The library profession is suffering from a severe funding problem. Libraries are getting less funding than ever while materials are costing more than ever. Most libraries are reducing services and/or new materials. At the same time, much work is being done by the Internet community on electronic books and journals as well as document delivery systems such as Gopher and WorldWide Web. However, up till now, they have just supplemented libraries.
David Rothman, author of several microcomputing books, has put together a rather interesting proposal to address these problems. It's known as TeleRead and currently is being considered by some parts of the U.S. Government. TeleRead also address such issues as copyright and electronic publishing. It is a U.S. plan, but can easily be adopted to foreign countries.
TeleRead suggests that electronic books should be used to solve these problems of libraries. First of all, the proposal believes that laptops are now reaching the screen resolution necessary for electronic books to be readable. With recent announcements I have seen, this appears to be true.
Rothman also suggests that TeleRead be used for electronic submission of forms to the government. This should save the government quite a bit of money by eliminating the manual processing and data entry of documents (especially tax returns). Estimates have placed this figure in the tens of billions of dollars in both terms of time and money saved on government-created paperwork. In fact, the proposal suggests that TeleRead can be funded from these savings.
Ties with the Internet
The distribution system would be known as TRnet. TRnet might exist directly on the Internet or be run in parallel. The benefits of having TRnet use the Internet as a transport would be many. First of all, the avoidance of having two independently managed networks would save money. Another cost saver would just be the normal economies of scale. The Internet would allow TRnet to easily become multinational in scope if other governments adopted the concept. TRnet could drive improvements in Internet technology and vice versa.
TRnet would require increased federal funding in networking. Even though the US government is getting out of the direct funding of the NSFNet, no conflict exists. TRnet can bid the needed networking services from the commercial vendors. A contract with the potential size of TRnet should encourage vendors to be competitive, which may also help reduce the cost of Internet services to the rest of us.
One parallel in the funding sense is from what I understand that though NSF is getting out of the direct network funding, but at the same time going to continue supporting their supercomputing facilities. TRnet could be a similar type of project by the Department of Education or some other branch of the government. Both have some similar features such as using distributed computing sites.
Obviously, allowing access to TRnet by everyone is a drastic, but expected change from the current Internet. The security on TRnet must be of a higher level than the current state of Internet security. Some of the issues include: Are passwords sufficient? If not, are smart cards easy enough for people to use while being cost effective? Will the current Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) work be sufficient to scale adequately to this number of users and be easy enough to use? All of these questions will need to be answered.
Historical Look at Electronic Publications on the Internet
I can not point to a particular electronic publication and claim that it is the first that was on the Internet. It is safe to say that the earliest publications I have seen were from the early 1980s. Ever since then, we have been on an exponential growth curve.
Definitely, one of the earliest and most famous projects is Project Gutenberg run by Michael Hart. Project Gutenberg has been taking public domain books and digitizing them. The plan is for this to grow at an exponential rate.
On the commercial side of the fence, one of the most interesting projects has been the Online Book Initiative (OBI). For example, OBI has been making Tracy LaQuey's The Internet Companion available one chapter at a time gradually over the Internet.
Going away from books to periodicals we find well over 500 free electronic publications available on the Internet and probably another 50-100 for pay publications out there. CICNet maintains the largest collection of these materials anywhere on the Internet.
These are just some samples of the work being done with electronic publications in the Internet community. It is definitely a booming market especially since tools like Gopher and WorldWide Web have come along.
User Access to TRnet
Access to TRnet would be free or be available at a modest flat rate and access for poor people would be free under any case. The reason for this is that TRnet should be considered as a public library type of service.
A good part of the funding for TRnet would go into the development of inexpensive laptop computers for the poor. These laptops would be designed for maximum usability with TeleRead though they could do other things as well. I think the benefits of this focus will allow them to be better bookreaders than anything we currently have. The problems of hooking portable computers into the Net have definitely been conquered.
Publishing on TRnet
TRnet would carry all new books and other materials. Also, authors and publishers could make existing books available for reach this large market. The proposal suggests that all materials longer than 10,000 words would eventually have to be in digital form on TRnet for the government to grant a copyright on it. Many copyright issues are covered, including protection of unpublished manuscripts. On many newsgroups, numerous arguments regarding copyrights on electronic materials have broken out. Also, Many copyright experts have agreed that the copyright system is in bad need of revision due to electronic publishing.
The proposal even suggests a new system of the interaction between authors and publishers. One part of this is a new author payment system.
Where do librarians fit into the picture? They would be responsible for developing and managing the collections available on TRnet. Even bookstores have their role in this proposal in providing additional access to materials, both electronic and hardcopy.
TRnet can also be used as a software distribution channel. At the time of writing, the Internet software distribution channel appears to be heading towards a potentially dark time. The Army appears to be retiring Simtel20 and Keith Peterson along with it. The TeleRead proposal would allow people like Keith to continue to be paid for this kind of work. As we all know, the Internet is only as good as the resources available on it.
If you are interested in seeing the actual proposal, it is available for anonymous FTP on ftp.utdallas.edu as /pub/staff/billy/teleread.doc and ftp.cic.net as /pub/e-serials/related/teleread.doc. Via Gopher it can be found on gopher.cic.net in "Electronic Serials/Related Materials."
Also, feel free to contact David Rothman directly at email@example.com with any comments. [Curremt address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep in mind that the proposal has evolved since the Barron article.]
Even if TeleRead is not accepted by the US Government, we will see some type of electronic book publishing system on the Net eventually. It will be one of the many interesting services available on the Net in the future.
 McCahill, Mark, "The Internet Gopher: A Distributed Server Information System," ConneXions, Volume 6 No. 7, July 1992, Pages 10-14.
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 Barron, Billy, "Symbiotic Cyberspace Libraries" in "Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians", Library and Information Technology Association, 1992.
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 Barron, Billy, "Electronic Journals", Internet Society News, Winter 1992, Volume 1 No. 4.
 Rothman, David, "Teleread Proposal", 1992-1993.
 Rothman, David, "Information access for all," Computerworld, July 6, 1992, Page 77.
 Rothman, David, "Americans Could Dial Up Books from Home--and Help U.S. Industry," Baltimore Sun, August 9, 1992, Perspective section, Page 4G.
 Rothman, David, "The World at Your Fingertips," Washington Post Education Review, April 4, 1993, Page 5.
 Kaliski, Burton S., "An Overview of Public-Key Cryptography Standards," ConneXions, Volume 6 No. 5, May 1992, Pages 22-33.
 Neuman, Clifford, "Prospero: A Virtual Directory Service for the Internet", ConneXions, Volume 6 No. 7, July 1992, Pages 2-9.
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About the Author: Billy Barron has a M.S. in Computer Science from the University of North Texas. He also worked there for many years until he recently transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas. In parallel, he has worked on the CICNet Electronic Journal Archive, but recently resigned to have more free time. Also, he has the co-author of a famous guide to libraries on the Internet. Somehow, without meaning to, his last ConneXions article, "The Message Send Protocol," started a very heated discussion on a BITNET related mailing list. Finally, he recently became engaged to another experienced Internet user.