Baltimore Sun op-ed on ‘Books and billionaires’—LibraryCity’s proposal for a national digital library endowment

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Wikimedia Commons photo used under CCLibraryCity’s proposal for a national digital library endowment has just made The Baltimore Sun—complete with a personal appeal to Bill Gates to talk up the idea.

If readers can help get the word out on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere and otherwise show support, I’ll be grateful. Granted, the sums involved are large to most people, but they should not be in the least to the American elite as a group. The 400 richest Americans are together worth some $2 trillion, according to Forbes, and the total spending on public library content in the U.S. was only around $1.3 billion as of 2010. In other words, the endowment would cost the rich a crumb of a crumb, and, yes, donations would be voluntary.

The endowment would not end all of libraries’ funding challenges, far from it;  but such an endeavor would still be a very cost-effective way for the wealthy to encourage family literacy and help upgrade the American workforce for the good of everyone. It would not only help pay for content but also its absorption, such as through the hiring of more school and juvenile librarians in our poorest areas, as well as measures to deal with the related digital divide issues. Consider all the possibilities shown in a hypothetical scenario set in San Antonio. A recent UK study documents the cognitive benefits of recreational reading—one good way to help raise the K-12 test scores so dear to Gates.

Ask ‘em

Instead of just shrugging off the endowment proposal as a dream, librarians and others should be asking the super rich and Gates in particular: “Why not?” Are you a librarian afraid of alienating the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major backer of the ALA (and the dispenser of grants to countless libraries even if the amounts tend to be minor compared to resources available)? Yes, there are risks. But a bigger one by far is that America’s libraries will not receive what they need and deserve from our super rich in this era of government austerity toward social programs. To give one example, the Gates Foundation’s annual report for 2012 reveals just tens of millions in library-related grants out of more than $3 billion. Yes, Gates is laudably busy with his global health and economic development projects. But libraries must not be lost in the shuffle.

A personal appear in the Sun to Bill GatesIf Gates doesn’t want to launch a major campaign for the creation of a national digital library endowment in the admirable spirit of his Giving Pledge, he ideally will still offer enthusiastic approval of the idea, so that librarians and others can proceed without fear of his grant-givers punishing anyone. What’s more, he could serve as a valued advisor to the endowment and the public and academic digital library systems that it helped finance. Here’s a chance to do Andrew Carnegie’s ghost proud.

A possibility not just for the U.S.

Needless to say, other countries could also start digital library endowments and encourage their own super rich to donate, and I hope that the current proposal can serve as a global template. Please read the Baltimore Sun article, wherever you are, New York or New Delhi, Montreal or Melbourne; and don’t just tweet—also contact officials at all levels of government. For most people, alas, this is still an abstract issue. One way to drive it home is to remember the interminable waits for library e-books in many American cities, as well as the limited selection. The very existence of the endowment would help enlarge the market for library e-books as well as increase librarians’ bargaining power with publishers, who would still come out greatly ahead through increased volume.

Related: The thoughts of Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, on the need for the endowment and the public and academic systems here in the States.

And a reminder of the obvious: The op-ed is not necessarily the Sun’s opinion, just an outside submission. But if newspapers can follow through with editorials, then so much the better. They would be among the main beneficiaries of a better-read public. William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite, wrote two gutsy “On the Right” columns in favor of the national digital library idea I was advocating back in the 1990s. This issue can and should transcend ideology.

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