The Internet Archive had this to say earlier today:

This was in response to the MacArthur Foundation announcing that the IA is a semifinalist for a USD $100 million grant; they propose to digitize 4 million books and make them freely available.

Well and good, if they can pull it off — though I would love to see the detailed proposal — and the assurance that this whole endeavor is not tied to the fortunes of a single entity, no matter how large.

But for now, I want to focus on the rather big bus that the IA is throwing “physical libraries” under. On the one hand, their statement is true: access to libraries is neither completely universal nor completely equitable. Academic libraries are, for obvious reasons, focused on the needs of their host schools; the independent researcher or simply the citizen who wishes to be better informed will always be a second-class user. Public libraries are not evenly distributed nor evenly funded. Both public and academic libraries struggle with increasing demands on their budgets, particularly with respect to digital collections. Despite the best efforts of librarians, underserved populations abound.

Increasing access to digital books will help — no question about it.

But it won’t fundamentally solve the problem of universal and equitable service. What use is the Open Library to somebody who has no computer — or no decent smart phone – or an inadequate data plan—or uncertain knowledge of how to use the technology? (Of course, a lot of physical libraries offer technology training.)

I will answer the IA’s overreach into technical messianism with another bit of technical lore: TIMTOWTDI.

There Is More Than One Way To Do It.

I program in Perl, and I happen to like TIMTOWTDI—but as a principle guiding the design of programming languages, it’s a matter of taste and debate: sometimes there can be too many options.

However, I think TIMTOWTDI can be applied as a rule of thumb in increasing social justice:

There Is More Than One Way To Do It… and we need to try all of them.

Local communities have local needs. Place matters. Physical libraries matter—both in themselves and as a way of reinforcing technological efforts.

Technology is not universally available. It is not available equitably. The Internet can route around certain kinds of damage… but big, centralized projects are still vulnerable. Libraries can help mitigate some of those risks.

I hope the Internet Archive realizes that they are better off working with libraries — and not just acting as a bestower of technological solutions that may help, but will not by themselves solve the problem of universal, equitable access to information and entertainment.

CC BY-SA 4.0 TIMTOWTDI by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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