$1.25-million pledge from novelist James Patterson for school libraries: Here’s what else he can do

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jamespattersondonationsDear James Patterson

Congratulations on your $1.25 million pledge for school libraries and related efforts from Scholastic, Inc.

Alas, however, the money is just a drop in the bucket for either school libraries or public libraries, and let’s hope that many other well-off people pitch in, especially billionaires who signed the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge. What better way for philanthropists to get their money’s worth?

I know: this is a choir-targeted sermon. You yourself grew up without a library at your grade school. Your teacher mother was a stellar role model for you and took you to the public library. But there in your little community, even a school library would not have offered all the books you wanted. As for public library spending on books and other content, it is only $4 per capita, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services—in fact, less than $2.60 in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. The U.S. total is a mere $1.2 billion. Existing public library endowments add up to only several billion dollars, a fraction of the libraries’ annual operating expenses.

Miserliness toward libraries does not just hurt young people. Also harmed are writers and the publishing industry. The best way to help them would be to enlarge the universe of regular readers—present and future buyers of books. U.S. households spend only around $120 per year on books and other nontextbook reading, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average 15-to-19-year-old devotes only about six minutes a day to recreational reading, as reported by BLS.

With the above and much else in mind, we need a national digital library endowment with well-publicized ceremonies from top public officials to honor major donors.

Michelle Obama held a “Let’s move! Lead’s read!” event for K-12 students. What if next time Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were by her side, while she and the President thanked them for major donations to the endowment? Among other things, the endowment could help local and national libraries buy paper as well as digital books.

Beyond the $1.25 million

Simply put, the $1.25 million is a wonderful conversation-starter. But even after triumphs like a $150-million book deal—Forbes’s figure—you yourself can donate only so much personally. Here’s how you could also help.

1. Keep reminding people that books themselves are not enough. We need librarians to help children discover, absorb and enjoy them, a point noted in Washington Post Book World Editor Ron Charles’ item on your donation. Racial and ethnic minorities are especially underrepresented in the library world even though minorities will be the majority in America by around 2044. The proposed endowment could help correct this.

2. At the same time don’t write off e-books as literacy- and knowledge-spreaders. Granted, libraries should not toss out all paper books, so well suited for parent-to-child reading and other purposes. I love some libraries’ experimentation with p-book vending machines. But the real future is digital—a way to multiply the number of books for school children and other library patrons, especially in rural areas. You grew up in Newburgh, New York, now part of the N.Y.C. metro area but more bucolic back then. Shouldn’t a Newburgh child, not just one in Manhattan, be able to chose from millions of books best suited for her needs and interests, in line with the Five Laws of Library Science?

3. Talk up e-book literacy among librarians and patrons alike. Too many librarians and teachers do not understand the extent to which e-book devices are like hearing aids or eyeglasses. What works for one person won’t do for all. Young people suffering from the glare of the usual LCD screens, for example, could benefit from e-readers without backlighting. Or they could adjust the e-reading software on their cell phones to display light text against a dark background. The millions of American students with disabilities could read better if they were able to change type styles, the colors or other variables. Promote accessibility! No excuse for E Ink Kindles not to offer text to speech when publishers allow it! Better-informed readers could lean on technology companies to respond better to their needs.

For now, however, most  young people do not even know how to read an e-book; it is not the same as reading a print book. To follow the doings of a character in an 800 novel, for example, you can use a searcher rather than flipping pages. The better e-reading software will even show you snippets of text surrounding the name. What’s more, Amazon’s Kindles offer an ”X-ray” feature on many books to help readers get a feel for them. Libraries should start doing the same.

4. Think about new ways to promote e-books among the young. Book posters should be everywhere in schools, government buildings and other public areas—carefully matched to the interests of the targeted audience. Sports books could be promoted in or near stadiums, for example. And, yes, the poster idea could likewise work for e-bookstores and commercial publishers such as Hachette—your own publisher—not just for libraries.

Also consider the usefulness of cell phone book clubs started by libraries, schools, publishers and others. Thanks to technology, young people’s phones can double as their always-usable personal libraries. School librarian Njabulo Tazibona in Zimbabwe is working toward a club, and I’ve offered to pay for several low-cost phones for a demonstration project, once the details are worked out—students will be able to download e-books via WiFi at school. Today Mr. Tazibona informed me the headmistress of St. Columba’s High School had just signed off on the idea. Consultation with customs officials is next, and then the phones will be on their way.

Jeff Scott, the new library director in Berkeley, California, applied for a Knight Foundation grant to start cell phone book clubs when he was librarian for Tulare County, and he hopes to experiment with the concept in Berkeley even without a grant since it overlaps with his past activities. Tulare’s adult functional illiteracy rate, by the way, exceeds 40 percent. Not exactly prime territory for bookstores. Library and commercial initiatives such as the clubs could help change that. Same for clubs started by community members themselves.

A LibraryCity post describes in depth the possibilities: Cell phone book clubs: A new way for libraries to promote literacy, technology, family and community.

5. Come out in favor of the just-mentioned national digital library endowment, which could help authors and publishers, too (indirectly through libraries’ fair payments for use of intellectual property), not just library patrons. School libraries would especially benefit. The endowment could help pay for everything from school librarians to books and other content. Some of the books could be paper—for example, for mothers and toddlers in low-income households. Later the children could adjust to digital books to increase the number of titles they could enjoy. Links from digital libraries could go not just to big e-book-sellers online but also to local bookstores selling paper books.

Yes, the money is out there for the endowment. Just 400 Americans are together worth north of $2 trillion, and the endowment could help them deploy their resources in a strategic way. The Obama White House held a summit last year for the scions of the super rich. It encouraged individual initiatives, and, in fact, there is a place for those. But pooling resources in a national digital library initiative could also help.

For more on the endowment concept, see an executive summary, the full endowment proposal, and articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (screenshot) and Library Journal. The proposal is less about technology than about the traditional benefits of books and libraries. We are really talking here about higher academic achievement and a better-prepared workforce even though books themselves are valuable for many other reasons. The endowment proposal notes: “Even if reinvented libraries helped in merely a tiny way to increase Americans’ cognitive powers, the financial rewards could be still be worthwhile if we extrapolate from a 2010 paper by Eric A. Hanushek at Stanford and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, both economists. Just a 25-point rise in PISA scores by 2030 might boost our Gross Domestic Product by more than $40 trillion over the lives of children born in the year of the study.” Harvard Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is keen not just on “material sensitivity and nurturance” but also on “provision of books, library visits, and the like.”

The right books and librarians can even reduce the chance of released prisoners committing future crimes. Some cell phone book clubs, in fact, could exist for ex-cons—variants of a more traditional club featured in the Washington Post. The clubs could meet in person and virtually, using the power of social media to bind together ex-offenders who wanted to turn their lives around. “Cell” needn’t mean just the prison variety.

If nothing else, good books can promote empathy, not such a bad trait to cultivate among police officers as well (also candidates for bibliotherapy?). Ferguson illustrates the hazards of our national empathy deficit.

6. Advocate the creation of two national digital library systems, one public, one academic. The two could share infrastructure, many gigs of content and other resources, but focus on their respective missions. Public libraries serve mass needs such as the promotion of recreational reading, which is worthy in itself and can encourage the literary variety. Taxpayers’ preferences are key. So are K-12 needs. Academic libraries, on the other hand, focus on more advanced books and other content. The fear here is that with one system, the academic and research elites would prevail at the expense of the masses. Also keep in mind that public libraries are civic institutions. Colleges and universities, by contrast, as shown by ever-rising tuition, are so often out of touch with the nonelite (cuts in public funding for institutions of higher education are not the only reason for the increases).

Just the same, we must not dumb down public and school libraries by depriving them of academic content. In fact, I want to see much more of it available for everyone, and interested people beyond the campus and research labs should even be able to tap into the academic digital system directly. But please—don’t try to squeeze everyone into “one big tent” with a single huge hierarchy and with all-too-powerful arbiters of literary tastes.

LibraryCity Cofounder Tom Peters, now dean of library services at Missouri State University and formerly with a resources-sharing organization for Big Ten universities, puts it well. He believes that the two-system approach would better “embrace and fully serve the richness and diversity that is America.” Meanwhile Jim Duncan, another LibraryCity contributor, a former academic librarian who is executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, has noted the need for a separate national public system and an endowment to help public and school libraries with the nuts and bolts, beyond current efforts. “Many local libraries can barely keep desktop computers functioning. I recently spoke with a rural public library director mourning the retirement of her two 13-year-old Gates-funded PCs.”

Background on me: I’m writing you as a fellow literacy advocate as well as a former Publishers Weekly blogger and the founder of the TeleRead e-book site now owned by NAPCO Media. TeleRead dates back to the 1990s. It was the first general-interest Web site devoted to news and opinion on e-books and digital libraries. I’ve written commentaries on e-libraries and related topics for other publications ranging from TheAtlantic.com to the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post.

David H. Rothman
Cofounder and Editor-Publisher
LibraryCity.org
“About” page:  http://www.librarycity.org/about/
[email protected] | 703-370-6540

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