Fantastic article/long blog post by David Rothman on James Fallows’s blog about the need for a national digital library system that makes it possible for libraries to lend e-books. He makes a clear case for why a national digital library system would increase literacy and help working-class families. He also makes a strong case for digital libraries being an asset in job re-training. Admittedly, part of Rothman’s argument is driven by the increasing popularity of e-readers such as the Kindle and the iPad, and I’m not entirely convinced that working-class families are going to invest in such devices. He’s making an argument about access and literacy, but I really do think the gaps in technological access in this country get downplayed by technology writers. I have students who can barely afford to have internet access, much less a personal computer with Microsoft Office, which means they really do have problems typing a paper and saving it. It becomes problematic for many students, who, because of limited access to technology, don’t know about other options such as Google docs or Open Office. Or when they do know about these options, they don’t have consistent access to the internet in order to use them. Many of these students live 45 minutes or more away from the school, and so telling them to use the library or computers labs on campus is not exactly a useful solution. If the problem of access can be worked out, then I’m even more on board with this idea than I am now.
He also all but ignores other models like the Nook, which I think would strengthen his argument. One of the reasons I chose the Nook over the Kindle is because of its partnership with Adobe. A lot of the texts I read outside of the e-books offered by Barnes and Noble are PDFs.
Nevertheless, I’m fully convinced by his argument for a national digital library. I think the mechanism for delivery and the issues of access are ones that can be solved (perhaps through the broadband access initiatives or others ones like it). As a nineteenth-century periodicals scholar, most of my work is facilitated through digital services like Pro Quest’s C 19 and Gale’s digital archives. Yet, both of these services/databases are too expensive for my university library, and really, beyond me and my students, there isn’t a demand here yet for periodical research. I’m hoping that will change once our library expansion is complete, and we can make the claim that we are one of the few research libraries in the region. In the meantime, I contribute to my alma mater’s library fund so I can have access to these databases. It’s great for me–I help other students have access at my alma mater and I have access–but it’s bad for my students here. I want them to have access too. A digital library system would make periodical research possible for more people outside of research 1 or particularly aggressive research 2 universities. Free services like Google Books and the Hathi Digital Trust do provide more resources, but the searchability is low and the collections are incomplete. A digital library system that functions much more like C 19 would make these texts more accessible to students and much more searchable.