EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING IN THE DIGITAL ERA
TESTIMONY BEFORE THE ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC INTEREST OBLIGATIONS OF DIGITAL TELEVISION BROADCASTERS
Marilyn Gell Mason
Director, Cleveland Public Library
January 16, 1998
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to be here today as you discuss the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters. My purpose in being here is to bring to your attention the ongoing role and responsibility of public libraries in those areas that intersect with the functions and concerns of digital broadcasters.
Public libraries are our most democratic institutions. Their job is to provide every man, woman and child regardless of age, race, level of education, economic condition or physical ability or disability with the knowledge and information he or she needs, at the time, place, and in the format needed. Thus, we are democratic in the people, or audience, we serve and in the services, or programming, that we provide.
Because libraries are modestly funded some of you may be unaware of the range of our reach. A poll that was completed just this week in Cleveland, for instance, revealed that 77% of city residents have been in a library in the past year. All of these people are inner city residents where close to 30% are below the poverty level. They include young children and senior citizens, owners of small businesses, students, people struggling to get a job, learning to read, getting information about public assistance, or simply reading the newspaper, or, perhaps, a good book. They find what they want in printed material, on audio or video tape, and more and more frequently on the Internet. Beginning in 1991 the Cleveland Public Library was the first large library in the country to provide Internet access to the public. We were, however, far from the last as today 60% of public libraries provide information to the public through this important electronic medium.
But technologies continue to change and what was once the exclusive domain of books, newspapers and magazines is now shared by the Internet and will in the future be shared by digital broadcasting. Although many of us think of television as a distribution mechanism for entertainment it has always had a larger public responsibility as demonstrated by broadcasts of the Persian War, confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, children's educational programming, and a recent tradition of televised presidential debates. Even the controversial broadcast of the O. J. Simpson trial last year served to stimulate widespread public discussion of race relations in the United States, a topic that has smoldered underground for far too long.
With the advent of digital television the public responsibilities of broadcasters will expand in direct proportion to expanded technical capabilities. As television moves beyond entertainment in a definitive way to transmit data and even provide an interactive capability now available through wired computer transmission, digital broadcasters must be a part of our long-standing national commitment to public access to knowledge and information, a commitment that gave rise to public schools, public libraries, and, most recently, public access to the Internet through libraries.
As technologies continue to change at an ever increasing rate the public has come to rely on the library to ensure that information does not become the sole prerogative of the rich. In the poll referred to above 81% of those interviewed said that "because of the increased use of computers and information technology, libraries are more important than they used to be." Far from becoming obsolete, libraries are becoming essential to the lives of the vast majority of individuals in the community.
Digital television is the next big leap in the development of information technology. Discussing the future of digital television today is like discussing the future of computers back in the 70's when I opined that they would never have a significant impact because the storage capacity was too small. While it is true that the digital spectrum is limited, it is not yet clear what that limitation may mean in the future as signal compression technology improves. My best guess is that whatever any of us may anticipate today will fall far short of the reality. Still, many are suggesting that digital broadcasting will be the vehicle that brings the vast holdings of the Internet to the masses. If that is the case all of us have a stake in ensuring free public access to the information people need to live every aspect of their lives.
Whether future delivery systems are wired, wireless, or some combination of the two, there is a rich opportunity for public libraries to work with broadcasters to ensure public access to information. A dedicated, interactive "library channel," for instance, would enable anyone without a computer or an Internet connection to access the full range of electronic library offerings using his or her television. These offering already include: the Library's catalog, numerous electronic databases, access to other libraries, access to other Internet resources, materials that the Library has digitized, materials that other libraries (including the Library of Congress) have digitized, and educational programs (including computerized literacy training programs). At a time when only one household in seven has access to the Internet this scenario is appealing for public as well as commercial ventures.
Commercial and public interests are not always at war. Often they exist side by side in a symbiotic, mutually productive relationship. One example of this is the now almost ancient relationship between libraries and bookstores. Study after study has demonstrated that people who use libraries also buy books, they don't use libraries instead of buying books. It is not a zero sum game. The existence of each encourages the use of both.
The United States has a long term commitment to educating and informing its citizenry. And for good reason. Educated and informed people not only contribute to the community as a whole, but educated and informed people are also more likely to buy other goods and services; they are employable and interested in a broader spectrum of activities. Today there are many routes to the same truth. Libraries and educational institutions must be part of the broader picture. Use of the latest technology to further educate and inform citizens will be of benefit to our entire country - socially, politically, and even economically.