Mark Zuckerberg’s $45B pledge: Why libraries deserve their share—and what they could do with it

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chanzuckerberg initiativeSo  of course I’m happy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have pledged $45 billion in philanthropic donations if you go by the current value of his company’s stock and agree with them on the definition of “philanthropic.” Check out the Facebook page.

Even with the fine print considered, such as the fact we’re really talking about a company rather than a traditional charity, that’s still one tidy sum. It could easily pay for two or three national digital library endowments of the kind that librarian Jim Duncan and I have described in Library Journal and Education Week, as well in my article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Education Week version drew 103 "Likes," hardly a surprise since my sister worked decades as a K-12 teacher and I've benefited along the way from her insights from the trenches. More details, especially about the endowment’s benefits, are at LibraryCity.org.

Far from being just about e-book collections and hardware, the endowment proposal among other things calls for money for hiring and digital-era professional development of school librarians, especially members of minorities. Research says well-trained librarians can make a big difference academically. So can the encouragement of the right kind of recreational reading. And the same for family literacy programs, which also would benefit.

The endowment would help pay for two national digital library systems, one public, one academic. A common catalog would be available for those wanting this option. The two systems would extensively share content and people and other resources but focus on their respective missions, which can differ starkly. Public libraries tend to cater to local taxpayers' popular tastes, often a Good Thing if you consider libraries as literacy spreaders (dreckish books can be gateways to better ones). Those in big cities like Boston or New York may also serve upper-level researchers. But the needs of Jane Q. Citizen are the main show. Academic libraries, by the contrast, operate under different standards and haven't the slightest involvement in areas such as family literacy. Let's not gentrify our public libraries.

But how to pay for all this? Mind you, the idea of Zuckerberg suddenly showing up with $45 billion is a simplification. It isn’t as if he and his wife could instantly sell off their Facebook stock to raise the money, not without creating a lot of havoc on Wall Street. Still, I think my point is clear—about the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the super rich. Just 400 Americans are together worth north of $2 trillion dollars, according to Forbes.

In the place of Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan, yes, I would carry out my own pet projects, but I would also think about working with others toward a $15-$20-billion national digital library endowment within five years. Such an endeavor could benefit from the wisdom of many—entrepreneurs as well as library and business professionals, even though the  latter two groups would manage it day to day. A major issue in a democracy should not just be the sharing of resources. It should also be the sharing of power. An endowment—ideally a public agency in my opinion, although it could start out as private organization to allow maximum experimentation—would be a far, far more democratic approach than just foundations or companies intended to improve the commonweal. There is room for different options: I just don’t want to see an un-elected elite by itself dictating social policy, whether involving libraries or other institutions. If nothing else, an open approach with many participants would help allay net-neutrality-related concerns.

A good first step for Mark Zuckerberg would be to propose a White House meeting at which he and others, such as Google’s cofounders and perhaps Bill and Melinda Gates, could make pledges to get the proposed national digital library endowment off to a good start.

Ideally Dr. Chan would herself take a special interest in the library project, for traditional literacy, digital literacy and health literacy can be very intertwined. Five times a week my wife and I head off to a radiation center for treatment of her inoperable pancreatic cancer. Over the past few months Carly and I have had to deal with medical jargon and other complexities. Imagine where we would have been without the benefits of both literacy and digital-era technology. More routinely, patients of all kinds need to understand the drugs they are taking and closely follow instructions. And that is not all. Traditional literary is not a cure-all—a long way from one!—but it can help people better comprehend the harm from fast food and tobacco and other health hazards. Simply put, we just can't separate the various kinds of literacies, or overestimate the synergies between them that the endowment could promote.

Related: Google’s giant balloons to test Net service in all 50 states? The digital divide and e-book angles.



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