Wing-nut censors: One more reason we need TWO national digital library systems

The public library news out of League City, Texas, is grim. By 4-3, the city council voted to ban “obscene” books and let a new board decide which ones are right for minors. It’s part of an ugly national trend reported in the New York Times: “According to a recent report from the free speech organization PEN America, there are at least 50 groups across the country working to remove books they object to from libraries. Some have seen explosive growth recently: Of the 300 chapters that PEN tracked, 73 percent were formed after 2020.”

For now, the banners are targeting local libraries. But what if the United States has a single national digital library system, as some influentials on the library scene have hoped? Censorship risks are a major reason why I myself favor two national digital library systems—one public and one academic. A single system vs. two is an issue for librarians and others to decide. But as a gungho library advocate, going back to the early 1990s, here is my current personal vision.

Ideally, a group like the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies could work with other library organizations to create a national public system, perhaps in cooperation with the Library of Congress. The Digital Public Library of America could evolve separately into the Academic Library of America. A national library endowment, funded by a mix of public and private money, could help support both systems. So could dues from members of the two systems. Board members of the two systems could overlap. Perhaps some would also sit on the endowment board. The two systems could share some people, infrastructure, and other resources to avoid redundancies.

But why two systems? Let’s not allow wing-nut censors to sabotage the knowledge infrastructure of higher education. High-powered lawyers from top law schools could defend freedom of expression in both systems, but the public one would be the more vulnerable to demagogues. Better to have two national digital library systems and reduce the chance of complete censorship at the national library level in one fell swoop. Public library users could still benefit from the academic system. But for full access, users of the academic system might have to sign terms-of-service forms agreeing to avoid lawsuits over controversial content that the librarians wanted to include. They might also pay a small fee, with special exemptions for low-income people. I myself would prefer that every item in every library be free without any membership required, but under this scenario, academia would be far better fortified against the know-nothings, whether the topic was gender-related or anything else that offended political or religious extremists.

Of even greater importance, two systems would also be better because of the desirability of a public system focusing on general needs while an academic system prioritized those of colleges and universities and their students and researchers. Let’s not directly pit valuable tomes and essential research journals against bestsellers, rural outreach, family literacy programs, or library-related broadband initiatives that public libraries and their patrons need.

Business models are another issue. Commercial publishers, including the giants with the cash to mass-promote content to the hilt, would hate the idea of public libraries forcing them to use the open-access model for, say, bestsellers. Most likely Congress wouldn’t pass a law anyway to make this a reality. But here’s an idea to help reconcile the different business models. The public system could use open access for items such as books that most likely would never interest the big publishers anyway. Writers and publishers could be paid in advance for professional-quality open-access works. Royalties, too, based on download counts? That’s an issue to be decided on, case by case. If open-access is indeed international, which many and perhaps most say it would be by definition, additional royalty-related questions would need to be addressed. Maybe the term just wouldn’t apply. All this discussion of open access does not preempt my personal approval of laws to protect libraries’ access to commercial materials at reasonable costs under traditional business models. But let’s also consider other scenarios.

As for the academic system, it could not only collect, curate, organize, and distribute content but also publish or help publish it for the world at large, including the public system. This could include popular-level writings, for which it could pay flat fees in advance to assure full ownership forever in many cases. In others, there could be possible opportunities for royalties and other deviations from the advance-only model. But open access would be the norm. Needless to say, the academic system could also help pay for open-access journals and otherwise promote the concept. Any open-access item on the academic side would, of course, be available to the public one and vice versa. Imagine the chance to enrich budget-strapped collections on both sides of the aisle.

Here I’ve focused on one national digital library system vs. two. But I’ll take yet another shot at talking up the endowment concept despite the popularity of “spend everything down” among certain people in philanthropic circles. Libraries’ financial needs are ongoing. Even if courts finally decide for all eternity that libraries can truly own ebooks under a “one user at a time” print model, there will be other costs such as payment for use of databases from newspapers, magazines, and other content or services. Not to mention noncontent-related fees, from salaries to maintenance expenses. Books and other content are only about 11 percent of a typical public library budget.

But content, given the ease of sharing it nationally in a digital era, is a good place for a national endowment and related activities to start. And for that, let’s go with a two-system approach.

The above are the personal opinions of David H. Rothman, a LibraryEndowment.org co-founder.

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