Note: This appeared in 2013 in a slightly different form on the LibraryCity.org site.
Carmela and Ed Hernandez and their children don’t exist.
But if you want to understand the need for a national library endowment and two national digital library systems, this hypothetical example could serve us well.
The Hernandezes live in Bexar County, Texas, just outside San Antonio, one of America’s fastest-growing cities and itself part of the county. The CBS Evening News ran a segment on Bexar BiblioTech, the first all-digital public library system in the U.S. Click here to watch it.
Both Carmela and Ed are Hispanics, one of America’s largest minority groups—in fact, three-fifths of San Antonio’s population. Carmela, 25, works as in the stockroom of a small medical supply company, while Ed, 27, is a pumper at a gas station and a part-time cook at a fast-food restaurant. Jennifer, 6, is a first grader, and a little brother, Al, is two years younger. Carmela has taken courses at a community college; her husband has only a high school education. Their parents, Mexican born, did not go past the ninth grade and still cannot speak English as fluently as they would like.
Welcome to the new America, a country where, in the next few decades, nonHispanic whites will be a minority and where the middle class might also make up a smaller percentage.
Libraries on their own can’t conjure up the old prosperity. But America’s library crisis to a great extent is an education and jobs issue in disguise, as well as a class, ethnic, and racial one, exacerbated by the hostility of some older white voters and policymakers toward spending on the needs of people different from them. Digital counts endlessly here, given its potential to stretch tax dollars and increase reading choices and others for library patrons, as well as serve them in new ways.
This isn’t just a Texas crisis or one for minority and low-income people. Fairfax County, VA, among America’s richest counties and predominantly nonHispanic white despite many Asian and Latino enclaves, was spending a mere $2.92 per capita in FY 2010 on public library books and other content. That’s even less than our pathetic national average at the time of $4.22, as reported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The $4.22 figure, while old, most likely has not changed significantly.
Via a scenario set in the year 2020, the present essay tells how the Hernandezes could benefit in a major way from libraries’ use of digital technology, aided by both national efforts and the all-digital BiblioTech library near them in Bexar County. We see hope. Within just two months, more than 10,000 people have signed up for library cards from BiblioTech, and most of the free e-book readers were checked out. The BiblioTech approach is not for every locality, and in fact, we’d like to see at least some paper books available for younger children and others at all libraries. Variants of the vision, however, could be just the ticket for some cash-strapped cities and counties in need of new libraries in areas not served by existing ones.
Imagine rural America, moreover. Could the population declines there be partly due to lack of adequate service from public institutions such as libraries? BiblioTechs, along with better WiFi, might at least help.
But how can we stock BiblioTeches and digital public library branches with enough e-books and other content, especially items matching patrons’ individual interests? BiblioTech’s initial collection of 10,000 titles was just a speck of the size of Amazon’s inventory, and, even enlarged, can grow only so much. And don’t say, “Well, just let the Hernandezes buy from Amazon and other bookstores on and offline.” Between rent and groceries and and transportation and medical bills and debt payments, the family has little left for nonessentials.
Likewise of importance, how do we get the Hernandezes interested in books and other library offerings in the first place? And what about the use of libraries as gateways to social services for the Hernandezes from other government organizations?
An upper-middle-class white woman in Fairfax County, Virginia, warns that many like her won’t be able to relate to the Hernandez example. So be it. That’s part of the problem. All too often, some public libraries go for the low-hanging fruit, the affluent audience segments least in need of their services. Just remember that well-run national digital library systems could benefit the people of Bethesda and Beverly Hills, too—not just directly, but also by way of a smarter workforce to help pay for retirement benefits of the present and future elderly of all races and socioeconomic groups. In that sense, we all need first-class libraries, both physical and digital, both traditional and nontraditional like BiblioTech.
THE HERNANDEZ SCENARIO
No dummy, Carmela once dreamed of winning a bachelors degree in nursing, but she struggled with both English and math. She grew up in a home where her mother and father did not speak and read to her often enough, the way better-off parents can. This on top of her parents’ English language challenges! Both parents had to juggle around more than one job to scrape by. On top of everything else, poverty itself can be a ruthless distraction.
Carmela’s overworked teachers could not give her the one-to-one attention she craved. She dropped out of community college because she lacked time for both her regular courses and remedial work—challenges aggravated by obesity and related medical issues such as diabetes, as well as her motherly duties.
Worn out from her stockroom labors, Carmela can barely manage to pick up her kids from her parents and cook dinner, before flopping down on the couch in front of her flat-screen television to enjoy her reality shows, soap operas, and vampire programs when her husband isn’t watching sports and crime shows. The TV is an economy model from WalMart, and Carmela and Ed are still paying it off.
How the public national digital library system connects Carmela with her local librarians—and books and other patrons
One night Carmela’s favorite vampire series runs a public service announcement from the national digital public library system—a catchy commercial made and promoted with financing from the endowment.
A separate academic national digital system focuses on the needs of academics and researchers, and the public system distributes university-originated material from the academic system for patrons wanting it. But with career public librarians setting priorities, the public system can truly fixate on wooing and serving the masses. Offering annotated Henry James is not the best way to fire up the Hernandezes about books, reading, and knowledge.
“Love hot sexy vampire romance?” purrs the female announcer on Carmela’s TV. “Get it for free from your local public library. Check out paper books in person. Or borrow an e-book reader or enjoy the blood-letting on your own cellphone. Gain new computer and parenting skills, too. Enjoy free educational opportunities. And make new friends while you’re at it! “
Other commercials, cleverly placed in context on just the right shows, appeal mainly to men or target both sexes.
Few of these public service announcements are as wild as the vampire one. But like good public librarians in real life, the national digital public system does whatever it can to win new patrons and engage the existing ones in appropriate ways. Puritans are not likely to be most avid watchers of sexy vampire shows.
Lured by the Fabio-like actor in the announcement, Carmela dials an 800 number, gives her location and is connected to BiblioTech. She almost hangs up. Can she find the time and energy for a library visit?
But the BiblioTech woman understands the hassles here: “You’re a great candidate for e-reading. We’re even giving away tablet computers for people who qualify.” It’s true. Carmela isn’t among the poorest of the poor, but the librarian is empowered to make her an exception due to chronic health problems. The taxpayers and her insurance company will come out ahead. Once in Carmela’s hands, the tablet can be a gateway not only to services from the library but also from other county agencies, including health- and parenting-related ones. BiblioTech started just loaning out e-readers and tablets. But the costs have come down so much by 2020 that in some cases it’s actually more cost-effective to give them away.
Carmela and her husband own a clunky old PC, ridden with viruses and and attached to blurry monitor, but mostly it sits unused, and she is amazed and delighted when the BiblioTech librarian shows her the new tablet.
The business and technical details
Books are a snap to enjoy. Carmela thinks she’s getting them directly from the Bexar County’s digital library system, judging from the logo on her screen, but actually they are coming from a number of far-off servers—even the titles that BiblioTech obtains on its own.
E-books make more business sense than ever to libraries by the year 2020. Federal and state laws now prohibit publishers from overcharging libraries for digital titles or depriving them of electronic editions in the first place. Besides, libraries enjoy far more purchasing leverage as a result of the endowment. Thanks to this volume and libraries’ aggressive promotion of reading, though, publishers fare better than ever.
Also, recognizing the folly of mostly dealing with publishers through middle people, the public and academic digital library systems teamed up on the purchase of OverDrive, by far the biggest supplier of e-books for school and libraries. Public libraries have remained public, rather than being privatized in a de facto way with OverDrive’s CEO serving in effect as America’s digital public librarian. The OverDrive people helped make a smooth transition and are still available as consultants, but librarians are now in charge. Societal needs, not Wall Street profits, come first even though the endowment paid OverDrive fairly and the New York investors turned a nice profit.
Nothing against private enterprise. The new OverDrive is free to subcontract and help libraries buy tablets, other goods, content, and services from Amazon, Google, 3M, and others. Operating on a national scale, the combined infrastructure organization of the public and academic digital systems can cut much better deals with providers of good and services than individual states and localities can on their own. At the same time the private side benefits from more library spending than before while the taxpayers are getting much more value per dollar. The two national digital library systems are expansions of pioneering efforts at the state level in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Over the decades, the reinvented OverDrive will save the taxpayers billions compared to alternatives. It will work with cable and phone companies and other local Internet providers, including municipal systems, to deal with WiFi-related issues. Carmela can just switch on her tablet and enjoy books and other offerings—she doesn’t have to worry about router settings and other geekish matters.
But what are the nuts and bolts of actually paying for Carmela’s books? The endowment can’t singlehandedly do this on its own. But some of the library money directed for paper books now goes for the electronic kind, in the form of fees from Carmela’s library to the national digital public library system. As for more traditional systems, librarians have worried about paying for both e-books and paper books. The endowment at least eases the transition.
The business models for individual e-titles vary. The national public digital library system has paid up front for some books and can offer them to an unlimited number of patrons, either simultaneously or through one loan at a time. For other titles, the public system pays reasonable usage fees per checkout. This isn’t as as desirable for libraries as their owning the books and never having to pay again. But many librarians wanted some flexibility to gain access to the most popular titles. Loan periods vary. They are often shorter for the hottest new bestsellers unless patrons want to wait for the same books with the customary periods. That’s one way to expose more patrons to a particular title, while also keeping publishers happy since more temptation will exist to use the “Buy” links to the library catalogue. Independently owned local stores get links for free. If patrons buy through the digital library systems, which collect small commissions from publishers and e-bookstores, they get an added bonus, electronic book lockers, through which e-books will be forever available, regardless of changes in technical standards. In fact, library advocates are pushing for legislation to make the lockers work with all books and other items, no matter how people purchase them.
Carmela at this point cannot afford to buy many books. But by way of a check-off on the Hernandez family’s federal tax form—when they are ready—they can participate in a low-cost subscription plan, free to the poorest of the poor. They can also sign up in other ways.
Everything is seamless, as if Carmela were using a Kindle. In fact, it’s even simpler. She can tap on colorful icons to find books within a certain genres or on topics of her choice. And she never has to worry about the complexities of digital rights management, the technology libraries use to enforce expiration dates and publishers use to try to discourage piracy. Everything happens automatically behind scenes. When a book expires, it just vanishes from her machine, just as it would have before the purchase of OverDrive. Carmela need not worry about fines on overdue books, the fear and bane of so many low-income library patrons.
Also helping is the fact that with two separate digital library systems, public librarians have the clout to insist that the library software be easy to use. Academics often prefer complexity. At the same time, public library patrons can also use the academic system directly if they prefer, and there is even a joint digital catalogue for people wanting it.
Much more than just e-books: Also the promotion and delivery of social services
Carmela’s tablet is actually far more than an e-book reader, and it’s customized for library use. Just by tapping a finger on easy-to-understand icons and text, she can go to Web sites addressing her health needs and others and enjoy entertaining and informative videos.
Many of the sites offer video chat similar to the Mayday feature that Amazon introduced in its Kindle Fire HDX models. Getting her questions answered about either her tablet or any other topic of interest, Carmela can see the people she is talking to. If she has trouble filling out government form, humans can guide her on-screen from afar and even move her cursor around and enter information on the forms if she lets them. If these helpers are busy, she can set up an appointment for virtual sessions, or ones in person.
Actual people can point her to the right instructional videos, including those showing how to read to her children and address their other needs, and she also learns of events in near-by local libraries. With a stronger feeling of connection, Carmela is a little more likely than before to show up with her children in person despite her health challenges
No instant miracles happen. Carmela isn’t reincarnated overnight as a human dynamo. But with medical and nutritional guidance from librarians and others—including those experts working for a national digital reference service augmenting local services—she gradually grows more energetic and fit in general. Salads and apples replace junk food. The library also offers tasty recipes of easy-to-fix Hispanic favorites with less fat and sodium. Carmela and Ed acquire the habit of taking their children on weekend strolls. Waistlines shrink. Pounds melt away. Librarians and others from public and nonprofits work closely together to help the Hernandez family. A holistic approach reflects the links between healthy bodies and the ability to learn. Young Jennifer’s grades improve when Carmela follows up on a juvenile librarian’s suggestion to have her children’s eyes and ears tested.
Through mental health material distributed through the library system, Carmela also learns about the signs of depression, recognizes them in Ed and participates with him in counseling sessions, both in person and virtual.
The family literacy and book club angles
Meanwhile both Jennifer and her little brother, Al, are befriending books, and not just because Carmela and sometimes Ed are reading to them. The children see their parents enjoying free e-books from the library on their own. Ed was a bit late to the party. But when Carmela started acting as a role model, and when Ed saw library public service announcements on his crime shows, he succumbed. No magic here—just family literacy at work. Both in person at the local library and through instructional videos from the national system, librarians play up the importance of recreational reading. And not just of fiction, but also nonfiction providing them with the knowledge to understand the fiction better. As vampire-obsessed as ever, Camela even works her way through a challenging book on the history of vampires in 19th century English literature—those oft-aristocratic blood-suckers.
One day Carmela’s favorite librarian at BiblioTech pops up on her chat screen and asks, “How’d you like to help lead a book club discussion of Dracula?” Carmela is flattered. No one outside her family has ever, ever looked up to her for leadership on anything to do with books or reading.
“But,” she protests, “I’m not an expert.”
“No one’s expecting you to be one,” the librarian says. “I’ll be right with you, filling in the gaps. Anyway, I can pass on some books to help you prepare.”
The book club is a hit. Carmela gains confidence not just as a reader but as a leader, and she makes friends with other vampire enthusiast curious about the history of the genre. Some of the discussion they continue online, including on UsBook, a library-created alternative to Facebook (not a replacement), as well as in a blog the library system provides Carmela, complete with powerful but easy to use software. One of her friends runs across a public domain e-book featuring a female vampire with a name close to Carmela’s, and a funny post results. Eventually Carmela’s children are also blogging, as part of their schoolwork, and her husband uses UsBook and a video blog to make himself a personality in the local community, so more people will visit the little Tex-Mex restaurant Ed has started. A BiblioTech reference librarian helps him search comprehensively on Google and elsewhere for a lower-calorie version of the Hernandez family recipe for mixed beef and chicken fajita.
Carmela’s vocabulary grows. So does her ambition. She returns to community college, then slowly amasses credits from a four year institution, graduates, and excels as a nurse. In fact, some years later, Carmela goes back to school again for a masters degree in public health; and, as part of her work, she writes paper on a famous epidemic from which health workers can still learn today.
Thanks to the academic system, she can locate source documents of both historical and medical interest, complete with detailed case histories. A reinvention of the Digital Public Library of America, the academic system makes it a cinch to pull together texts, still images and even videos from many locations—the paper actually becomes a multimedia presentation a few years later for Carmela to give at a professional conference. The academic system obtained many of the source documents from cooperative projects with public libraries.
Still, Carmela benefited because the public and academic systems were separate, even if tightly intertwined. Had there been just one system, elite academics would have been in charge. They would have been less likely to launch the expensive promotional campaign that turned Carmela’s life around. Remember that crazy public service announcement on the vampire show? She also came out ahead because the national library endowment could help pay—among other things—for public libraries to engage in outreach of all kinds. The increased reliance on electronic material without distractions such as shelving meant that librarians had more time for contact with Carmela and other patrons, as well as local outreach efforts. The local and national outreach campaigns have reinforced each other.
Will every American in Carmela’s place take advantage of the offerings of the two national digital library systems to the extent that she has? Of course not. Still, it is important she and her family and others like them have their chance.