Library Publisher complex in time, if the digital library systems prove as popular as I’m confident they will be. That’s where the money is for both sides.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

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