Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

Summary: 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 It isn't great because of its extensive collection, although it actually has quite a few books and local historical references for a town of about 1000 people.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?

Topics: Broadband, Amazon, Fiber, Google, Open Source

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

    This is much more reasonable than Jason's far-fetched vision.
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

      @Monkeypox the problem is that its a solution which is top down, from the wealthy communities. Those are the places where they'll have the resources to find other solutions. There will be a lot of places where the idyllic super-dedicated librarian doesn't exist, where local politicians desperately trying to get or stay elected take the money away, etc. Will the libraries ALL go away? Of course not. They may just go away where they are MOST desperately needed.
      Snark Shark
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @Snark Shark Correct. The idyllic well-funded local governments with heavy taxes and wealthy residents really should be considered exceptions to the general state of libraries at risk.
  • I agree ... the library does not have to die ...

    ... but it does have to evolve. I can easily envision that the e-reader could become the lending-library version of a book with the same kind of time-limit restrictions but there are still many materials which are not well-suited to a 17" LCD screen.

    Those materials which cannot be loaned out can be put on reserve, or can remain available at the reference desk.

    Today, many libraries loan out CD, DVD, and other audio-visual materials. Most provide on-line resources and public computer labs and WiFi as well. The need for that kind of service won't change.

    In many places the library has already become a sort of multimedia provider. As books become obsolete, the library can become a mixture of multimedia service, multimedia museum, and historical museum.

    A place of learning - but more so.
    M Wagner
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it


      "with the same kind of time-limit restrictions"

      Why? Currently the restriction exists because of the physical nature of the books. Once it is digital, why should there be a limit?

      If they have a limit because of the "license" on the digital media, then the library would have a limited amount of licenses which would require returns.

      Some would argue that that is artificial scarcity. Others would argue that that's the only way to keep the writer employed.

      But what about the publisher? Should a Physical book cost the same as a digital book license?

      In this case the publisher would be the library itself. That would allow the library to have many more licensed copies.

      Indeed, digital rights are a modern ethical conundrum.
      • RE: Should a Physical book cost the same as a digital book license?


        Traditionally, the publisher took on the role of printing and distributing printed works. That publisher bore the cost of this printing and distribution, so consequently those costs are reflected in the cost of a printed book.

        With digital publishing, the costs of physically printing a book no longer apply, and it should be possible for authors to distribute their works directly, bypassing publishers. Not unlike how some musical artists could bypass the record companies and sell directly, thus depriving record labels of their profit margins. Not something record labels or book publishers would like to ever see the light of day.

        Personally, I will PAY for a physical CD, because I do not trust the record labels (or book publishers) to act in the best interests of consumers. I still remember Microsoft pulling the plug on `plays for sure` [ya - right]. I also remember the Amazon screw up regarding `1984` and their `yanking your digital copy`.

        IMHO, if you offer a title in digital form, then I feel that the license cost should reflect the fact that physical media is not created, or distributed.
  • Franklin?

    "...since Benjamin Franklin first suggested that a public lending library would be a spiffy idea to create an educated populace?"

    My history books all attribute the idea to Jefferson. Franklin's library in Philadelphia required a paid subscription.
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

      @cdgoldin My recollection is that Franklin gets credit for two reasons. First, he came up with the lending idea (which, yes, they charged for), but then LATER he donated a huge amount of books to what eventually became the Franklin Library in Massachusetts.
      Snark Shark
  • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

    Our library system already has digital books to check out. After two weeks, unless renewed, they disappear -- the one reasonable use for DRM.

    Tomorrow's libraries will have many terminals and few stacks -- perhaps only populated with servers.
  • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

    Locally people voted for a library which cost so much there was no money left for better lines and computer equipment for the schools, very dumb. Last year the school district put out a plea for any used computers that people would donate. A couple of years ago, when they had a tech budget, they would only accept donations of state of the art machines. People talk a good game. As far as I know Uruguay is the only place that bought a laptop for every child. South America is investing in the future while the US is walking things back to the 19th century.
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

      @mswift<br>Wow! I can't believe someone in the USA actually knows about Uruguay's project to give every child attending elementary school, and each of their teachers, a netbook from the One Laptop per Child program.<br>It's indeed a great project, named "Plan Ceibal" in Spanish.<br>I also live in South America, though not specifically in Uruguay (clarification for the geographically-challenged: there are 13 different countries in South America), and my country is starting a similar program but aimed at high school students.<br>Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the first TED Talk held in South America and one of the speakers was Miguel Brechner, the head of the laptop program in Uruguay.<br>Anyway, here's a moving documentary showing how the project is being carried out with some first hand testimonies from the children in Uruguay (sorry, it's only in Spanish, but the scenes speak for themselves):<br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a><br>If you watched it till the end, let me quickly tell you, "yes, that was a child going to school on horseback with a netbook in his backpack". I was also surprised, horseback riding to school is much more the exception than the rule, even in rural areas, but the scene was nonetheless powerful.
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @city_zen Maybe someday the US will have enough resources to provide all our students the same and give all our citizens equal access to information so we can have a well-educated citizenry as well. We can only hope ;-)
  • Either progress is inevitable, or doom is.

    Take your pick. But I recommend you don't be a Luddite.

    Libraries will be replaced with the internet, specifically things like Wikipedia. Besides, libraries have become largely fiction and entertainment heavy focal-points for liberal activists to promote and recruit. The only time anyone goes to the non-fiction section these days is because some class required it. Otherwise, it's videos, music, and magazines interspersed with the occasional cultural highlight of a gay men's choir. (And can you imagine the outrage if a 'straight' men's choir were to attempt a production there?)

    As for the schools, education, and what passes for it, I can only recommend everyone spend some time reading John Gatto's take on it all.

    So, with laptops and internet access costing practically bus-fare, and certainly less than a car and insurance to get to a library with, how on earth can there be a digital underclass? That's like campaigning against a cellular underclass, since, last time I checked, only the homeless don't have cell-phones glued to their ears.

    My advice? HANDS OFF! Otherwise you'll end up with yet another self-promoting, self-perpetuating monopoly, like the NEA, which forces its members into a union whose sole purpose is to stifle and control education rather than make it more accessible and affordable to all, forcing tax-payers to ante-up a king's ransom to the NEA solve the very problem the NEA keeps creating. Over and over and over again.
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

      @Gaius_Maximus National Endowment for the Arts ?
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @Ashtonian National Education Association
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

      @Gaius_Maximus because we all know Wikipedia is a creditable source and that all the random people that edit it are 100% right <img border="0" src="" alt="happy">

      also, I don't have a cellphone and last time I checked I wasn't homeless. People like you make me sick
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @marksteele I find it amazing that the only thing you take offense to in @Gaius_Maximus' post is the comment about cell phones - for the record, even starving people in third-world countries have cell phones. It's understandable if you don't have one because you don't like the price, more people need to do that: North Americans pay more for phones and access than anywhere else on the planet.

        As for the rest, @Gaius_Maximus' homophobia pretty much sets the tone of ignorance and bigotry. I guess he hasn't considered the possibility that libraries are "liberal" because liberals are the people who are most likely to actually _read_.

        John Taylor Gatto, on the other hand, seems to know what he's talking about. He must hate it when he finds himself championed by people like @Gaius_Maximus.
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @rebel_angel... "liberals are the people who are most likely to actually _read_"

        Then why have conservative books dominated the New York Times bestseller list for the last year or more?
      • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it

        @marksteele Sick?! Really?! Why? I don't have a cell-phone either. And I don't want one. But why would I make you sick? Don't you find that a bit rude? Dare I say even threatening? And just what's so sickening about a clear-eyed, candid assessment of facts? Or do they conflict too much with your preferred perspective? Not a librarian, are you? Or a teacher, perhaps?

        As for the reliability of Wikepedia, it's evolving. It'll get there. And it'll be better and for more accessible, and even cheaper than any library.

        Besides, as one who's had to do a fair amount of research, I can tell you that just because it's in a book, was written by someone famous or with lots of letters after their name, or was 'exhaustingly researched', in no way guarantees its accuracy or impartiality.
    • RE: Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it


      I am going to echo what `marksteele` said.

      I DO NOT have a cellphone, and I don't want one either, and believe it or not, I own my own home (free and clear). So there. As the Brits would say: "Bugger Off".