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The Rise of the Unlibraries
Will Contentville.coms Preempt TeleRead--and Replace Our Public Library System?

By David Rothman (

Viewed from a hill above, is a greeny, rustic place with a stream and farmhouse in Contentville Web sitethe distance. But then one looks more closely at the pastoral scene in the advertisement. No, the artist is not Norman Rockwell's ghost; this creation appears to be computer-aided.

"Want a trashy novel, juicy biography or an epic poem in Middle English?" chirps the ad. So has a public library? Well, not exactly. To use an example from the copywriter, suppose one wants to look up Nixon's Checkers speech. Text and even audio clips are free on the Net for anybody with a home computer or access to a machine at a Real World library. A Google search will take less than a minute. But the ad from brags that "you can buy and instantly download" the speech. Such progress.

The privatization of the U.S. library system and the Net, despite the possible negatives for children, the poor and other library users, is proceeding apace. Meanwhile Librarian of Congress James Billington and other powerful librarians, especially those who run the American Library Association, are doing some wonderful Nero acts as the private sector invades the turf of pubic libraries [update: ALA's president-elect has a tech-heavy background and hopefully can turn things around]. Billington is not just fiddling. He is actually fanning the flames with Luddite statements against ebooks at the very time when his library and others should be racing to embrace the technology before the bookstores squeeze out libraries in cyberspace., which describes itself as "part magazine stand, part corner bookstore and part research library," isn't the only dot-com of its kind. As reported in the New York Times of June 15, "several companies are racing to put the full texts of hundreds of thousands of copyrighted books, old and new, on the Net." Customers must pay to read material, or to print it out at least, or electronically copy it. E-book-readers optimized for copyright protection at the expense of usability have been called "unbooks." Now we need another expression, "unlibraries."

Horror of horrors, even unlibraries can offend publishers, who successfully leaned on netLibrary to stop offering $29.95-a-year subscriptions to the general public. "They said it gave people too much access to electronic texts," the Times reported, "at too low a cost."

What most fascinated me, however, was that others, too, had disliked the consumer subscription model--librarians. They feared the competition. In other words, certain librarians obviously cared less about the affordability of reading material than about job protection. While many in the mass media have been slow to catch on, job protection is Priority #1 or at least high on the list for many librarians. They worry that online libraries, public or private, could put them out on the street.

A look at the budgets of some public libraries shows a short-sighted reason for the career-firsters' concern. Recently I perused some statistics, not quite up to date1 but still revealing, from the U.S. Department of Education. In fiscal year 1996, the Detroit Public Library spent almost $17.9 million on staff but just $2.8 million on books, videos and other items. In my own city, Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, the collection expenditures were a mere $546,030 compared to almost $2.4 million for staff. 

Yes, librarians are essential as organizers and guides, especially for children and low-income users. And we need staffers now for clerical-style duties such as shelving books. But shouldn't libraries do a better job with resources in the future now that the technology is available to use small, tablet-style computers and a well-stocked national digital library to help spread the words around? Couldn't ebooks reduce the scutwork and actually increase the meaningful time that local librarians spent on contact with library users--either in person or via the Net? 

So why not more enthusiasm for ebooks and TeleRead? Mightn't certain library bureaucrats fear the new efficiencies here? In dedication to the public good, the bureaucrats should catch up with dentists. John Iliff, the former co-moderator of an email list for librarians, notes that dentists have striven mightily for better technology to fight cavities, even if in the short term this does not make the best business sense.

Would that prominent librarians be as enlightened as Iliff about the need for a truly well-stocked national digital library. Instead public librarians are yielding leadership to the private sector after having in some cases informally reached an apparent "noncompete" agreement with netLibrary.

Admittedly, if I ran a public library, I myself might well do business with netLibrary or similar outfits to expand the range of possibilities for my readers. Even a TeleRead-style national digital library might undertake some mutually satisfactory dealing with netLibrary, and the like--using them as contractors to perform tasks more efficiently than if peformed in-house. We need a good balance between the public and private. No anti-capitalist tirades here. I myself am a shareholder in American Online, which, through the Time Warner merger, is on the cusp of becoming one of the largest content-owners in the world. My complaint here isn't that the private sector is filling a need (albeit on its own terms), but rather that the public side has fallen down on the job. I am actually glad that netLibrary,, Questia and the like are around since the public sector has been so backwards. As a reader and writer I may well profit from their existence because the library community here in the States has been so lazy and spineless.

Still, as a citizen and library advocate, I worry that unlibraries may put public libraries out of business or at least turn them into the equivalents of urban public schools. itself is already going for the consumer. The natural question arises, in fact, of whether there is still a need for a well-stocked national digital library.

The answer is a resounding "Yes." The shortcomings of the private online libraries serve all the more to illustrate the need for TeleRead. netLibrary, for example, has a mere 18,000 copyrighted books and 4,000 in the public domain. "Even those who gain access to netLibrary," says the Times, "may find the experience less than satisfying." netLibrary and the most direct competitors bill themselves as mainly research libraries rather than those for leisurely reading of individual books, but the Times says the collections are "tiny compared with the hundreds of thousands of volumes in most research libraries and the millions of volumes in major ones." According to netLibrary's press release on a six-month trial of netLibrary in Charlotte, North Carolina, citizens will have access to a mere 1,500 books--a pathetic number. Notice the ratio of available books to the total number in the netLibrary collection?

What's more, as of this writing, is also far from a replacement for a public library. On July 5, 2000, the day it opened, I searched for "Checkers" and found nothing. Apparently Contentville's unlibrarians had failed to read their company's own ad in Brill's Content and make the 1952 campaign speech more accessible. I did not see a reference to this immortal scrap of Americana until I searched under the word "Nixon" instead within the speech category--and found a whopping 10 entries. Even the abstract failed to mention the name of the dog. I did not care to pay either the normal $1.95 price or the $1.85 "Citizen's Club Price."

Granted, the collections of the commercial online libraries will grow and improve; Ebrary says that when it cranks up this fall, it could offer as many 600,000 works. Keep in mind, however, the great lesson from the Internet. An infrastructure developed as a mix of the public and private can be a major improvement over one that is strictly commercial. Under TeleRead, full-text searching capabilities could be developed that would encompass books in many collections, not just the one owned by a single corporation. What’s more, readers would not be at the mercy of one or more private collections dominating the show. No matter how public-spirited the companies may claim to be, we must remember their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders.

A dramatic illustration of the clash between commerce and the commonweal happened just recently., supposedly a responsible custodian of Usenet postings, announced it was temporarily removing older postings for some weeks while it did a system upgrade.

Other issues arise. What about hyperlinks that creators of scholarly works can use reliably, knowing they won't disappear? Can we trust the private sector as much as we could a well-stocked national digital library? Will the links be as stable? And will publishers crank out more reference works and fewer full-length, coherent books and focus instead on the production of bits and bytes for commercial libraries? More than now, will commercialism taint the contents of scholarly books? And will the commercial databases ignore less popular but worthwhile works? Too, what about fiction vs. nonfiction? Will fiction take a drubbing because most of it will never be fodder for lookups?

Kenneth L. Frazier, president of the Association of Research Libraries, although open to the positives of corporately owned net.libraries, is sensibly raising the question of commercialism. As paraphrased by the New York Times, he wonders what the corporate scanning operations "will mean to traditional research libraries, which have always been motivated by public interest, not private profits." To his credit, he also worries about access for low-income people.

Just how will the poor fare in Contentville? Turns out that in some Real World rural areas, the libraries are not swimming in cash. As reported by the Department of Education, the South Mississippi Regional Library in the 1996 budget year was spending just $30,000 on its collection of books and other items, or around 74 cents per resident. That was a princely amount compared to the expenditures for Shasta County, California, which was spending a little over a quarter for each resident--in other words, $43,000 for books and other items for 161,600 people. We are truly in Jonathan Kozol territory. Even with the damage from Proposition 13 considered, Shasta County is a poster child for the "savage inequalities" of the American library system--and offers hardly the most promising pool of customers for netLibrary, and the rest.

By contrast with South Mississippi Regional and Shasta, the public library system in Alexandria was spending $4.73 on books and other items per resident.

Without counting subscriptions and videos, the Alexandria collection for 115,400 people included 324,260 books and other items compared to 187,396 for Shasta's 161,600 residents. My hometown's collection came across as a Great Library of Alexandria (Egypt). Alexandria's system boasted about 2.8 items per resident compared to a mere 1.16 for Shasta and 1.5 for the area covered by the South Mississippi Regional Library. While the quality and suitability of book should count, not just mere numbers, the discrepancies are too large to be ignored. Moreover, Alexandria pales before Montgomery County, Maryland, which in budget year 1996 was lavishing almost $4.5 million on its collection for 813,000 residents ($5.51 per person) and boasted 2.4 million items (almost three per resident).

Of course, as in Alexandria's case, all the aforementioned locations were spending much less on books than on people. The South Mississippi Regional Library was spending $207,362 on staff and, remember, just $30,000 on actual books. Does this mean that greedy librarians in Mississippi were heartlessly stealing books from the hands of schoolchildren? Of course not. Within reason, one must consider the advantages of staff stability and keep people on, in the hope that better times will come. Budgetary triage is unavoidable in such cases. Still, the big issue remains here, the Great American Book shortage--not a dearth of books published, but our underbooked library systems.

Imagine the benefits that a well-stocked national digital library system could bring to library users in rich and poor cities alike if we used a TeleRead approach to drive down the costs of book-reading. TeleRead is more timely than ever; the prices of ebook readers are coming down. GemStar reportedly will release one by Christmas 2000 that will sell for around $100; and $50 or even $25 models could eventually be on the way.

A TeleRead program would speed up this trend by using local libraries as places to demonstrate and popularize the technology with free loans of ebook-reading hardware. The more popular, the lower the production costs. Needless to say, the existence of a well-stocked national digital library could make the technology more attractive. Arrangements could be made for fair compensation for writers and publishers. Would you believe, writers in the States are collecting less than $6 billion a year in royalties from publishers, in a country with a Gross Domestic Product approaching $10 trillion. Even factoring in the markups of publishers, we are not talking immense sums in the grand scheme of things; and obviously TeleRead could start small and scale up slowly. Along the way, of course, far from replacing librarians, TeleRead would free them to spend more time as mentors. How fitting it would be for the usual public librarians to venture into the public schools, many of whose underpaid, overworked librarians have jumped over to dot-coms.

But don't count on James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, to do what is right and advocate TeleRead to spread the books around and introduce new money into the publishing system and encourage librarians to function more as mentors and knowledge-organizers and less as clerks. "It is dangerous to promote the illusion that you can get anything you want by sitting in front of a computer screen," Tech Law Journal has quoted him. Ironically this Beltway insider has even condemned us advocates of ebooks as "arrogant" for harboring such a notion. Perhaps the parents and children of rural Mississippi will be just as arrogant if they wish for books to show up on their computer screens at home, as opposed to the families' having to make long drives to their badly stocked libraries after sweating in the fields. Regardless, Billington has been quoted as saying the Library of Congress will not digitize books.

Over at the Web site of the American Library Association, you will not necessarily find outright Ludditism of the Billington variety. But at least as of July 5, 2000, you also will not find a discussion of TeleRead, either--not on the site’s pages on library advocacy or technology issues or the great digital divide between the poor and the techno-elite. Apparently the association is still busy absorbing the mere fact that electronic books exist; it is fixated on censorship and other issues du jour, which, though important, must not preempt discussion of the future.

In fairness to ALA, some members at some local libraries are starting to experiment with loans not just of ebooks but also of ebook readers--a concept that I've been advocating for years. Too, thoughtful comments on the downside of electronic books have been made by the more alert members of the association. David Dorman, a columnist for the group's magazine American Libraries, was oh so right to warn recently of the dangers of libraries having to buy the same books over and over again in different electronic formats. Bravo. In effect that is one more reason for a coordinated TeleRead approach and greater involvement by public librarians in standard-setting--perhaps with not-so-gentle reminders of libraries’ importance as a market for publishers. What's more, TeleRead could provide for multiple formats, which, in an era of growing bandwidth and cheaper storage space and more powerful search engines, will be easier to cope with. 

In any event, Dorman's concerns about the present are commendable, and so are those of Karen Schneider, who writes "The Internet Librarian" column for the same publication. She has warned of the copyright restrictions that are now getting in the way of libraries adopting ebooks; pesky questions arise such as how many books to buy for how many ebook-reading devices. Yet another argument in effect for TeleRead and for a massive push by librarians and friends to make it law. Just as admirably, Schneider has even engaged in professional heresy and suggested that her profession focus less on the building of megalibraries of the brick-and-mortar-variety and more on good, solid local service.

In still another sign of possible progress, Steve Garwood, a New Jersey librarian, has called for a giant Internet library with ebooks that could be borrowed. Problem is, Garwood thinks that the library ought to make money through fee-associated services or sales of some kind. Schneider, present at the same library gathering in Charlotte, noted the special place of libraries in a market-obsessed economy and said, "Charging for public service…has no inherent social value." But of course. The less often our libraries must charge people, the better. Given the limits of budgets, a TeleRead-style national digital library could not start out covering every book, but at the same time, to the maximum extent, it would make books free to the public in the true Carnegie tradition by relying on a mix of public and private funding.

Alas, however, if the association's Web site is any sign, the upper levels of ALA and related groups still appear to be more or less comatose on the national digital library issue. That jibes with my experiences from a few years ago when candidates for the ALA presidency ignored my queries about their positions on TeleRead. Part of the problem may have stemmed from my being a civilian, a writer, not a librarian. Add to that the usual fears for careers. Now blend in a little denial along with so many librarians' ignorance of the potential of the technology.

"Even modern volumes that were typeset electronically will not be commercially feasible as electronic products in the foreseeable future," William Miller, then president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said in 1997 in a column posted on the ALA site. In fact, the New York Times article observed that many in the profession "said it would take centuries before the equivalent of a library's bookshelves would make it onto the Web."

Now at least Kenneth Frazier, Miller's successor, has told the Times: "I’m not so sure about that anymore--I think this might happen much more quickly than we might have imagined a few years ago."

Unfortunately, however, he is referring to the unlibraries on the Web; in other words, bookstores in disguise. At least that is the future if Frazier and other library leaders do not start pushing hard for a TeleRead-style approach to augment the bookstore one. Mr. Frazier, welcome to Contentville.

Rothman is national coordinator of TeleRead and a long-time advocate of electronic books and a well-stocked national digital library. This essay appeared in summer 2000

1 The year 1996 was the last one for which I saw final statistics. Preliminary ones were avialable from '97.