Library groupthink vs. kids: Library Journal blogger misses nuances of digital library endowment plan

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annoyedI’m Annoyed, capital A, with Library Journal’s “Annoyed Librarian” blogger—rather oblivious to the nuances in LibraryCity’s proposal for a national digital library endowment.

What we’ve got here is a case of library school ideology run amok.

Annoyed’s logic is this. Andrew Carnegie didn’t pay for the ongoing upkeep of libraries. Let’s stick to that approach. Beware of “too much” philanthropy.

Good luck, Annoyed. Welcome to 2014. Local governments have cut back. And like it or not, many publishers will insist on continuing revenue streams—especially database providers.

In the end, Annoyed’s fear is that the rich will corrupt librarians. How’s that for a great self-image for the profession? Buyable, eh?

That said, I’m in fact grateful to Annoyed. The endowment proposal is now on the radar of LJ readers, and I’m tickled. If LJ can do a related follow-up on its excellent editorial on the phase-out of the Gates Global Libraries initiative, then so much the better! Perhaps the mainstream media can even awaken from its slumber and write on the endowment as a partial long-term solution to the library funding crisis.

Ahead is my full response to Annoyed. I conclude: “To worry about too much library philanthropy is a little like worrying about too much library-fostered literacy.”

*    *     *

Should tax money fund libraries? Of course. My Chronicle of Philanthropy article does not say the rich should pay for it all. Most money could still come from local taxes. The total investment portfolios of U.S. public  libraries are no more than several billion, just a speck in the grand scheme of things. In other words, we’re light years away from “too much” philanthropy.

Meanwhile what can we do about public libraries’ being able to spend only around $4 per capita on books and other content?

And how about all the poorer areas without enough well-qualified K-12 librarians? Are you saying that library-school ideology should trounce human needs? That we should always hew to the ways of the past? And maybe bring back slavery and Jim Crow, too?

While I'd prefer that taxes at various levels paid for everything—with help from local donors as well—this just isn't going to happen in the near future. And by the time nirvana arrives, it might be too late in many ways. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan even wants to defund the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Although  he won't prevail right now, IMLS could fade away if the House grows yet more conservative and the composition of the Senate changes. The endowment should not replace IMLS. But it would be a good hedge.

Locally my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, Amazon's "most well-read" city, is spending only $2.60 per capita on content despite the large numbers of poor people and minorities here.

In a related vein, I read the following with interest: "So the proposal is for the super rich to fund some sort of digital library when even the communities that people live in won’t fund libraries." Thanks. So children, the poor and other vulnerable people should suffer because their local politicians are idiots on library matters? You really need to live in town like Miami where the local solons have squandered millions on cruise ship subsidies but have all too often stinted on support for libraries. Again and again, Miami librarians have feared for their jobs.

As for the issue of the rich corrupting  librarians—well, this would be one reason for the endowment approach rather than simply foundation  grants alone. A well-managed endowment could enjoy the powers of compound interest. It could keep on endowing. So ultimately there would be less dependence on the donors of the moment. Beyond that, I've made it clear that librarians and other professionals should run the endowment and the rich should advise (as opposed to controlling acquisitions, etc.). My Chronicle article even proposes that the endowment start out as a nonprofit but turn  into a public agency for maximum responsiveness and transparency.

If you're so pure on these matters, you should stop writing for LJ, which, after all, receives Gates Foundation money to help pay for the Best Small Library Award. And wait—it gets worse: "Members of the editorial board of Library Journal, librarians from around the country, and a representative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will judge nominations…"

You should also stop watching public TV or listening to NPR. Public broadcasters sometimes yield to corporate pressure or fear thereof, and if you're grumpy about this, I'll join you. But having public TV and NPR is much better than the alternative.

Moving on, I see you scolded me when I said better-funded  libraries would benefit future creators of wealth and we’d be more of a meritocracy. Guilty as charged! But I fervently agree with you on the distinction between between wealth and merit and hardly think we’re a full meritocracy now! The endowment would make the pool table a little less tilted. And it would help out not only future entrepreneurs but millions of others, including librarians and future librarians. I used the "wealth-creators" argument to make the endowment idea more meaningful to the people with the money. But that does not exclude non-entrepreneurs as beneficiaries. In fact, they should be the majority of those helped.

For now, keep in mind that if an endowment happens and the rich do not respond, this will be one more more reason for higher taxes on them if Congress magically becomes a little less billionaire-bought.

In the place of the wealthy, however, I would love the endowment idea and contribute generously. We're talking about a crumb of a crumb. The 400 richest Americans are together worth north of $2 trillion, according to Forbes. Library content spending in the 2011 fiscal year  was only around $1.2 billion. All in all, an endowment amassing $10-20 billion in the first five years would be a cheap anti-guillotine precaution, not just a way to help upgrade the quality of the workforce.

TAL, I'm Annoyed, capital A, and hope you'll reconsider. To worry about too much library philanthropy is a little like worrying about too much library-fostered literacy.

David Rothman

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