Just 400 Americans are together worth some $2.4 trillion dollars, or more than the bottom half of the United Sates. The top ten billionaires in the U.S. are worth half a trillion.
A speck of a speck of the $2.4 trillion could finance a national library endowment worth $15-$20 billion within five years. Current public library endowments together total just several billion. So imagine the difference this could make. What better use for some of the money resulting from the billionaire-oriented Gates Giving Pledge?
In a nutshell, the endowment will be a Friend of the Library-style organization for the entire United States. It won’t compete with local groups. Rather, it will focus on donations from the super rich.
Some of the money will go for matching grants to local libraries, with allowances for poor localities without much fund-raising potential. Other funds will be for such purposes as the hiring of school librarians in cash-strapped cities or for two national digital library systems (one public and K-12, the other for higher education and research).
Just as a starting point for discussion, a very tentative Year Five breakdown of expenditures is here.
- Nonprofit independent of government control even though it will be strongly supportive of local and state libraries. We are pro-public library. The reason for the nonprofit model is simply to allow experimentation and maximum freedom of expression. The endowment will turn down money from the federal government or other sources if restrictions clash with these goals. The current people behind LibraryEndowment.org are not out to establish the endowment by themselves. Rather, we want those with far more resources—major philanthropists—to do what needs doing.
- Recognition of the different natures of public and academic library systems. Public systems focus not just on culture and learning but also on recreational reading and accommodation of public tastes, as well as on self-improvement and coping skills. By contrast, academic libraries care more about arcane knowledge, aesthetics, and cultural importance. While the missions of the two kinds of libraries overlap, it is dangerous to blur them.
- Encouragement of states to form a public digital system and of the academic community to form its own. The endowment initiative will be in touch with groups such as the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and school and rural library associations. On the academic side, it will reach out to the Association of Research Libraries. Both national digital library systems as well as local and state libraries will of course still be free to use tax money and non-endowment-related donations.
- Purchase of OverDrive if possible to kickstart the two digital library systems. A Japanese conglomerate owns America’s largest provider of public library and K-12 ebooks. OverDrive is America’s de facto public digital library system. We want real national systems run by librarians—OverDrive people could still serve as advisors. If the endowment could not purchase OverDrive, the company could still be used as a contractor if its prices and services were competitive.
- Use of contractors where appropriate—for example, the provision of highly specialialized technical services. At the same time, librarians, not contractors, should be in charge.
- Respect in other ways for the private side. The library model must not be the only one, if we are to enjoy maximum freedom of expression. What’s more, the use of private content providers will be considered in the creation of open source works.
- Sustained national funding to supplement strong local support. Library budgets are to vulnerable to the whims of politicians. The endowment won’t end but will reduce the problem. The endowment’s investments will create a perennial cash flow.
- Easing of the transition from paper to digital. While focusing on the digital challenges facing libraries, the endowment must still recognize that most libraries are still heavily invested in physical materials. By helping next-generation library leaders secure a future for libraries, the endowment will invest in the human resource infrastructure behind digital libraries of the future.
- Encouragement of open technology. It is not enough for e-readers of one brand to be integrated with local library collections so patrons can download books directly. All makers of e-readers should be able to include that capability in their devices. This is just one example of what open technology could mean. In addition, libraries should be able to enable patrons to simultaneously search and download books and other items from different vendors.
- Inclusiveness. The endowment will employ and be open to ideas from a diverse collection of strategic thinkers and contributors from all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds and in all locations, including the American heartland, Appalachia, the South and rural areas in general.
Disclaimer: The endowment initiative is not at present affiliated with the Giving Pledge or any of the other organizations mentioned here.
Image credit: Here.
Editor’s Note – republished with the permission of The Library Endowment – The Case for a National Library Endowment.