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TeleRead and the Pineallas Park Public Library

John Iliff wrote this essay in early 1999 just before leaving his reference desk job with the public library in Pineallas Park near Tampa. See the note at the end for more about John and his resignation.

By John Iliff (

The student is Pineallas Park Library Logoabout 17 years old, has a wailing toddler and wears faded, cut-off blue jeans. "Do you have the textbook for night school classes in American Government?" she nervously asks me without even giving the title.

In the course of a week I must see dozens like her--people struggling at minimum wage, kids in tow; folks whose dream-come-true is a certificate as a licensed practical nurse or an air-conditioning technician.

After hearing the exact title, I tell her that she'll have to wait weeks for the book. We don't own the text. And the closest public library that does is hundreds of miles away.

"My school doesn't have enough books to go around," the student says, "and I really need to study. I need to graduate from high school. I need this book now! I work for minimum wage, there's no way I can buy it."

I'm burned out that night. The best I can do is shrug.

It's All About Size

When it comes to libraries, size matters. The more material a library holds, the better the chance that students and other library users can get the information they need. Bigger is better.

I work in a relatively small public library in a suburban community in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. Our building (15,000 square feet) stores about 80,000 items. This material meets a good share of our public's information needs. But our collection just won't suffice when our users have more than a passing interest in most subjects. We lack enough space or money for true specialization. Anyone needing a comprehensive overview of most topics has to go elsewhere.

We Borrow Material

One alternative for us in expanding our resources has been a process called interlibrary loan. This many-decades-old system of vast cooperation involves the exchange of materials amongst thousands of libraries. In theory, any book that is borrowable in any participating library is available for loan.

Interlibrary loan is popular and expands the range of material, but it can take weeks for ILL material to arrive. We must rely on the postal service, and never has snail mail seemed slower. In an age of instant everything, waiting weeks for books can seem like an eternity--or can be just plain too late in certain circumstances like the young mother's.

Young people especially hate the delays, and I don't blame them. The goal of schools is to impart knowledge, not teach patience in dealing with bureaucracies. We need to get books to students when their excitement about a subject is at its peak. Besides, teachers normally don't want to wait forever for kids to turn in their school work.

Technology Helps--But Comes with Limits

We've found that computer technology, in particular the Internet, helps us expand our library collection. Especially useful have been databases we subscribe to and access over the Internet. These databases contain millions of articles from magazines and journals. We've been able to provide articles on a slew of topics, and the quality of this information is superb. Computers and the Internet demonstrate to us that size isn't the all-encompassing factor for libraries it once was. Theoretically, librarians are limited only by their skills and vision when it comes to computers and information delivery.

The problem now, though, is that the Internet can't adequately provide immediate access to entire books, at least not effectively. While some admirable projects demonstrate that the full texts can be easily digitized and transferred on the Internet, the presentation of books leaves much to be desired on regular desktop computers. They are not an appropriate medium for displaying books. Reading, say, a 300-page novel, while looking at a typical PC, does not work because of screen flicker and resolution problems.

There is also the thorny issue of who is going to pay for book material if it becomes available online. So far, the books that have been reproduced electronically are almost all in the public domain; that is, copyright does not apply. However, in a digital environment in which books can be easily copied, how can the efforts of authors and publishers be protected?

The Next Logical Step

We need a format for books which is portable, easy to read from, and into which book-length data can be stored. If this can be achieved, information distribution will reach a new and important level. It seems to me that the TeleRead proposal from David Rothman is a very clear articulation of this idea.

Here David notes that portable electronic devices could be made affordable. Under the proposal, libraries could serve as a core market for companies that developed the appropriate devices, as some are doing even now. Citizens could borrow TeleReaders, acquaint themselves with the technology, and buy their own machines. Eventually TeleReaders would sell for all of $50 at discount stores; in fact, a first-generation device is expected to cost just $195 later this year.

TeleRead would spur demand and bring closer the era of the $50 machines. But this approach wouldn't just encourage the spread of the right hardware; it would also provide for a better coordination of funding and digital distribution of book-like material, thus addressing issues such as copyright and payment for works.

Consider the benefits here. If we can get library books online without all the copyright-related constraints of paper books, then a whole class of students can easily read a book at the same time. And they can discuss it together, too, both on and offline. In fact, TeleRead would let students legally share books through infrared or radio links on their TeleReads or via email. A tracking system could provide for proper compensation to writers and publishers. To be able to read more books, readers would have to report past uses, and a national library fund could compensate authors and others according to the popularity of books. There could be ways to protect privacy of readers, similar to those suggested for anonymous digital cash.

While I hope this will be a national system, I'd like to see states begin their own TeleReads rather than wait for national policymakers to catch up. All too often, Washington lags behind the states. The kids need TeleReads now. Library systems in Maryland and Indiana and perhaps other states are licensing magazine archives for citizens to dial up for free on the Net. That's a step in the right direction.

Funding for TeleReads could come from a mix of public and private sources to reduce the risk of heavy-handed interference by politicians.

Lke David, I believe that a national digital library would be a fine use for some of Bill Gates money if he truly wants to update the Carnegie tradition. It's encouraging that some e-book experts at Microsoft so far have been open-minded about the possibilities here, and I hope that Mr. Gates can personally follow through.

Ideally the TeleRead idea will find support--financial and political--in many quarters. We're not just talking about the needs of students, but also those of a whole range of people. What about workers seeking to upgrade their skills? Or disabled people who can't get to the library easily? And what about the growing number of elderly Americans, especially who can't see well? TeleReader screens could easily display books with large "print" for those with visual problems. I very much hope that the American Association of Retired Persons will get behind TeleRead. This is one project that could benefit young and old.

What Many Librarians Think

As I've advocated the Teleread concept among my colleagues in the library field, generally the reaction is one of denial (with comments such as, "The technology will never happen.") or fear ("We will lose our jobs--who will need librarians in such a scenario?")

Both these reactions are wrong-headed. First, while e-book technology has a way to go, it is making rapid strides. Inevitably, electronic devices will be as portable and durable as books and provide for easy storage of digital data. It is not a question of if but rather when. The need for electronic books is too great. The logical response by librarians should be to face the inevitable, and plan new roles in the changing environment.

Even beyond accepting the change, however, librarians should be advocates of TeleRead. If our primary job is to get information to people, with TeleRead the mission is fulfilled nearly completely. Like dentists advocating for dental hygiene, librarians should advocate for the potential of universal distribution of information. It is our professional imperative.

In addition, there is the concern if thousands of books are available on the Net--and are paid for through a national digital library fund--then local librarians will no longer be needed. Clearly, librarian roles would change, but there would still be much to do. First, locating material in the digital environment will probably be difficult, just as it is with the Internet now. An important role for librarians is to help users articulate what information they need, and then search for the information. This process, known as the "Reference Interview," is a critical role that librarians fulfill whether in an electronic or paper-based world. It cannot be fully automated. You can't use chips to replicate intuition and encouragement.

Another concern for librarians is the idea of how electronic information will be distributed in terms of cost. All copyrighted resources will need to be paid for, and, as librarians are learning with Internet-based periodical subscription services, determining how to spend community resources for materials needed by the librarian's users is a continuing role. There will be limited money on both the local and national levels, but a seemingly limitless supply of information. Librarians will need to aggressively identify the information needs of their community, and provide access to digital resources within the bounds of budgets. The process, now known to librarians as "Collection Development," takes on more sophisticated and urgent needed skills than previously known. This will be especially true for public librarians.

Let Nature Takes Its Course

It is a matter of time that digital books will be as common as paperbacks. What librarians need to do is begin to rethink what we can do to help our public adjust to the change in how information will be distributed. More importantly, librarians should advocate the equitable distribution of information in the ever-increasing digital environment. The TeleRead concept provides for the perfect platform for working toward equitable access to information--while ensuring the best that new technology can provide. I'm just sorry TeleRead wasn't around to help the young mother who needed the textbook for night school.

Former co-moderator of the Publib list for public librarians, John Ilifff now works as a Web librarian for the Consortium Library of the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Earlier he resigned from his reference desk job in Pineallas Park, Florida, in search of a change of pace and more money to support his family, but also in part because of a city official's anti-library remarks. The official had questioned the need for public libraries, suggesting that readers instead could go to Barnes and Noble. TeleRead, of course, addresses the very access issues of so much concern to John. His resignation may have helped the cause of public libraries in his area. The city official who questioned the need for public libraries has since moderated his views. He is now more appreciative of the role of libraries--especially after a little stint at a reference desk. "People at a bookstore can't spend the same time helping with your schoolwork or other needs that reference librarians can," John says. "Maybe the official picked up on that point. Hopefully, too, he understands now that libraries are free but not everyone can afford to buy all the books they need at Border's. We need bookstores, but we need libraries as well--online and offline."