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How e-Books Could Smarten Up Kids and Stretch Library Dollars: A National Plan

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I remember the poverty beat from my newspaper days eons ago in Lorain, Ohio -- a steel town near Cleveland -- where Toni Morrison once lived.

Believe me, I didn't see many welfare mothers with shelf after self of Dickens and the rest, or even romance novels. Today millions of children are still growing up in bookless homes. But suppose a well-stocked national digital library system existed for Americans of different ages, along with the means to encourage schoolchildren and others to use it. Among those benefiting:

  • Students at small colleges without big budgets for either paper or electronic books.
  • Workers who want to upgrade job skills.
  • The elderly. In the future many baby boomers may face challenges of their own -- the inability to drive to the public library or read books of normal type size.
  • People in cash-strapped library and school districts. With cost-savings in mind, a city council member in Los Angeles is already advocating e-books. "I just believe that with technology moving forward, we could save a great deal of money in not having to buy thousands of books each year when they could be made available online," a news account quotes Councilman Bernard Parks. He's off on some details, but yes, if nothing else, libraries shell out big bucks to store and manage paper collections. "E" could automate plenty.
  • Writers and publishers who are suffering from slumping book sales and could well stand a little economic stimulus, in the spirit of the old Federal Writers Project.

Ideally the e-books would be just the start. Imagine blending the system into local schools and libraries, while letting states and localities tailor the national collection to their particular needs. Teach the teachers how to work the library system into their lessons. Getting e-books and other items online isn't enough by itself.

The key would be a full-service approach to help open up the digital library system even to technophobes. For example, we could promote the use of the right laptops and tablets suitable for reading -- even by people who normally were uncomfortable with computers. Slender Kindle-style tablets actually would be easier for many elderly people to use than large-print books. The latter books can be too heavy for the arthritic to hold. Instead of requiring government-issue gizmos for all, we could use the ePub e-book standard and otherwise make certain that a variety of machines would work with the national library collection.

But why not simply a "Kindle in every backpack"? In Florida Robert Kingett, a near-blind student who suffers from tunnel vision and other conditions, says the Kindle is just a useless slab of plastic for him. He hates the Kindles E Ink screen since it isn't as readable for him as a desktop monitor. But he might be very, very happy with zillions of additional books available on his existing desktop or laptop, particularly with text to speech enabled. That's what the right approach would make possible. Especially it could popularize devices such as book-friendly laptops that could be folded into tablets.

We could even cost-justify the digital library system by encouraging the use of the same hardware for tax documents and other paperwork, including health records. Imagine, too, the kick-start that this could give to newspapers. With the right hardware it would be more comfortable to read them at leisure rather than darting from Web page to Web page.

TeleRead, the above plan, is an evolving idea that I've advocated since 1992 in various forms in places ranging from the Washington Post to Computerworld, an MIT-published information science collection and TeleRead.org. Could the technology have finally caught up? I think so. It's the business details and others that we need to get straight. Library e-books are borrowable at thousands of public libraries. Trouble is, the collections are too small and don't address many people's needs -- especially those of children, who will respond better to books precisely matching their interests. Ask any literacy expert.

Other problems exist with library e-books today. Just last week the New York Times told how certain publishers were worried about getting proper payment for use of library e-books. Houses such as Simon & Schuster, which publishes Stephen King and Bob Woodward, are even shunning the library e-book market for this reason. But under TeleRead, there could be provisions for fair compensation based on the popularity of titles. A small telecommunications tax could pay for the system, and so could the cost savings from uses such as electronic forms. Significantly, America is spending hundreds of billions on telecommunications-related activities, many times the expenditures on books.

To keep TeleRead's cost down and reduce culture-war clashes, moreover, we could start out with education-related materials and books out of copyright and expand from there. The system could be carefully developed in steps in a way that did not pre-empt the private side -- I'd hate for government-related institutions to be the only sources of books. But they do have a role to play.

In 1967, the great poverty warrior himself, Lyndon Baines Johnson, said: "I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge -- not just a broadcast system but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use. The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital. A scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York. A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspiration into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected."

Exactly. TeleRead would be a meaningful start toward LBJ's goal. Hello, Barack? How about modernizing our creaky library infrastructure?

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