Op-Ed How to Spend the Stimulus Wisely? Start a State-Wide Digital Library
In his address to Congress, President Obama emphasized higher education as essential to national recovery and future prosperity. He pledged that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." That ambitious goal will remain elusive in Massachusetts now that the Governor has proposed massive cuts to public higher ed. To deal with the shortfall, UMass has approved steep increases in fees that will force some students to pay for financial aid for others, a plan that shifts the burden onto shoulders that are already sagging as jobs vanish, savings disappear and home values sink. The word is that the stimulus package might dull the cuts and offset fees, but we have yet to hear specific ideas about how the stimulus money should be spent. Before individual schools start to clamor for funding for campus-based projects, we should focus on initiatives that will benefit all students at all institutions. Let’s seize this moment to establish a central digital library that would service libraries, schools, colleges, universities, and educational organizations across the Commonwealth.
Massachusetts lags far behind most other states in producing digital resources for academic research and public education. But with minimal investment, we could implement a state-wide digital library modeled along the lines of the California Digital Library, a stand-alone institution housed within the President's Office of University of California that has remained a goldmine of educational enrichment even during times of severe budget crisis. We could adapt California's approach to conditions in Massachusetts by setting up a consortium that would run the digital library via a partnership between UMass and the Boston Public Library, thereby providing a much-needed boost to both of these underfunded public institutions.
With a central library in place, UMass and the BPL could exchange educational resources with state and community colleges, as well as high schools and public libraries throughout Massachusetts. A digital library of curricular materials compiled by librarians and faculty from public institutions would not replace paper-based collections, nor would it obviate our ongoing need to provide public access to conventional books. However, it would save lots of students from having to shell out hundreds of dollars on textbooks that instructors would abandon if they had better alternatives, especially if those alternatives included documentary images, films, sound recordings, and other public domain materials that are easy to share over the Internet.
A state-wide digital library would not be another money pit. Instead, its programs and exhibits could be used, not only to support general education, but also to encourage cultural tourism by showcasing our unique contributions to American literary and cultural history. After all, whatever other states have to offer, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Du Bois, and other lights too numerous to name. And if promoting public understanding of great writers seems too frivolous given our present budget crunch—a dubious proposition—the counter argument is that a digital library would allow libraries, schools, colleges, and universities to exchange carefully selected educational resources on virtually all subjects online, thereby saving enormous sums that would otherwise be spent on paper-based texts.
President Obama and Governor Patrick have urged us to come together to find creative and sustainable solutions to our economic woes. Creating a library that would reach into classrooms, homes, and businesses throughout Massachusetts clearly answers this call. Likewise, establishing a digital library that would be open to all is exactly the kind of public-spirited project we need to get beyond the greed that got us into this jam. We already know what happens when we shovel mountains of money at bankers. Let's see what happens when we give a fraction of that to librarians.
Susan E. Gallagher, Associate Professor, Political Science Department, UMass Lowell