Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?

Libraries will need to be replaced with digital equivalents as publishing moves towards eBooks. As a result, will a new "Digital Underclass" be created from the base of technology have-nots?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Over the past several years we've seen an ever-increasing move towards digital media as the preferred way of distributing books, magazines and newspapers.

Whether it's eBooks, websites or some other form of digitized distribution mechanism, the writing is on the wall for the printed "dead tree" medium.

Within 20 years, perhaps even as few as 10, virtually almost all forms of popular consumable written media will be distributed exclusively in an electronic format.

While there are clear advantages to digital media, such as the instantaneous purchase and delivery of that content, elimination of book shortages at bookstores as well as the obvious portability benefits, it has a sociological impact that many have not considered.

The "Have Nots" of society may find themselves denied access to an entire range of content they enjoyed previously with the printed book, newspaper or magazine.

What I'm talking about of course is the Public Library. You know, those big, quiet buildings in your town filled with shelves of books, card catalogs, and librarians to help you find that material.

In a fully digital society, we won't need Public Libraries anymore. They won't be cost effective, and there will be far less new printed books, magazines and newspapers being released to stock these libraries with.

The demise of the Public Library will be a slow one. As printed content becomes more scarce and less people visit the libraries, there will be a culling which will start with library consolidation in towns, counties, major metropolitan areas and states.

Instead of having 75 public libraries in say, a local library system (such the BCCLS that my wife and I enjoy in Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the most populous counties in the United States) there may only be 20 libraries. Or less. Some less-fortunate areas of the country might be forced to shutter their libraries entirely.

This almost already happened, such as in the case of Salinas, California, which would have had to shut down all of their libraries in 2005 had there not been intervention due to a last-minute tax increase, but they now run at reduced hours.

In recent years, New York has had to close several branches of their extensive Public Library system and reduce hours of operations due to funding cuts, and Philadelphia has had to cut funding to their public parks system, police and fire departments in order to keep all of its libraries open.

In the last several hundred years, Public Libraries have been a cornerstone of having a literate society, and it's something that many consider to be a basic human right -- free access to books and information, paid by the state and local governments from our collective tax dollars.

In contrast, most e-Book and digital media consumption requires a personal outlay of funds.

With e-books, you pay Amazon, Barnes & Noble, SONY or Apple or any number of other 3rd-parties to download books. Those books cannot be gifted or shared with someone else, as with real, tangible printed media.

Even though you may have bought it, they are typically tied to the platform that they run on, such as the Kindle and NOOK readers and software for smartphones and tablets.

This in and of itself is an issue that needs to be dealt with -- should books really be considered software, with EULAs? Should there be laws in place that ensure the perpetuity of purchased content, should Amazon or some other company fold? Or should standardized data formats, such as EPUB, be required for eBooks so that the entitlements are transferable to other platforms?

While there are limited e-book lending programs in place with DRM-enabled EPUB files for the Nook and the SONY readers, and there is a certain amount of free e-book content available, that material is in the minority. So if you want to be able to read e-books, you need to possess a certain amount of technology and/or capital as an individual.

This is not the case with public libraries. At a Public Library, you walk in and read what you want, for as long as you like, for free, because you pay state and local taxes that fund their operation.

To check that material out of the library on loan, you typically only need to prove residency for that town, city, or county. No technology is required, although at bare minimum, you might need some paid transportation to get to a library, depending on how far you live from one.

In a digital society where almost all books and written media are electronic, the Public Library needs to be rebooted, especially if as a society we are to continue the tradition of providing free access to books and periodicals.

It means that we need to guarantee that citizens have access, even if they are poor. It means each citizen needs access to free bandwidth to get books and they need devices to read the material on. We can assume that everyone in 10 years will be able to afford a smartphone or a super-inexpensive tablet device with inexpensive Internet connectivity, but that's an awful big assumption.

And assuming that we aren't going to cede the distribution of all electronic books to the Amazons of the world, then we need to start thinking about how we build that Digital Public Library infrastructure. Does it make sense to build datacenters at the state or county level with huge e-book/e-media repositories?

Or should this really be something that should be built at the Federal level, like an Electronic Library Of Congress where every US citizen gets access, with representative funding coming from each state, or earmarked Federal funding that would have gone towards paying for brick and mortar libraries?

And if we do build an Electronic Library of Congress, with free access for all citizens, then how does e-procurement work? How many electronic copies of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo do you need to have on hand for the entire population of the US, the entire State of New Jersey or even Bergen County?

And if you've loaned out all your "copies" or entitlements, what happens when someone needs another copy? Do you procure it from Amazon or another vendor or publisher electronically and charge the user an optional expediter fee (such as a fraction of the book's cost) if they don't want to wait?

I don't know the answer to these questions, and I know that there are even more questions that need to be asked. But we need to start thinking about them, before we have tens of millions of people -- a new Digital Underclass -- who won't be able to get books as easily as they used to.

Are we creating a new "Digital Underclass" with the elimination of printed media? Talk Back and Let Me know.

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