Digital literacy is supposedly what will save the public library, and I don’t doubt that. While you hear stories about welfare recipients and street people carrying around the latest in iPhone technology, those of us who labor in the public library vineyard know that those kinds of tales are triumphs of distortion over reality. Supposedly, America is the one country in the world where poor people are both overweight and wired. The truth is, however, that many people come to the library to use digital technology because they are the computer have-nots.
Not only do many people not have their own computers, they wouldn’t know how to turn one on if they did. As a result, librarians like to say that the public library is the bridge over the digital divide. It’s where those who are technologically disenfranchised can develop their digital literacy. And that’s crucial: In today’s world, digital illiteracy is as defeating as basic illiteracy was in the days when color television was the next big thing.
But why don’t we ever talk about the literacy needs of folks who are digital “haves,” especially the children? I live in a northern California community filled with Silicon Valley workers, two of whom are my son and daughter-in-law. I drive my 7-year-old grandson and 5-year-old granddaughter to school every morning. They are perfectly well behaved in their federally approved child safety seats because they have his and her iPads.
I call it peace through electronics, but it’s an electronic trap. So, when I’m in charge of my grandchildren, I endure the inevitable screams of protest when I snatch their iPads, turn off the high-def big-screen TV, and hide the videogame console. That leaves a soccer ball, a set of watercolors, and a glue-and-paper book.
Why bother exposing my grandchildren to glue-and-paper books when their iPads contain a veritable children’s library? Simple. Physical books don’t distract from the story with a screen full of apps.
We live in a society that glorifies the skill of multitasking. You see it all the time: People text at stoplights, talk on the phone while dining with companions, or switch deftly between Angry Birds and an urgent call from their nail tech while holding down a public services desk. Digital literacy is less about how to turn on a computer and more about how to move between apps. How many virtual balls can you juggle at once?
It may be a stretch to pity the inability of the digitally indulged to unitask. But it isn’t a stretch to wonder whether we have a responsibility to push glue-and-paper books just as enthusiastically as ebooks, if only to save the concept of literature.
Like most new technologies, the ebook mimicked what it sought to replace at first. Publishers did everything possible to make them function like glue and paper ones, but the growth of interactive features is quickly changing this. Soon the modern novel will bear more resemblance to a noisy videogame than a piece of literature, and that’s not good for people, civilization, or libraries.
WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for more than 30 years and has written nine books on the lighter side of library science. Contact him at wmanley7[at]att.net.