RF at ALA Midwinter Reports: Tony Marx on the Digital Future

ReadersFirst will be sharing some e-book related news from ALA Midwinter. The first of our posts will be a summary of remarks made by Tony Marx, CEO of NYPL.  We apologize to Mr. Marx in advance for our failure to capture his eloquence here, but we think we have the gist right. For those of us who are often down in the library e-book weeds, it is inspiring to think at a high level on why our work matters. Mr. Marx is inspiring indeed.

 "What libraries stand for, and our traditional mission, is more important than ever.

We are dedicated to the proposition that all should have an equal chance:  be able to learn, to use knowledge to move forward, to learn about others, to learn to work together.

We take all comers, for whatever reason brings them in our doors: the kid, the students,the parent, the teacher, the homeless person, the business owner, the Nobel laureate. Every one of them needs to be able to find what they need to move to the next level

Libraries are the foundation of an effective civil society, economy, and democracy.

But all is not well.

We have kids who sit outside our libraries on the stoop to get the crumbs of broadband.

We need to ensure people are connected and have the content they need.

How will people get the technology they need?  This question, and issue, is larger than the digital divide. I use the term "Digital equity."

Libraries alone are focused on it, and Silicon Valley will not solve it.

Let's compare where we are in the digital economy to the Gutenberg Revolution. The printing press was first use to help sell indulgences. We are in the era of printing indulgences--content that is frankly crap.

We are losing a battle for people's lives. Adults spend on average 9 hours a day on tv and digital while spending less than an hour reading. For teens and children, the amount spent reading is often less than 10 minutes.

We are losing the competition for what people use their brains for.

Libraries are the only group that is trying to compete against this loss.

Technology says it should be equalizing. In some ways it is, but often it is reproducing and exacerbating inequalities.

We see not only an inability for people to afford broadband, much less the subscriptions they need to get access to quality information to compete with the garbage they are presented with.

Our obligation is to provide the alternative, We must be there with a triad of broadband digital access, education on how to use it, and materials.

2.5 million people in NYC and some 55 million Americans are without broadband. We started a program, as many of you have, to loan 10,000 hotspots. People line up. We looked at some aggregate data and we learned people were spending time on education and reading, and also cat videos. Why not--everyone else does. Why aren't the federal government and tech industries interested in getting everyone on broadband, if only as customers? But they have moved on.

Techology is of no use if one can't understand it . So we offer computer labs, with 10,000 attendees in basic computers education. We are offering free coding classes in poor neighborhoods. We had a waiting list of 5,000 on the first day. The demand is there, and nobody else is meeting it.

But even if people have a connection and skills, what is it that they look at? We must make sure quality content Is available for schoolwork and education and enrichment.

Many actor are helping: the ALA, the Library of Congress, DPLA, Internet Archive, libraries, We need to figure out what role we can play, we must play. It is not a competition. We must allow for collaboration and build on it. We must work together to provide access, educate, and enhance content. Let's consider an example from NYPL. We have 50 people in our digital shop: we have deveoped SimplyE, an e-book app that gets ontents in less than 3 clicks. It's easy to use, open source, and we want to work with everyone to make it possible for all. Now, over 300,000 titles from 3 clicks is a good start, but why isn't it millions? Why isn't it the brad renae of human knowledge. We ned to provide good exampels from the public domain, and also work with publishers and authors to expand access, finding the balance of licensing that will work for all. We will continue to play our traditional role of curator. But we all need to need to work together. No one group can solve the problem. No one solution will stand forever.

Let us look back at the Gutenberg revolution: it began in indulgences, but then came bibles and then books and the result was the Enlightenment, the greatest flowering of knowledge in Western History. We now live in a world that  83% literate and more and more books are produced each year. This change is a great innovation, for all the bumps and disruptions it caused. Let us take the technology revolution we have to today and make it the Gutenberg revolution on steroids. And don't worry about foot traffic. Coming to the library is complementary with and not competition with technology. If we don't embrace technology, make it available, help people use it, and provide quality content, nobody else will. The opportunity to learn is fed by technology, not constrained.  This is noble work.  And it is  more important than ever.

Some questions and answers:

Where should our biggest focus be?

If we don't do all three legs of stool, our response won't work. If people don't know how to use technology, then connection is worthless, and if content is not there than people are stuck in the superficial. We can't get away from any of these three.  I'd love to see private industry try to help and government get on board with broadband, if only at a utility level, the way basic water is provided. We have recently see a political change of because tens of millions of Americans feel left out, and there is likely a substantial overlap with those who feel left out with those in the digital dark.

There are changing trends in how people use libraries. We see only a modest increase or even flat circulation, flat computer use (the first time years we haven't seen growth), but we see much more  demand on coding and other sort of higher learning experiences.  Where then do we focus? If access is important but demand is going down, where do we focus?

It's easy to lose sight of how much we do. 40 million to New Yorkers use libraries, more than go to museums and sporting events combined. That's great. We can' be boiled down to one thing. We need great collections, We need great staff.  If collection circ is flat, it is still high, and in any case we are also the civic space, the welcoming place, the place that helps society to hold together in a time of national fragmentation.

We must strive to be the education center in our community. Do what libraries done but add the educational aspect: Homework help, ESOL, citizenship classes, basic computer and advanced programming, whatever people need to advance their lives.  We are physical space, civic space, education, and materials. Civic space, education, and collections will be our triad.

What is content, what is collection? For example--gaming. Is that a part?

I came from academics, and I confess to starting off a slightly snobbish, but I've learned we must take people where they are when they come.  Can playing games get one interested in designing games? Can Manga get one started in reading or art?  Good.  Libraries are not intimidating. We trust you to get the content you want. Nobody else does that, certainly not schools.  We  must keep that going.

I started educational career in South Africa in the middle of a civil war, and that experience has colored my life since. We gave disadvantaged kids one year of quality education who then watched them go off to prestigious universities. Never underestimate the ability of the human mind, no matter how crushed, to strive and learn.

Libraries do so much good.  I'll give an example I had recently.  NYPL used to provide custodial apartments in our libraries in part so that custodians could shovel coal at night to keep the place warm.  Recently, we turned one from an apartment into a beautiful center for kids and teens. At the opening, a distinguished older man told me the following:  'I was the son of the last custodian. At night when he would shovel coal, I would sneak into the library.  I felt like a millionaire with all those book, just for me. I would read about boat building and navigating by the stars. I was the first person from my family to graduate from high school.  I was the first to graduate from college. I eventually came to be the head of a social agency. Before I retired, I got a book built a boat, and learned to navigate" it by the stars. I owe where I am to that time in the library.'  You make a difference everyday, even if you don't always get to see it. Keep making that difference!"