Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

Jason Perlow's vision of a digital underclass can be prevented, but only through the rapid evolution of our vision of what a library should be (and the support of vital stakeholders).

Jason Perlow wrote a great piece this afternoon asking if the digital revolution, particularly as it relates to books and libraries, was creating a "Digital Underclass". When the printed media on which libraries have traditionally relied and the funding that supports them both go away (and both the money and the media will, without a doubt, go away), where will the technology have-nots go to access literature, reference materials, newspapers, and the wealth of information with which our libraries have provided us since Benjamin Franklin first suggested that a public lending library would be a spiffy idea to create an educated populace?

I'm very lucky. I live in a tiny town on an idyllic rural New England Common that happens to include a great library. It isn't great because of its extensive collection, although it actually has quite a few books and local historical references for a town of about 1000 people. Our library is great because it's run by a generous and devoted woman with a PhD and a vast knowledge of literature that she chooses to share with our little community for a ridiculously small salary. Oh yeah, and she's leveraged open source tools to save even more money that can be reinvested in the library.

It's also a great library because she (and many supporters in the community) have chosen to make it a hub for broadband access, community activities, school partnerships, and countless other functions that are only peripherally related to books. And the books? Interlibrary loans compensate for any shortcomings in the collection. My kids and I have yet to find a title that she can't get from somewhere.

The library as an institution doesn't need to die. I would argue that it doesn't even need a reboot as Jason sugests. It simply needs to evolve just as the small library in our tiny town has. The library is one of the key anchor institutions that will enable high-speed, fiber-based broadband to reach our little town, about half of which still relies on dial-up and the other half of which tops out at 3mbps when the wind isn't blowing too hard.

The Internet, of course, is the key to information this century in the same way that printed media were in previous centuries. Libraries, on the other hand, are keys to leveling the playing field for Jason's digital have-nots. Libraries need to become digital portals for those who lack computing access and broadband. Librarians must become shepherds to digital data for those who lack the resources (technological, financial, or otherwise) to navigate information in the Internet Age.

When funding dries up, libraries will need to partner and even merge with schools whose computer labs and high-speed Internet access go unused for 16 hours a day. It doesn't matter if librarians, with their research and growing media expertise, engage the community from an actual library or a high school media center. There is simply no excuse for a digital divide to exist when public resources exist and can be leveraged by the right institutions (i.e., libraries and schools).

Access to information is one thing; a good librarian can do wonders with a few databases, Google, and some time to teach modern research and search techniques. Jason's concerns about DRM creating additional barriers to books as they become increasingly digital, however, are well-founded. I've asked repeatedly how textbook (and traditional book, for that matter) publishers will address educational needs in a digital setting where books are shared among many users. The same need exists in libraries and Jason called out several questions that publishers haven't even bothered to answer.

No doubt, devices will soon be cheap enough that libraries will be able to lend simple e-readers, but without the copyrighted content, all the cheap e-ink and LCDs in the world won't make a difference in preventing the emergence of a digital underclass.

Libraries, the Internet, copyright holders, and public institutions can all bridge the digital divide and prevent the disparities in access that Jason fears. I bet it won't be too hard to get libraries and schools on board. Is anyone at Amazon listening?


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