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TeleRead Basics: A Well-Stocked National Digital Library System--and the Right Computers for Reading E-Books

TeleRead is a nonpartisan plan to get electronic books and other educational resources into American homes--through a well-stocked national digital library system and small, sharp-screened computers that eventually could sell for under $100 or even $50. The same idea could apply to many other countries, and in fact TeleRead has advocates as far off as India.

Supporters have ranged from William F. Buckley, Jr., to the founder of CompuServe's forum on Afro-American culture, and the proposal appears in an information science collection from The MIT Press and the American Society for Information Science.

Unlike most educational plans, TeleRead would aid business directly and even reduce commercial and federal bureaucracy somewhat. In effect it would help shift resources from paperwork to learning, not just smarten up the workforce for the long run.

Going back a decade, the idea has evolved considerably. TeleRead National Coordinator David Rothman first discussed the idea with a friend in 1991 and published an early version of the proposal in Computerworld in 1992. For a recent description, see material that Rothman developed for his presentation at eBook 2001. If the TeleRead idea intrigues you, join our mailing list.

Finally please note that while TeleRead is the name of both the plan and the group advocating the idea, the actual digital libraries would be run by professional librarians and blend in well with the present library system. The TeleRead on this Web site is not an actual library although it does include pointers to material now on the Net.

Updated Nov. 10, 2001

SHORTCUTS: Justification?... But why should we also start TeleRead rather than just buy more books of the old-fashioned variety?... Why not just wire up the libraries and schools?... Benefits for government, business, and other segments of society besides children and low-income people?... TeleRead's costs?... Ownership and nature of TeleReaders?... Scope of material covered?... How would content would reach readers?... Ownership and locations of TeleRead databases storing the content?... Who would select the material in the databases?... Any checks on the power of librarians?... The main criterion for paying writers and publishers?... Tracking mechanisms to assure proper payment of access fees?... What about the smut issue?... Would paper books still be available?... The nature of an actual TeleRead organization running the proposed library system?... Exactly who started the TeleRead advocacy group, why, and who finances it?... Financial disclosure?... Contact information...


Getting children to read better is "our most urgent task," according to former U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley--a sentiment undoubtedly shared by his successor, Rod Paige. And in an increasingly complex economy, we need to foster life-time learning. One way would be to encourage the growth of the ebraries and of sharp-screened computers, especially the compact tablet variety, that were fit for reading books hours after hour. Desktop machines are not appropriate in most cases; many people would rather stretch out on the floor or the couch.

At the same time U.S. schools are not spending enough on intellectual property--perhaps less than $250 a year per child for everything from textbooks to video tapes. Libraries? Maybe $5-$8 per citizen. Intellectual property needs will only grow at a time when we want children and adults alike to be able to work with up-to-date information.

Too many textbooks in use are a decade old, and even two or three decades old in some cases. If nothing else, consider the zeitgeist-changing tragedies of September 11, 2001, and the need for textbooks to remain up to date while hopefully retaining the long-term perspective that the best books can offer so well.

What's more, a 1996 survey by the Association of American Publishers and the National Education Association found that 38.6 percent of teachers reported that at least some of their students lacked textbooks to take home. The study also revealed that half of the secondary teachers included could not give out homework of a textbook shortage. A 1997 survey in New York further spotlighted the problem. Books are hardly the only way to learn. But they are notable for their ability to encourage abstract thought--a necessity not just for future workers, but also for future voters. While the situation may have improved since the AAP surveys, much progress remains to be made.

Today's Internet is no substitute for TeleRead. Almost always, for example, diligent users can track down a library catalogue's listing for a book, but they will not be able to see the book itself online. That is because of copyright law, which, if anything, has been growing stricter toward the Internet.

For obvious reasons, publishers and writers normally cannot give away books for free and are worried about digital piracy.

But how to get the books to those who need them? If present trends continue, children in poorer school districts may be teased with references to books, but in too many cases not be able to see the actual texts. We'll be replicating online the "savage inequalities" of our present schools and libraries. The logical solution is to provide for proper funding mechanisms to spread books around while fairly compensating writers and publishers. Keep in mind that just a fraction of the budget of a typical library goes for books and other actual content; imagine the benefits of spending more on words, ideas and stories and at least somewhat less than otherwise on ink, cardboard, brick and concrete. While TeleRead would not replace neighborhood libraries, it would allow us to use the existing library system far more efficiently and help librarians upgrade themselves professionally and truly enter the network era.

In our $10-trillion "knowledge-oriented" economy today, authors' book royalties are $5 billion a year or less: a fraction of the typical annual revenue of, say, Hewlett-Packard or IBM. Best-sellers are rare. Content suffers because compensation is typically so low. Even writers employed in other jobs find themselves spending less time on individual books than they could if rewards were greater.

Simply put, we need to pay attention to intellectual "software," not just the usual hardware.

Archival considerations are another argument for TeleRead. The Internet alone will not preserve our nation's history and literary heritage. Resources come and go. Publishers both thrive and die. Thousands of sites, some reliable, some not, make up the World Wide Web. Links constantly change. A few years ago, for example, the Washington Post killed off a link between TeleRead advocate David Rothman's home page and his father's obituary in a routine transfer to a pay-per-download area. Moreover, in an era of terrorism and viruses, secure archives should count more than ever. It is hardly inconceivable that anti-American fanatics could try to destroy the physical Library of Congress someday, given the intense hostility to U.S. culture. The same principle would apply to other nations at a time when ancient temples are blown up and when terrorist regimes may even try to eradicate their people's folk music.

If nothing else, consider that the technology for digital books and multimedia is going to get much better. In the future, e-books may even have flippable pages like their paper counterparts--except that you could electronically replace the contents at will. Screen sharpness and the compactness of the e-book-reading devices will just keep improving. The only constant of technology is change.

For a summary of some old and new arguments in favor of TeleRead, see Rothman's eBook 2001 presentation.

Why Start TeleRead Rather Than Just Rely on More Books of the Old-Fashioned Kind?

Real School, Real Book Crisis in the Library; Some Titles 40 Years Old

Lest anyone shrug off TeleRead's talk of a book crisis in American schools, we'll reproduce a real plea from a real mother.

Via email lists on the Net, Deborah Eldredge is hoping to round up some more books for the underfunded library of her children's school in rural New York--the Westmoreland/Vernon area. Here's the word from her directly:

"Hi guys! I am shamelessly going to grovel a bit here. Our town has a new middle school opening in January (5th through 8th grades). The school was paid for by the state, and our town has to 'furnish it.'

"Well, the economy wasn't good here to begin with, and, of course, having the Sept. 11 tragedy happen in New York hasn't helped a bit. We are a small rural town in upstate, but all state aid has disappeared.

"Our elementary school lost all music and art classes this year, though my kids and I have raised enough for a music teacher one day a week. This means each class gets music once every other week, but better than nothing.

"There weren't going to be desks for the new school (right now some classes are held in the high school cafeteria or on the floor in hallways), but a local college found some to donate.

"The library will have no books except what we can find/donate/whatever.

"If any of you have books left over and would be able to donate a copy, it would be greatly appreciated. I would then pay for the shipping, although I can live with it if you yourself want to pay for shipping.

"I have volunteered in the library this fall and was surprised that, with the exception of Harry Potter, most books checked out are nonfiction.

"The dog and cat books are about 40 years old and very worn and tattered. Dog, cat, horse and wild animal books seem to be the top choices along with battleship and war machine ones right now.

"Anyway, if anyone has any books they could donate, it would be wonderful, and if someone could please pass this on to the cat writers list I would greatly appreciate it. Or pass it on to any publishers you might be on wonderful terms with."

Address for donations: Deborah Eldredge, Attna School Library, 4753 Deans Highway, Vernon, NY 13476.

Email for more details:

Check with Deb about a possible 501c3 donation, so you can enjoy a tax break.

TeleRead would be the most cost-effective means to distribute a wide variety of up-to-date books to people even in the most out-of-way locations. Literacy experts report a strong correlation between love of learning and the variety of books available. In addition, TeleReaders could run educational software and serve as a low-cost way to get on the Internet. With auxiliary keyboards they could be used for writing school papers and for electronic mail.

But do TeleRead's efficiencies mean that private and tax money should not go for more paper books? Of course not. It will be years before most titles appear in electronic formats and before libraries offer more e-books than paper books. Besides, paper books come with appeals of their own. It's just that we should distinguish between this fine old medium and the actual words, stories and ideas--and use modern technology to spread books around rather than simply pretending that we all live next-door to a megalibrary or can wait weeks and weeks for interlibrary loans.

But Why This Approach Instead of Simply Wiring Up the Schools and Libraries?

We urgently need to keep wiring up schools and libraries and upgrading the existing connections. But most learning takes place at home. What's more, a column in the Washington Post alluded to the possibility of nonyuppies having to queue up at library terminals to read electronic books.

TeleRead would offer yet other advantage compared to an approach linked to school enrollment. Material would reach children and others on an individual basis and not by enrollment in a particular school. And so, without questions of church-state separation arising, TeleRead would make a much wider variety of books available to everyone. Coincidentally, a few years after we wrote the first version of this introduction to TeleRead, we discovered that a budget-strapped Catholic school in Chicago was far ahead of the typical school system in use of e-book technology. While good public schools are essential in a democratic society, we need to expand the range of books available to children no matter where they're enrolled.

No matter what the nature of schools, public or private, libraries could work closely with educators in spreading the technology and making a wide variety of content available to individual students. Keep in mind that as we show in Update 17, libraries are spending just a fraction of their budgets on books and other content. Far more money is going for staff and buildings. TeleRead would not end the need for dedicated library professionals but over time would reduce real estate and storage costs and allow librarians and library students to function more as editors, guides and mentors and less as clerks and warehouse workers.

Benefits for Government, Business, and Other Segments of Society Besides Children and Low-Income People?

Most education helps business in the long run by improving the workforce, but TeleRead would also offer a faster payback--since the same machines that were good for reading books could also be used for electronic forms. They could be tablet-shaped and compact and use a pen-style interface.

Americans are spending hundreds of billions a year in time and money to fill out tax returns and other government forms. Costs of paperwork in the private sector are probably many times higher. In a $10-trillion economy we could save many billions even if we reduced this paperwork just an infinitesimal amount. Federal Express believes so much in electronic forms that it even lends computers to some shippers for free.

In addition, TeleRead could be boon to home shoppers, not only on the Internet but also via interactive television. A TeleReader could work with a set-top box and serve as a sophisticated remote control, allowing the most complex of viewer response through a pen interface and perhaps a keyboard.

Yet other groups benefiting, and in far more important ways, would be the disabled and the elderly. With TeleReaders they could vary the size of the letters that they saw on the screen, and they would need fewer trips to libraries or bookstores.

TeleRead, too, could help rural people by greatly broadening the range of material available--one way to help narrow the gap between rural and suburban schools and bring in new industry, which will be increasingly information-dependent.

Beyond the above, TeleRead would offer another benefit, in the form of many contracting opportunities for existing online services and the computer industry in general. The public's welfare is the goal here, but along the way, many lucrative contracting opportunities would result.

What about TeleRead's Cost in This Austere Era?

Writer Paul Clayton Endorses TeleRead

Editor's note: Paul Clayton, author of Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, was a finalist for the 2001 Frankfurt eBook Award.

I certainly support the efforts of David Rothman and TeleRead to make sturdy, inexpensive e-book reading devices universally available, and to support those readers through a national digital library, well-stocked with many thousands of quality e-books. As Mr. Rothman states, and as I know from my own experience as a "mid-list" writer, "Most books appear with little publicity and never reach mainstream distribution." Note that he did not say "bad books," but rather, simply, "books." How sad! Anything that would level the playing field for writers, and ensure that good books, not just hyped books, get their due, is fine by me. And to that end, I wish Mr. Rothman and TeleRead every success.

TeleRead could start very small--with a pilot project costing just $5-$10 million--and grow only as cost-justified. The first step would be a national digital library with a limited number of books covering a limited number of topics.

Of course TeleRead could also provide links to high-quality public domain material on the Internet.

But even from the start, TeleRead would allow real books to go online. While a full-grown TeleRead would cost many billions, the program could be as large or small as the public wanted.

Ownership and Nature of TeleReaders?

Most everyone could eventually own TeleReaders. Schools and libraries, however, would serve as a core market--a carrot for Silicon Valley to drive down the costs. This technology lends itself well to mass production when markets exist. We already live in the era of the $50 ink-jet printer, a production miracle even when you consider that manufacturers are also making money from the sale of cartridges. Once the equivalents of the same printers cost thousands.

People could borrow TeleRead machines, befriend them at leisure, then buy their own.

Free machines to keep would go only to the poorest of the poor. Many low-income people would be able to afford second-hand models. By far, most TeleReaders would be privately owned.

Interestingly, technology is already moving in the direction that TeleRead writings predicted years ago. Microsoft TabletPC offers clear text display and other optimization for e-books and yet also serve well as a general purpose computer fit for word-processing, electronic mail, Web browsing and other uses. Moreover it include audio. In fact, some existing software from Microsoft comes with text-reading software for the disabled--for example, Windows XP.

No Microsoft flacking intended here. The point is that the technology is no longer just science fiction, and as the biggest company in PCdom, Microsoft is setting the direction. If others follow through here and surpass Microsoft, so much the better. TeleRead's philosophy is multivendor; let members of the private sector slug it out in the marketplace.

Far from being limited to tablets, TeleRead books could also be displayed on desktops and handhelds. In fact, TeleRead has called for a national registry of library e-book volunteers to help nontechies become more comfortable with the technology on now-affordable platforms such as PDAs. Project Gutenberg's public domain books are a good free way to sample e-books today on already-available hardware..

Scope of Material Covered?

Traditional books should be TeleRead's main focus--since they encourage sustained thought, and since they are the medium most vulnerable to digital piracy. Serious books could eventually lose out if present trends continue. Most Internet users would rather communicate with each other than read books, especially given the limits of the present technology, and the growth of Hollywood glitz on computer networks will be yet another distraction. Already just a small minority of Americans are regular book buyers.

TeleRead would help books in yet another way by significantly reducing the financial incentives for copying--since so much more material would be available domestically for free.

In addition to books, TeleRead might also include educational software, which, right now, is often pirated. What's more, the library could offer audio and video--public domain material or publicly sponsored material if nothing else. For the moment, at least, Internet users can dial up some National Public Radio broadcasts for free.

How Would the Material Reach Readers?

TeleRead would employ a variety of means--from cable modems to ordinary phone lines to CD-ROMs banks, off which children could download at school. The government would not build its own network but rather let citizens use existing resources.

New technologies should significantly reduce transmission costs. TeleRead could even make it possible for schoolchildren to exchange books and other items with each other via short-range radio links or other means. In the Tracking Mechanisms section, this TeleRead introduction tells how we could assure proper compensation of copyright-holders from a national library fund no matter how users accessed items.

Ownership and Locations of TeleRead Databases?

Most of physical databases could be privately owned and leased to the government--with many redundancies to allow for proper preservation of material. The Library of Congress, of course, could maintain its own digital archives as an added guarantee that material would be safeguarded. Please note that private ownership of most of the databases is just one possibility. The question of public or private ownership matters less than the integrity, durability and general reliability of the archives, as well as their ability to adjust to technological changes. Needless to say, the archives should be at many different physical locations. With a whole series of TeleReads, in fact, different countries could help back up each other's libraries, an excellent way to terrorist-proof the digital records of national cultures.

Who Would Select the Material?

Many public and academic librarians, in many cities, would select books based on local as well as national needs. And librarians would be free to keep buying paper books or acquire electronic books not covered by TeleRead.

Any Checks on the Power of the Librarians?

Writers and publishers would still be free to publish on the Internet directly, or by way of traditional paper books. What's more, the private sector could donate money for books and start its own collections linked to the main TeleRead library, even though the main database would store backups of everything.

Distribution costs will not be that great, at least for text-oriented items, and library users would be able to choose not only from books in the TeleRead system but also from commercial books. At the same time users could limit searches to books approved by public librarians or anyone else, including commercial services. Let this be an open system just like the Web, just so filtering schemes are not imposed on the unwilling.

Main Criterion for Paying Writers and Publishers?

Publishers--or writers publishing directly--would be paid according to the number of dial-ups of their books or other offerings. For budgetary reasons, royalties per book would normally decline in the case of the biggest sellers. But publishers and writers could maintain these rates by gambling money in stages, as the number of accesses grew. And so we could preserve the financial incentives of today's publishing world and pay for TeleRead books in part through the publishers themselves. In return, of course, the private sector would reap its fair rewards as justified. And meanwhile the diversity of books would grow since the money from "lost bets" could go for academic and midlist titles.

Publishers and writers could choose to ignore TeleRead's royalty system and still be free to set their prices in the usual way. But sooner or later many if not most books from major publishers would be in the TeleRead royalty system; after all, the sales of the typical title fall off steeply after the first few years.

Tracking Mechanisms to Assure Proper Payment of Access Fees?

Tracking mechanisms would be similar to those used by pay-per-read companies--but with a major difference. Readers would not be paying directly for the books covered by TeleRead. Instead the money would come from a national digital library fund.

Users would not be able to dial up books or educational software without eventually using computer networks to report past accesses. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to decrypt additional items. Reporting would be easy--perhaps even automatic--and privacy protections would be in effect.

Because of these tracking mechanisms, it would be possible for children to exchange items via radio links and otherwise while still having their accesses reported later on. Needless to say, TeleRead would reward writers and publishers more precisely than many site license arrangements would.

What if questions kept arising about the security of encryption-based protection and other business models were needed? Then both publishers and libraries would still be better off with an integrated system like TeleRead, which could more easily adapt. Content-providers might even be given the choice of the business  model through which they were paid--flat rates or access-related rates.

What about the Smut Issue?

TeleRead could use a more sophisticated form of the Platform for Internet Content Selection. Parents themselves could control their children's reading, or farm out the task to companies or to organizations such as the Christian Coalition. Because TeleRead would be designed from the start as a national library--serving people with many different tastes and values--access controls could be extremely effective. If families did not want controls for their children, they would not have to. As for access via school networks, that would be decided if need be on a locality-by-locality basis. Our own preference is that filtering or nonfiltering be linked as much as possible to each household's machines rather than entire school or library systems.

Would Paper Books Still Be Available?

Bookstores would not just be free to keep selling paper books. They could also print out hard copies of books from the national digital library, as long as they accurately tracked the numbers printed, so that writers and publishers could obtain proper royalties from the national library fund. What's more, copy shops as well as bookstores could print out books. Needless to say, libraries, too, could continue to offer paper books.

The Nature of a TeleRead Organization?

TeleRead in the U.S. could operate either within or together with the Library of Congress.

Whatever form the agency took, however, it would be important to respect the concerns of librarians outside Washington--to guarantee that they rather than just an East Coast elite dominated the selection process.

In short, TeleRead should be like the Internet itself. This new resource should transcend location, but at the same time improve the quality of local life by broadening the range of information that citizens can consult in making personal and business decisions.

Finally, don't let the word "agency" scare you. As noted before, private foundations could start their own collections and the main TeleRead library could link to them. Already, in fact, TeleRead has asked Bill Gates to donate The Great Gatsby and other works, especially those of contemporary writers. An educator has suggested "The William Gates Collection." Sounds good. Even with a decentralized approach, it is important to have many sources of financing for books and authors. A few years back, William Buckley suggested that if Andrew Carnegie were alive, he would have bought the TeleRead idea from for $1 and donated a TeleRead library to the American people. Hint, hint, Mr. Gates.

Who Started TeleRead, Why, and Whose Money Is Behind It?

TeleRead is a small grassroots effort that currently includes only volunteers. No one works for pay, although that is a possibility in the future since it would allow more frequent updating of this Web site, more information for e-book users, and more lobbying for the idea. 

David Rothman started advocating TeleRead after noticing that drugstores near him were carrying fewer books in general and fewer works of quality fiction. In addition, although liberal himself, he agreed with William Buckley's complaint that many students were relying on CD-ROM databases rather than on library research. Rothman thought, "He's right, but why not systematically work to make more books available in electronic format through computer networks?"

Rothman is a writer interested in the Internet and its effects on education and society in general. On the Net since 1993, he has contributed to Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier (The MIT Press and the American Society for Information Science, 1995) and is the author of NetWorld: What People Are Really Doing on the Internet, and What It Means to You (Prima, 1996).

Financial Disclosure

Rothman is not affiliated with any manufacturers of computers, and he envisions many companies making TeleReaders. He holds no Net-related stocks except for minor holdings in America Online and Broadcom. TeleRead is not intended either to hurt or help individual companies. On his own, and not as a representative of TeleRead, Rothman does provide Net-related consulting services.

Contact Information

Questions? Suggestions? Want to join the TeleRead effort? Email or reach Rothman at 805 North Howard St., Alexandria, VA 22304, or via phone at 703-370-6540. The TeleRead home page is at Click here to join our mailing list.