Monday, November 08, 2010

A Well-Stocked National Digital Library System?

Why We Can't Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System
The Atlantic
by David Rothman, a writer in Alexandria, Va, the founder of TeleRead, the oldest English-language site offering general e-book news and views.

E-book gadgets have finally cracked the mass market here in the United States or at least have come a long way.

Consider a memorable Kindle commercial from Amazon, in which a brunette in a bikini one-ups an oafish man reading off a rival machine. Mr. Beer Belly asks about her e-reader. "It's a Kindle," she says by the pool. "$139. I actually paid more for these sunglasses." Mad Men would be proud. A year or two from now, count on twice as much ballyhoo and on better machines for less than $99.

I myself own both a Kindle 3 and the Brand X iPad and can attest to the improved readability of the latest E Ink from Amazon's supplier, even indoors, despite lack of built-in illumination. Outside on walks, as with earlier Kindles, I can listen to books from publishing houses savvy enough to allow text to speech. No matter where I am, I can instantly see all occurrences of a character's name in an engrossing Louis Bayard novel. I can also track down the meanings of archaic words that Bayard's detective narrator uses in this murder mystery set at West Point and featuring a
fictionalized Edgar Allan Poe.

But there is one thing I currently cannot do with my Kindle despite all the sizzle in the commercials--read public library books. Local libraries do not use the Kindle format for their electronic collections, relying instead on rival standards used by Sony Readers and certain other devices. Amazon undoubtedly would love to fix this under terms favorable to CEO Jeff Bezos and friends. But then other issues will remain. How many Kindle books--or those readable on Sony Readers, iPads, and others--will cash-strapped libraries in poorer cities be able to lend? What range of
titles will be available? And shouldn't we look beyond books and consider the needs of researchers who, for example, could benefit from reliably preserved electronic discussions linked to individual books.

Might the time have finally come for a well-stocked national digital library system (NDLS) for the United States--a cause I've publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog?

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