Preview of November 5 Presentation for E-Book 2001

TeleRead: The Case for a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System for All

David H. Rothman, National Coordinator

of TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home


TeleRead’s Background: This noncommercial proposal tells how to use technology to promote literacy and learning in general and encourage similar efforts in other countries. TeleRead is also the name of a small, Net-based group with email subscribers in the United States, Israel, Mexico, India and Pakistan ( TeleRead articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Computerworld and U.S. News & World Report. An earlier version of the present TeleRead plan is the concluding chapter of Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier (MIT Press/ASIS). William F. Buckley, Jr., has written two favorable columns on TeleRead idea, which I have been advocating for the past decade.


Why TeleRead Is a “Must”: Do we really want to replicate online the “savage inequalities” of our schools and libraries? In one year, a budget-strapped California county spent just 25 cents per resident on books and other library content. The success of a Chicago parochial school with RocketBooks suggest that e-books can be a cost-effective way to expand reading choices for the children of low-income parents. At the same time, TeleRead would help the elite, too, by increasing the variety of books available in Bethesda, not just Anacostia. Moreover, e-books at home would be valuable to aging baby boomers who may not be able to drive to the library, or whose eyes could benefit from the enlarged type on the screens of e-book-readers. If nothing else, TeleRead is a way to help text survive and thrive in a multimedia age—a worthy goal in itself.


Main Elements of TeleRead: A well-stocked national digital library system would focus on books but also be rich in appropriate multimedia and expand on the valuable American Memory project. Aid would go to local libraries and schools to help absorb the technology and content. Beyond educational benefits, cost-justification would occur through greater government efficiency and promotion of Net commerce at a crucial time. In addition, TeleRead would offer remote and on-site assistance to other countries in the form of help with the technology, the absorption of it, the legalities and the library science details. In the standards area, TeleRead could build on the work of groups like the Open eBook Forum and the National Information Standards Organization—and, yes, also use the expertise of the Convergent Information Systems Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


Beneficiaries: First, schoolchildren, other learners and our underfunded libraries, which devote just a fraction of their money to actual content. Second, content-creators. Third, the e-book industry—hardly stellar so far in its marketing to schools and libraries. Fourth, business in general, which would enjoy a better-educated workforce. Fifth, everyone, in terms of cultural preservation. One of the goals of today’s terrorists is the extermination of “Satanic” cultures, especially America’s. TeleRead would help protect content, not just the networks that transmitted it. With books, art, music and other culture backed up—through closely monitored archives on different storage media and in many countries—fanatics could not completely destroy any nation’s library. Do not be surprised if the physical Library of Congress is eventually on the hit list of a bin Laden-style terrorist. While TeleRead could never bring incinerated books, paintings or recordings back to life in their physical forms, it at least could preserve the words, images and sounds.


Participants: Libraries, museums, content-providers, nonprofits, individual philanthropists and corporations would all have roles. The library and museum systems would help supply the general infrastructure and work with content-providers to set the general direction. Nonprofits and individual philanthropists would contribute content or finance it. TeleRead servers could house, for example, a “William and Melinda Gates Collection.” Even after the dotcom debacle, billions of dollars are looking for the right charity, and TeleRead would help send more of it in the direction of the librarydom. As for corporations, they could donate money to TeleRead, provide technical services, and, of course, in the case of publishers, sell content.

How TeleRead Differs from Many Existing Visions: Most of all, TeleRead would offer better integration of a national digital library system into the schools and the rest of society. Second, it would be closer to the Carnegie version of “free” libraries than most other plans even though not everything would be free. Third, TeleRead could let users store content on their own machines for fast reference and the sharing of books with friends. Tracking of accesses could still occur through techniques already planned for commercial use. Fourth, TeleRead would offer massive archives for both public accesses and backup. Fifth, it would systematically cost-justify itself with inexpensive multi-use machines that could display e-books in style but also work with government forms and Net commerce, as well as word-processing, spreadsheets and other common applications. TeleRead would encourage the e-book industry to sell machines to libraries and schools at discount or perhaps even give them away in some cases. Lent out to the public, these demo units would boost the demand for e-book-friendly computers and more quickly drive down costs to the point where just about all machines would be privately owned. Please note that while most American families own computers, tens of millions still lack them—probably less for economic reasons than because of the technological challenges. An integrated approach like TeleRead, combining the most suitable technology with the human side, could use libraries to address this problem.


Role of Content Providers: TeleRead would enable publishers and writers to worry less about the details of distribution and marketing and more about content. The plan could pay by the number of accesses. Large publishers could gamble money up-front to be able to qualify for larger payments later on. Whether librarians like it or not, the publishing industry will insist that the popularity of commercial book influence the amount of compensation granted. But at least with TeleRead library books, publishers would have to pay to play in the big leagues, so that a few best-sellers would not dominate the spending on content. TeleRead strives for the balance missing from certain library-originated plans. It is fair both to schoolchildren and Random House. Ironically, if we find that technology cannot prevent massive piracy, a library approach could be more helpful to publishers than alternatives—by making it easier to collect money for content and by making thousands of books “free” and thus of less interest to pirates. TeleRead could combine both the library distribution system and the spine of a commercial one. Content-providers could decide whether to sell books commercially through the digital library system, at prices they wanted, or offer them for royalties decided by the TeleRead system. Most books go out of print within a few years. So a typical pattern might be for many worthwhile commercial books to become TeleRead offerings in time. TeleRead would actually mean more revenue for good publishers. What’s more, book-sellers could either become publishers themselves or offer enhanced versions of the TeleRead catalogue and database. A good example is, which collects readers’ comments on individual items and which aggressively cross-promotes.


TeleRead and Public Libraries:  Certain librarians and hangers-on see electronic books as threats to their careers or at least their bureaucratic turfs. Library Journal has denied me space to discuss TeleRead; and meanwhile a Journal editor has misleadingly implied that TeleRead would favor books by popularity alone. Her column ignored TeleRead’s pay-to-play feature, which would open spigots of money for less popular books. She was pandering to turf-fixated librarians who hate the idea of ordinary mortals easily finding titles that librarians have not blessed. Critics ignore the fact that TeleRead could limit searches to items approved by local or national libraries, just so the readers toggled in this filtering. Quite perceptively, John Iliff, a veteran reference librarian and a former co-moderator of an influential library list on the Internet, has compared TeleRead to fluoride. He wishes that certain librarians were more like dentists and fretted less about job protection and more about the commonweal. Actually, as John and I both know, TeleRead would be a godsend to librarians since they could spend less time as clerks and stockroom workers and more time creating and annotating hyperlinks, packaging information and knowledge in other ways, and serving as mentors to library users. TeleRead would not eliminate the reference desk. Local librarians, moreover, could even create customized search engines and link sets and otherwise adapt the national collection to serve the exact needs of their own users. A library in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for example, could assemble detailed links on the latest technologies for sword-fishing. What’s more, librarians and teachers could work more closely than at present; and, either in person or from afar, librarians could help guide schoolchildren and other library users through research projects. Also of interest to local librarians, TeleRead for years has called for local and state libraries to participate with national libraries and content experts in the selection of books for the national collection. Furthermore, TeleRead would not prevent local libraries from purchasing e-books and other items just for their localities. They could even use the national infrastructure as a way for local people to obtain this content, the only difference being the geographical access limitation. If enough local libraries kept acquiring a title, it might be a signal for the national collection to include it. Finally let me note one recent change in TeleRead in regard to libraries—a modification that may save a few elderly librarians from fatal coronaries. I have dropped the idea of publishers gambling money to be able to bypass librarians; that would be unnecessary if distribution systems for libraries and the commercial side overlapped sufficiently.


The Schools:  TeleRead would encourage reading and learning by making it easier for children to discover books that exactly reflected their interests. Children could even beam books to each other, via infrared, without having to call them up online, although the accesses would later be reported automatically to assure compensation to publishers. TeleRead could make use of the natural “ecology of learning”—with teachers and librarians serving as foresters rather than dictating the location of every little bush. At the same time, since the hardware, software and library systems were so well integrated, TeleRead could better handle school and parental filtering than alternatives could. Best of all, books could be more current and cheaper without all that paper and ink to keep replacing.

Case History: I am grateful to Searchlight eBook Training, Inc. ( for calling my attention to the achievements of one of its clients, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic School on the Southside of Chicago, where the teachers report that ebooks have saved money and intensified children’s interest in reading. Librarians and others should worry less about paper and ink and cardboard—and more about the words and whether children will grow to love books. A fourth-grader named Shaneka has nicely explained why the children in Mrs. Devers’ class are e-book enthusiasts. She mentions such delights as the ability to alter the size of the print or change the background from light to dark. But her first reason is the one about which educators and librarians should care the most, regardless of the medium. “Ebooks are fun,” she says, “because you can read stories.” In the case history at, I explain how St. Elizabeth’s has succeeded—not by turning teachers into technowhizzes, but by making it easier for them and their students to interact in very traditional and meaningful ways.

Contact information: David Rothman,, telephone 703-370-6540. Address: 805 N. Howard St., #240, Alexandria, VA 22304. A hyperlinked version of this document is at For time reasons, the forthcoming PowerPoint presentation will omit many of the details here.