A national digital library endowment: More details, an FAQ, and an invitation to librarians and others to help shape the proposal

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Note: A newer version of the endowment proposal—posted in January 2015—appears here.

theatlanticlogoLibraryCity inspired mentions on the Atlantic Magazine’s Web site and elsewhere with a call for a national digital library endowment for the United States. Endowment funds would come entirely or almost entirely from philanthropists, in the beginning at least, given the hostility of so many politicians toward new programs. The endowment would be just one source of library funding, but it could make a huge difference.

Ahead is a follow-up, an informal FAQ, to which you can speed instantly; and LibraryCity will welcome your own questions, suggested answers, and other ideas via email or the comments area.

FallowsLibraryEndowmentBut first some background for newcomers to these issues. Who says American schools are the only settings for “savage inequalities”? Mississippi spent just $1.42 per capita on public library books and other content in fiscal year 2010, according a report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS; and Illinois, the champion, came in at a still-less-than-stunning $7.79. Libraries in my own state, Virginia, birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, far more of a friend of books and libraries than are most of today’s politicians, weighed in at $3.77 per capita. The Old Dominion at least exceeded the minuscule 57 cents in the territory of Guam for that year and the 16 cents in FY 2009. Alas, the newer IMLS report failed to mention Puerto Rico. But the FY 2009 figure from the agency was 35 cents. The per-capita annual spending listed for the U.S. for FY 2010 was $4.22. While inexact, the numbers are close enough. All in all, a paltry $1.257 billion was for content, approximately the $1.3-billion cost of just one terrorist-friendly complex for the Department of Defense. Pathetic.

Put another way, only 11.7 percent of U.S. public libraries’ $10.77 billion in operating expenditures went for paper books, e-books and other content in FY 2010. Just 12.4 percent of the collection spending was for digital media of all kinds. In part, librarians were reacting to pricing discrimination against libraries, refusals to sell e-books for lending, and other hassles from misguided publishers. It’s time for corrective laws, not just more money. I’m especially appalled by contractual restrictions, at the expense of fair use, on libraries’ deployment of dedicated e-readers. Whatever the reasons for the 12.4 percent, E is still a long way from P in the world of library budgets compared even to existing demand—which will grow in the future.

Libraries vs. defense waste?

Sooner or later, anti-library forces are bound to glom on the percentages and yank the numbers out of context. How to stay ahead of them?

Far more importantly, how can America’s approximately 9,000 public library systems better serve patrons and do their part to update “the collapsing U.S. infrastructure,” as The Atlantic’s James Fallows has aptly described it? Talk about threats to national security! Ironically, the military itself will suffer, from ill-prepared recruits, if we don’t modernize our schools and libraries—not just to function in traditional ways but also promote new technologies such as 3D printing.

Early reaction to the plan

LibraryCity’s 5,500-word endowment proposal did not just vanish into the ether. On the Atlantic Monthly site, Jim Fallows ran an excerpt with an enthusiastic introduction. Sabrina I. Pacifici’s award-winning LLRX library journal published the full version and promoted the article on its e-mail list. The 5,500 words also made the TeleRead e-book site. Library blogs at the University of North Carolina and Walden University discussed the plan (here and here) and responded in open-minded ways (here and here; scroll down for the comments in the second “here”) to my replies (here and here; scroll down again).

“I really think it’s a wonderful concept,” the Carolina blogger wrote after I addressed her immediate concerns, “and wish you the best of luck with it.” By way of disclosure, I’m a Tar Heel alum, though not of the library school, and she didn’t know this when the plan caught her eye.


(LISNews readers: Welcome to LibraryCity.org! Many thanks to Bibliofuture for the link on March 27 to the beginning of the FAQ itself.  But best to read this post from the start to understand the need for the endowment. The introduction includes links to must-see IMLS statistics and to mentions of the endowment plan elsewhere, including the Atlantic’s site, which published a shorter version. – David Rothman. Update, 12:42 p.m., March 27: LISNews fixed the link as soon as I alerted it. Thanks, Blake!)

Even at thousands of words, the proposal could not answer every question, and in the interest of both clarification and refinement of the plan, I’ll welcome queries and suggestions from librarians and others—either by email or in the comment area of this post.

Meanwhile, in response to the early reactions, here are FAQ-style questions and replies along with new ones intended help advance the dialogue. This FAQ is not comprehensive; rather, a start.

I’d love to see librarians take it over and wikify it and otherwise make this a truly collaborative project, dropping my personal references.

On the more ticklish matters, the wiki could lay out the options and include links to forum-style discussion. We can’t separate discussion of the endowment from the controversial question of how to spend the money. Among the disagreements here is whether we need separate national digital library systems for academic and public libraries—genuine systems, plural, not just a “one big tent approach” or helter-skelter procurement arrangements with contractors. I myself favor the twin-system architecture.

Another issue is the extent to which national library systems should simply aggregate content from other collections, as opposed to storing e-books, multimedia and other items on the systems’ own servers, too—the best way to guarantee perpetual access.

While librarians, not donors, should run the system or systems, successful business people will insist on sufficient details on the matters above and others before committing their money.

If a wiki is not possible to discuss the detail, how about at least some forums on various points in the FAQ below, as well as on other matters?

With more material at hand, supporters of the idea could turn out shorter documents and more successfully lobby policymakers and make their cases with potential donors to the endowments.

Now—on with the questions and answers reflecting my personal viewpoint:

1. How would local librarians—and even publishers—come out ahead?

2. Couldn’t this plan jeopardize the autonomy of state and local libraries and in time even subsume them?

3. But might not the national endowment at least drain away donations to local libraries?

4. How could the endowment organization actually help local fund-raising efforts?

5. Why wouldn’t the endowment reduce voters' interest in more tax dollars for local libraries?

6. What about the risks of libraries pandering to billionaires at the cost of the local institutions’ independence?

7. Will the billionaires really give, and if not, what should we do?

8. Even with their cooperation, would the endowment by itself be enough to finance e-books and other content?

9. What about other financial and organizational details? For example, arrangements for payments of individual items from writers and publishers? And why this repeated call for separate public and academic systems?

10. Should the endowment be a public agency or a nonprofit?

11. Exactly how would the endowment fit in with Institute of Museum and Library Services and nonprofits such as the Digital Public Library of America and the Internet Archive?

12. How could endowment-promoted technology facilitate sharing of library resources for greater efficacy and efficiency?

13. Could the endowment help finance the popularization of breakthroughs like low-cost 3D printing?

14. Why should I wade through the original proposal and the present FAQ? Never heard of LibraryCity.


Q. I’m a librarian. I don’t care what you’ve said in your introduction; what about my job? You want e-books to replace the kind I recommend to patrons face to face. Some benefits!

A. The real danger to you is in not having well-stocked national digital library systems integrated with local schools and libraries. Two words. Amazon. Google.

You can’t stop technology, as shown by the rapid rise of e-books. “In November 2012,” says Bowker Market Research, “28 percent of all book purchases in the U.S. were in e-book format—a dramatic rise from six percent in November 2010.” If a separate study is correct, nearly half of Americans expect to buy at least one e-book by the end of 2013, generating not the hugest amount of cash in the grand scheme of things, but certainly helping to suggest that digital is the future. Granted, the growth rates have slowed and will in the future. But even with that considered, e-book sales will make up the majority of both dollar and unit sales in time, especially when many print publishers may consider traditional print editions not to be cost-effective except for the most popular books. More and more Americans will shun titles they can’t find in digital formats. Print on demand will survive as one option for readers; but the files will start out digital, and POD books will hardly dominate the market. Same for traditional books, except perhaps in niches such picture books for toddlers or art books, where flawless reproduction counts.

U.S. libraries need to think long term, then, rather than build everything around the present. Already Amazon and other companies are getting into e-book lending.

It would be a shame if the commercial model more or less obliterated the library one, especially given the frequent insensitivity of profit-driven corporations to social needs, including the privacy protections that the American Library Association and other library groups have so commendably championed. The issue isn’t just providing the books but also playing up good ones by ways other than simply Amazon-style ratings and other problematic crowd-sourcing. This is a chance for librarians, academics and other well-informed people to gain more influence over people’s reading habits rather than relegating the task to marketers, big and small—including those skilled at manipulating “user” reviews and ratings.

Besides, who says the present mess is so terrific even for the commercial side? As the endowment proposal documented with links to federal statistics, American households spend some $2,572 a year on entertainment but only $115 on books and other reading (apparently without textbooks included). The status quo is an ugly failure, and this plan could in fact could benefit writers and publishers through fair compensation for use of their intellectual property. Through lobbying by a library-publisher complex, publishers eventually could see their library revenues multiplied even if the endowment didn’t take off in a major way. To answer one librarian’s question, I don’t see this as clashing with public libraries’ mission to serve low-income people among others.  Don’t expect commercial publishers to stay in business if they forever give away huge numbers of e-books to libraries for free without expecting direct or indirect returns. Especially if we’re talking large scale, then “indirect” has its limits.

Of course, the question isn’t just the purchase and promotion of good content of all kinds. It’s also helping people absorb it, whether through author talks or early childhood education and family literacy programs. Are Amazon and Google—rather than librarians—really the best for this job?

I’m a former small-investor in Google, a company I admire in countless ways, just as I do Amazon and other founts of world-changing technology; but, please, let’s not confuse the interests of shareholders with those of the country as a whole. Despite all the inconvenience inflicted on millions of users, Google has just said it would drop Google Reader to focus on other products. At least people can transfer their lists of RSS feeds to other readers. JManga.com shocked users with a decision to shut down its online Manga-viewing service, depriving viewers of already-paid-for access; even with refunds, how many readers will feel as if they’ve truly been made whole, especially since JManga won’t even let them download files? Why, then, should we trust commercial organizations or even groups of them to respect the long-term integrity of, say, permanent book-to-book links—or even preserve electronic copies of newspaper articles saved for personal use? In other words, I see a future for the library model, not just a strictly corporate one. The publishers would come out ahead through the ability to develop multimedia e-books and other forms of intellectual property that benefited from stable links to earlier works and could draw links from others in the future. Publishing houses and and even bookstores could piggyback on the basic library infrastructure, take advantage of APIs and build their own social media around it. Who says libraries and librarians are obsolete?

In other ways, too, the present proposal is not a call to automate away highly trained librarians to save tax money. They amply justify their salaries through reference services, story-reading hours, classes, community outreach, social worker-style work and otherwise. What’s more, I’d hate to see e-books and other new technology used as an excuse to shutter every neighborhood branch or reduce branch hours. Rather we need to update the roles of both the people and the buildings, perhaps spending more on mini-library-branches at such locations at shopping centers, staffed by librarians and offering and promoting digital items and some paper books. Certain digitally savvy librarians are already pushing a concept known as “library outposts,” not as branch replacements but as ways to augment them, and I love the idea, which nicely jibes with the national digital library concept.

Rather than killing off physical libraries, let’s make them more ubiquitous even if their new presences aren’t always the same as traditional ones. Innovations like the ones above will be the best protectors of librarians’ job security. What’s more, a substantial amount of money from the endowment could go for librarians’ professional development for the Internet era. Similarly the endowment could help pay for digitally skilled school librarians in some low-income communities that otherwise could never afford them.

Granted, not everyone in the library world will make the transition—for example, people doing behind-the-scenes clerical work and lacking research, technical or customer smarts. Just the same, old-fashioned librarianship will still count, hugely. Whatever the dominant medium, paper or electronic, story-telling hours and the like can survive.


Q. My fear is “one big library system to rule them all.”

A. Nothing here would prevent local and state libraries from acquiring e-books and p-books on their own without the national digital public system paying for them or otherwise being involved in the procurement process, and they could still use the system’s infrastructure for interlibrary loans within the bounds of fair use. Yes, I can still see a place for paper books for young children learning to read if parents, teachers, librarians and others don’t want to experiment at this age level with the digital variety as well as with reading apps. And some teenagers may prefer graphic novels on paper. But many others will want to try the new technology if they aren’t already, on their cellphones or otherwise. Libraries’ format-related decisions could still be local.

The happy irony is that with more titles available in digital format with at least partial funding at the national level, local libraries would not have to spend quite as much themselves on e-books as otherwise and thus would have more funds available to buy the paper variety, if that’s what they wanted. They also would have a bit more money for family literacy programs, those for seniors and other efforts to help Americans of all ages enjoy and absorb books. Also, at least a little more would be available to help narrow the digital divide, and ideally the endowment would augment these funds in America’s poorest communities.

Just don’t expect any miracles in overall local library budgets by having the actual content funded to one extent or another at the national level. Remember that books and other items make up just a fraction of current local library spending—one reason I’m keen on the possibilities of more easily shared digital resources to help stretch resources. (As I’ll note later, business models could vary. For now, many librarians want to use the one associated with paper books: a single borrower permitted at a time, a restriction enforced with DRM. There may be more attractive models in some cases, however, rather than mixing the one-borrower-per-purchased-copy concept with the interlibrary loan one.)

Here’s another way national could empower local. In the version of the endowment proposal for the Atlantic site, I told how librarians in Lorain, Ohio, a heavily ethnic town near Cleveland, could link to individual pages in cookbooks with healthful recipes for paprika and other dishes.

Also, in terms of preserving local and state autonomy, consider that the LibraryCity vision calls for two national digital library systems—one public, one academic. In other words, public librarians could enjoy strength in numbers within their own system, rather than simply than turning matters over to people at elite universities. As shown by the Vietnam-related debacles chronicled in The Best and the Brightest, the American elite at times can get dangerously out of touch. Local and state libraries need a national digital system watching out for their interests amid all the complexities. The Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is playing up public domain and Creative Commons content over the commercial kind that most library patrons prefer. But that isn’t the only issue here. The Council of State Library Agencies passed a resolution supporting the DPLA but warning that the “Public” in the organization’s name unwittingly harms brick-and-mortar libraries. What if anti-library people start to say, “Who needs local public libraries when we’ve got the DPLA? Hasn’t it made them obsolete?” I love DPLA on the whole, at least as the start of an academic digital library system; but the two-system approach would be far, far better for local needs and local autonomy, both intertwined with existential questions that the Harvard initiative complicated with the “P” word.

Finally, let’s ask ourselves how much autonomy local libraries enjoy when they must rely so heavily on vendors such as OverDrive. Far better for public libraries to have their own system respecting its members’ autonomy more than for-profit corporations are likely to do.


Q. My library has a foundation. Wouldn’t the endowment approach siphon donations off from local foundations and Friends-of-the-Library-type groups?

A. That’s one reason why the LibraryCity plan for a national digital endowment focuses on the super-rich as donors. With many prominent exceptions such as the Gates library effort—still woefully inadequate—the donor universes aren’t quite the same.

Although we should let anyone donate to the national endowment, the super rich could be a main focus at the national level, so the endowment didn’t poach from local efforts. I’m hugely keen on local foundations and Friends groups, given public libraries’ ties to local donors. Don’t underestimate the power of Friends organizations. Different models may be better for different communities, and Peter Pearson, the long-time president of the Friends of the Saint Paul Library, which combines functions of Friends groups with fund-raising functions handled in some other cities by professionally staffed library foundations, offers an interesting Friends perspective in LibraryJournal. Despite Pearson’s caveats, neither he nor I would count out foundations where they’re appropriate.

A stellar example is the Fairfax Library Foundation, in Northern Virginia, which benefited from $1 million from a trust set up by friends of the late Orrin W. Macleod, a bagger handler for Eastern Airlines who went blind late in life. He wanted the money to go for the recorded books he loved. Macleod acted in the best tradition of another Scottish-American, Andrew Carnegie. But not every library district has a Macleod or a Bill Gates (himself part Scot), a major library donor in his area, and few angels can cover every local need or are willing to.

Speaking of needs, the Fairfax Foundation has it just right; check out the priorities on the related Web site: Early Literacy, Changing Lives through Literature, Author Presentation & Programs, the Foundation Scholarship Fund for library staffers and volunteers, and Books & Materials.


Q. Is there a way for the the endowment organization to benefit local fund-raising efforts like Fairfax's?

A. Definitely! It should help library foundations and Friends groups streamline their business sides, let local people exchange fund-raising tips, and promote a clearinghouse where potential local benefactors, local librarians and library fund-raisers could connect.

The endowment could even encourage a Kickstarter approach enabling local libraries to start programs to which groups of donors committed if the librarians went ahead. Librarians or donors could make the proposals. Kickstarter itself has been used for some library fund-raising, and I’d hope that would continue, but libraries and friends really need their own operations promoted locally and nationally on a grander scale than Kickstarter offers.

Such efforts could happen either at a central Web site with local pages or through local libraries’ own sites; but supporters of small library systems would probably fare better with the central site to reduce their administrative costs. No small consideration. Extrapolating from old statistics in a New York Times article mentioning Macleod, most American library systems today serve areas of fewer than 50,000, all the more reason to provide national resources to help local librarians and friends implement projects to which they otherwise could not give sufficient attention.

At the same time, the national endowment would be helping to cover basic content needs, which local donors don’t always address.


Q. What if Americans thought, “Just let the billionaires cough up, so we can vote down local library levies”?

A. The key is to sell the endowment proposal in a realistic way, pointing out that it won’t be a cure-all and that other sources of revenue will still be necessary—an issue I address later in this FAQ. A huge difference exists between helping to pay for content nationally and serving every local need.

No, don’t give up on grassroots lobbying or other kinds at any level, and in fact part of the LibraryCity vision is, as mentioned, the creation of a library-publisher complex. Just don’t expect anything soon. But long term, this is a good way to go, considering the success that the military and its contractors have enjoyed working together most of the time rather than squabbling over slices of the pie. Grow the library-publisher pie. A lesson from the movie Life of Pi, based on the best-selling novel, comes to mind (yes, homonym alert!). Pi survived weeks at sea with a tiger as his shipmate to keep up alert and engaged in life. They never became true friends. But synergies developed based on mutual interests. I’m confident that many librarians and publishers would claim to be friends, and that the ones who didn’t would passionately argue over who was Pi and who was the tiger. Still, I think Pi’s tiger story is a great parable. Practicality and survival above all!


Q, Just what precautions could we take?

A. First off, we should not make the endowment part of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I’m a fan of IMLS and its leadership. The problem here is that raising and spending money are two different activities, the reason why I think that IMLS and the two national digital library systems could be the real ones handling the details of the spending of the money, in close cooperation with the endowment. (In fact, everything from the endowment might pass through IMLS, which is accustomed to dealing with rivalries between competing library organizations.) Beyond that, IMLS and the endowment could help isolate donors from the day-to-day operations of national digital library systems and prevent them from unduly influencing content selection.

I’d love for Bill Gates and others to help launch an endowment and serve as advisors and fundraisers and overall cheerleaders, but for the endowment to be sustainable and credible, Gates and others should let librarians be librarians and should not micromanage.

Should library systems be open to content ideas from billionaires and anyone else? Of course. Should the systems let them pay for digital rights to books selected from librarian-approved lists? Definitely—complete with mentions of their generosity, in the fronts of e-books. But donors should remember that professional librarians free of corporate and political pressures tend to be the best choosers of content for their patrons.


Q. Bill Gates, even in his lifetime, is giving away a meaningful share of his assets. But most billionaires aren’t. What happens if enough of the others don’t come through?

A. The success of the endowment idea depends partly on how much supportive librarians and others are. Talk about it and encourage the media to broach the issue with the super-wealthy and odds will increase of (1) having an endowment and (2) its success. I hope that the media, too, will take the initiative. Librarians will show more interest in issues that they perceive others as caring about.

No guarantees. We know that the rich favor elite universities and the like as recipients of their generosity, more than they do social service organizations. But undeniably the endowment would make it more convenient for the wealthy to benefit America’s libraries, both public and academic. And along the way they would enjoy more public recognition—by way of ceremonies if they wanted, or the inclusion of their names on digital collections or in the fronts of e-books.

Here are two other points:

—If you believe that philanthropy can replace tax dollars, this is a chance to try to make your case. I myself would rather that the two national digital library systems benefited from both tax money and donations. But I certainly wouldn’t mind billionaires donating to the endowment to make a philosophical and political point and show that philanthropists could shoulder their share of the burden. Let’s find out!

—If on the other hand you’re skeptical that the rich will pay up in a meaningful way, here is an opportunity to prove it and then lobby harder for more tax money for libraries. Besides, isn’t a small endowment better than none at all, especially when we consider that libraries’ funding for content is already disgracefully low—just like the total that American households spend on books?

What’s more, as I’ll note below, there are other ways besides the endowment to to increase library spending; for example, through a library-run program for subscriptions to books and other items: perhaps something in the Netflix vein.


Q. Sure this isn’t a mere panacea?

A. Just the opposite. No cure-all here—I actually have in mind a variety of business models. For example, when the political climate allowed, a telecom tax would be one possibility. I’m also proposing the just-mentioned subscription plan, with breaks for low-income people and check-offs on tax forms, so it’s a cinch to sign up (yes, there could also be other ways to enroll, such as at departments of motor vehicles, just like voter registration). Such a program could play up good books often lost in the shuffle on e-retailers’ sites. What’s more, links to the rental services’ offerings could be included in both public and academic library catalogs (with patrons having the ability to filter them out if desired). In the other direction, if a renter picked an e-book or other item already available instantly for free from a national digital system or a local or state library, she would not be charged.

Big publishers might be holdouts at first, but many small ones would leap at the chance to participate in the subscription service and grow with libraries' help. The big boys would probably come aboard in time. As pros at this, librarians could maintain quality control and highlight the better titles from publishers of all sizes. Local and state librarians could link directly to national content (of course, remember that nothing here would prevent local libraries from buying their own titles). Nonsubscribers could still have access to everything. They would simply have to wait longer for the popular items from publishers insisting on the one-checkout-at-a-time-per-copy model.

Libraries should receive income in still other ways, too, such as payment for access to user information in aggregated forms, respectful of privacy. Also, libraries could receive flat fees or sales-based commissions for links to bookstores and the two digital systems could provide electronic storage lockers for patrons to safeguard purchases from the stores electronically, with fees charged to the heaviest users—kind of a library reinvention of the Dropbox model where you can easily get your feet wet for free. Most people could find libraries much more trustworthy than corporations like Google.

Simply put, the endowment would be one solution, not the solution.

But we do need the endowment as part of a comprehensive strategy for financing content—again keeping in mind that an underfunded endowment is still better than none at all. Otherwise the disgraceful status quo will prevail. I know publishers worry about piracy, but as I’ve shown in my first answer, the Problem #1 is something else: the small amount that American households are spending on reading material. Piracy and excessively low book prices are hardly the biggest threats. Insufficient interest in reading is; and well-funded libraries are one way to help change that—by both buying and promoting books and other reading materials.


Q. Yes, the endowment could pay for a lot even if it didn’t address the financial problems by itself. But how do we decide how much goes for individual items? And is this related in part to organizational issues—such as one system vs. separate public and academic systems?

A. I’d like terabyte after terabyte of content to go online for free access, a vision I share with the DPLA. It could either be in the public domain originally or developed with up-front payments to writers and publishers for all rights. This won’t work in many and perhaps most cases involving commercial books. But it’s an option worth pursuing when it makes sense to content-providers. The same goes for the idea of payments determined by raw access counts limited to U.S.-based network addresses, with adequate measures in place to reduce fraud and with provisions for overseas access when business arrangements apply. Not the most precise system or the most pirate-proof. But this would be one way of reducing DRM-related hassles. Besides, as noted, publishers’ real problem isn’t piracy but Americans’ lack of sufficient interest in books. So some experimentation, please!

At the same time I think we’ll close the door on a lot of content with commercial appeal if our public libraries can’t also deal with publishers by way of traditional business models. Once again, this is a good illustration of the need for separate public and academic systems. Many academic authors care more about the spread of ideas than about striking it rich, so models like upfront payments and Creative Commons become more attractive than to most commercial writers and probably most of the top literary writers as well.

Not to dismiss the idea of close cooperation! Public librarians can’t afford to ignore the the DPLA, through which so many stellar resources could be made available. Both tools and content. And people, too. Public librarians should not go off and create their own infrastructure when the results could be better and far more cost-effective—in terms of both content and technology—with a common technical services organization and first-class interoperability and shared networks and databases. Just keep the two kinds of libraries separate as organizations, so that the issue isn’t bestsellers vs. scholarly monographs, and so we don’t inflict academic business models on public libraries with vastly differing needs. Yet another factor is that reading tastes and needs among U.S. public library patrons, not to mention the accompanying civic culture, can differ significantly from countries elsewhere. Under a dual-system approach, the public side could focus more on our neglected domestic needs, while the academic side took on a more international air.

Wisely, Robert Darnton, the original proposer of the DPLA, has warned that the organization can’t be all things to all people. How true! I hope he and his colleagues will eventually come around to the idea of two systems—while meanwhile remembering that use of the P word in the group’s name doesn’t just unwittingly damage the franchise of America’s brick-and-mortar public libraries. It also preempts efforts to address public library-specific needs through a separate national digital system from one serving academic libraries.

I have no idea how Susan Flannery, library director for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts and ex-president of the state’s library association, feels about the multi-system approach. But beyond agreeing with her that today’s libraries “must ride two horses” and can’t suddenly drop all paper books, I like her observation that “there’s a world of difference between the public library and the academic research library.” The MIT Communications Forum further summed up her viewpoint, and here’s part of the report: "The purpose of American public libraries is to foster democracy through the creation of an informed citizenry, Flannery said. Although 'that sounds lofty, the implementation can be messy.' When thinking about public libraries, it’s important to understand that not all libraries are created equal. 'Some libraries are well funded, and some struggle for resources,' she said. Public libraries have also had to withstand a lot of press questioning their future. Libraries face a lack of national willingness to fund public entities. The growth of e-content and e-readers also raise questions about the future of the library."

That's exactly what this endowment proposal would help address—especially the geographical disparities in resources! What's more, as noted, local libraries wanting to play up paper books would not have to spend as much money on e-books if the endowment and other national resources existed for E. Librarians could more easily ride those two horses. With 12 percent of of a typical public library budget going for digital content, the e-horse seems a lot smaller right now.

Flannery made other excellent points, but here's a content-related one that really hit home with me and should with anyone else dismayed by the tiny amount we're spending on library content (complete with Mississippi’s $1.42 per capita).

"’The future of the public library will hinge on how we will be able to purchase content,’ Flannery said. “Most public library users want new things. The books we purchased in [the] last 12 months went out an average of 6.5 times last year. The rest went out 2.44 times.’ If digital repositories like the DPLA can only provide items that aren’t under copyright protection, the average public library user won’t take advantage of these resources regularly. ‘I don’t know how the DPLA could take on the traditional role of a public library with the copyright issues it is facing about acquiring new content,’ Flannery said”

Robert Darnton sensibly acknowledged that "I don’t think the DPLA can fulfill the roles of a public library. The users of public libraries tend to be interested in recent, fictional material. We at the DPLA haven't developed a policy on that kind of content yet. Myself, I advocate a moving wall. For instance, perhaps we shouldn’t make a works available through the DPLA that were published the last five years. If the DPLA doesn’t get involved in the current commercial circuit, that will minimize conflict with publishers and authors, and also not interfere with public libraries.'"

Of course it'll minimize conflict. But what about those kids and other library patrons in rural Mississippi? Hence the need not just for an endowment but for two separate national digital library systems with different priorities and, in cases when helpful, different business models. We need a lot more “interference.”

Granted, purchasing consortiums can exist for public libraries. But even they will not necessarily address the geographical disparities or the need for a cohesive national strategy, not just for content but also for services.  Two systems, please.


Q. I’m skeptical of anything involving Washington. Make the endowment a nonprofit, not a government agency!

A. I can see pros and cons either way. Many wealthy people might prefer the nonprofit approach. As a plebe, I myself would prefer a government agency in the end since it would be more transparent and responsive and better relate to other public agencies—local and state libraries. Through an advisory council with prominent members, it could still stay in close touch with the business community and benefit from its advice and support.  If Bill Gates wanted to finance a “Bill and Melinda Gates” collection in an area that librarians likewise determined to be useful, then why not—just so he didn’t impose his ways on them? E-books and other items could even mention him and his wife by name.

To encourage experimentation, the endowment possibly could start out as a nonprofit and become a government agency only later on. Remember, however—public libraries are civic institutions.

In the endowment’s early stages, perhaps the Harvard Law School could host the nonprofit effort, as it did the start of the DPLA, just so this was a true collaboration between public and academic librarians, with small town and rural librarians amply represented. The current Digital Public Library of America has not been sufficiently responsive to the needs of smaller libraries, as well as to digital divide needs.

Harvard could also host the embryonic public system, and there could be a joint technical services and infrastructure effort, many gigabytes of shared content and even a common catalog for those wanting it. Here’s to collaboration and collegiality! But the public system urgently needs to be a separate organization with many different priorities from the DPLA (for the most part an academic system in disguise). From the start, a genuine public librarian should be in charge of the public system and come with an existing familiarity with rural and small-town needs, a long-time passion for digital divide issues, and a willingness to protect public libraries’ turf against those intent on gentrifying these community institutions.


The original endowment proposal spells it out. The endowment would let IMLS and other organizations take care of the main details of handing out money. At the same time the endowment’s people should not be shy about reminding beneficiaries of national needs and should insist on some kind of accountability—to America at large. Once again, let’s remember the need for separate public and academic systems, so that elite institutions don’t dominate at the expense of the rest of us. Let me emphasize that the endowment shouldn’t throw out the valuable work of the existing DPLA, which has made excellent progress toward what I would see as a Digital Academic Library of America. We simply need a genuine public system, too. As for the current Internet Archive, it’s a wonderful nonprofit, but even though it’s digitizing works from public libraries, it is not subject to the same governance as public libraries and lacks the breadth of strategy outlined in this plan. I can see the Archive as a possible contractor. Same for Amazon and Google and the rest, as well as a startup focused on annotations. But let them work for—not run—the two national digital library systems.

As for OverDrive, the private company that’s the largest supplier of library books, the optimal and most efficient scenario would be an outright purchase. Librarians from both the public and academic systems could work with OverDrive to update its infrastructure and blend it in with their technologies and also take advantage of its connections with large publishers.

I’m all in favor of new business models. But public libraries are primarily service organizations, not laboratories—contrary to the vision of more than a few academics. Groundbreaking business models for colleges and universities won’t always suffice for organizations with here-and-now responsibilities to the taxpayers. A national digital library system for the general public mustn’t be an “experiment.” It must simply work. That means not just realistic business models, but also reliable technology and funding—which is where the endowment obviously could be a huge help.

For now, in considering the proposed endowment’s place in the library universe, keep in mind that the endowment and IMLS must help all of America’s libraries, not just elite academic institutions or those in big cities or well-off communities. LibraryCity cofounder Tom Peters, now library services dean at Missouri State University, believes that initiatives like the Digital Library of America still are not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of typical patrons in places like Johnson County, Iowa. Read an editorial in the Gazette newspaper, aptly titled More than a Kindle. That said, I suspect that best-sellers matter a lot more in Johnson County than do scholarly monographs; what’s more, “children and youth literacy are a major priority.” Other than work on a summer reading app, the DPLA has done little in those areas compared to others.

Beyond content, what about the issue of services to complement, not replace, those of public libraries? For example, Tom advocates a 24/7 national reference service. Local reference desks can reassure you that Google has not made them obsolete. As I see it, the endowment could also promote the professional development of teachers and librarians to help them make best use of digital resources. How to keep digital books on students minds when digital works are not tangible, just pixels on a screen that come up with the right commands? Posters? Video screens displaying book covers? Book trailers on the screens at “library outposts”? More sophisticated use of social media? We could benefit from changes in both education and librarianship, and a public national digital library could serve as a clearinghouse of information and help break down barriers between the two professions. We can’t think, “Schools vs. libraries”; we need both smaller class sizes and good 21st-century public libraries. And what about older Americans, so many of whom will experience vision or mobility problems that e-books could help address? K-12 should be a major priority for public libraries—which should work closely with school librarians—but let’s not neglect others.


Q. Specifics?

A. Because electrons are much easier to move around than atoms, well-stocked national digital library systems could most efficiently share books and other resources, not to mention other major positives such as reliable interbook linking for the long term. Both the public and academic systems could benefit from the same technological infrastructure and countless terabytes of shared content, including all of the public domain and Creative Commons items in the scholarly library, but would focus on different audiences.

Even in rich communities, local libraries are spending a pittance of their budgets on content; so they would benefit along with the poorer ones. Working together in many cases, the two national systems could negotiate better arrangements with publishers than localities and states could alone. At the same time, publishers would come ahead ahead from the greater spending that the endowment and other new sources of library funding made possible.


Q. Isn’t tech one way over the long run to help boost the American standard of living if we upgrade workforce skills and otherwise plan wisely?

A. Absolutely. Endowment-financed 3D workshops could be sponsored by public libraries in places where sufficient local interest existed. Brick-and-mortar libraries could work with for-profit companies and with nonprofits such as TekVenture to nurture communities of young tinkerers and tech entrepreneurs. Same for other new technologies. 3D printing  is already starting to happen in the library world, but the endowment could immensely speed up the process, working with organizations such as IMLS. Not everyone learns best in schools, including the vocational variety, and didn’t local libraries help familiarize Americans with personal computers through hands-on experience and in other ways? With that tradition in mind, librarians should read Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution to understand 3D technology, as well as the copyright minefield that will exist if they and other public-spirited people don’t take an interest in such issues as ownership of digital files used to “print” products.

Just as with books, we need a mix of business models, and libraries and their patrons mustn’t be left behind. Within limits—no panaceas or one-profession solutions here—the popularization of 3D printing is just one illustration of what up-to-date local public libraries could help accomplish with assistance from money raised by the digital library endowment and distributed by IMLS and others.


Q. There are 5,500 words in the original proposal and almost 8,000 in this follow-up. You're expecting a lot out of me, especially when I don’t know you.

A. You're librarians, aren't you—or at least many of you? And isn't your job not just to provide facts to patrons but also help the world make sense of the information? I’ve liberally linked to my sources—for example, the IMLS  statistics. You don’t have to trust me. Do your own analysis. Just remember the options or lack of them. Libraries aren’t going to get the federal funding they deserve right now due to the anti-government political climate, aggravated by corporate lobbying, related campaign donations, and creative redistricting of congressional seats. So they must have to look elsewhere, and I’ve provided answers here, not just summed up the issues or asked questions. Furthermore, I’m inviting receptive librarians to add their own wrinkles to the ideas above. If public librarians and their friends don’t have time, this is one more indication of the need for a separate system with full- or at least half-time people who can look out for public libraries rather than letting them lose out to academics lacking the same passionate interest in issues such as the digital divide. Meanwhile perhaps a philanthropist or government agency or appropriate university or group of them could fund the wiki and other means to help develop this proposal with as much grassroots help as possible even if many typical working librarians feel they’re out of time. Ideally there will be a wider range of core participants than is the case with the DPLA, which has suffered badly from a shortage of K-12 educators, especially from public schools. More small-town participants would be good as well. No need to compromise quality. The DPLA has been lucky to benefit from the participation of Dwight McInvaill, an innovative South Carolina librarian with an eagerness to use the new technology as a literacy-promoter in a low-income rural area (while not neglecting traditional media).

I won’t underestimate the time factor and the related need to pay librarians—sympathetic academics and others—to represent public library interests. Here’s one example close to home. Tom Peters is doing what I’d do in his place and focusing on his family and his job as library services director at Missouri State. Speaking of which, no, he didn’t look over my shoulder as I was writing the original proposal, nor has he offered direct feedback for this FAQ. At the same time, keep in mind that this plan reflects Tom’s own belief in the need for a more comprehensive national solution than the DPLA has offered. It was Tom who sensitized me to the need not to confuse the missions of public and academic libraries. My guess is that he’d agree with at least 90 percent of my thoughts here.

Q. What’s your own background? Any ties with special interest groups influencing your opinions?

A. No stealthy ties to the American Association of Publishers. No ties with lobbyists needed for me to feel as I do. As a writer I am a copyright holder and believe that the DPLA has cared a lot more about changing the copyright laws to reduce libraries’ costs  than about growing the size of the pie. Actually we need both approaches. Good books, especially nonfiction rich in factual anecdotes so beloved by mass audiences, can cost. Same for some laboriously researched bestselling fiction requiring travel. A literary novelist named Dina Nayeri loves her trade but can’t help but reflect on the society’s miserliness toward her fellow addicts: “I’ve seen major voices in literature hopping between states for teaching gigs. I’ve seen a critically acclaimed author crowd-source for healthcare." The DPLA isn’t sufficiently respectful of those facts. Granted, authors will be better off with new business models in cases where publishing houses now are not adding value (actually publishers at their best can add lots of it through first-rate editing and marketing). But that will take writers only so far. The real solution isn’t just different laws and fairer treatment of writers and libraries by publishing houses, but also more money for authors, publishers, and other content-providers.

At the same time, I’m a reader and digital library advocate as well as a writer. I’ve spent years writing against onerous DRM and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and working toward well-stocked national digital library systems in the U.S. and elsewhere. My Clinton-era warning against corporately dominated copyright law was cited by a prominent law professor named Jessica Litman and showed up in book by Temple University media professor Hector Postigo. He accurately perceived me as believing that academics’ priorities in copyright matters do not always mesh perfectly with those of society at large. That problem remains, as well as in priorities for a “public” digital library.

I myself am not an academic. But I have done my share of mixing with them. To repeat what I posted on a course site associated with the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS): While refining my vision with feedback over the years from librarians among others, I’ve appeared in places ranging from the Washington Post op-ed page to the Chronicle of Higher Education, LibraryJournal.com, and an MIT Press/ASIS Information Science collection, Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier. Then-SILS faculty member and current Project Gutenberg CEO Greg Newby, now at the University of Alaska, approached me to contribute a chapter to the latter. I sold TeleRead, the e-book-and-library site I started, to the North American Publishing Company for health reasons and also to focus among other things on my digital library advocacy. My own educational background is journalistic—the UNC School of Journalism (as it was then called, without the “Mass Communication”), in fact. I find that lawyers, cops, librarians and, most of all, media people have something in common: a little resentment when others trespass on their turfs. It’s a real credit to UNC that, by way of at least one faculty appointment, some overlap exists between JOMC and SILS. I wrote the detailed endowment proposal hoping that people from many professional backgrounds, and not just upper-level policymakers, would give the concepts there the attention they deserve. Here’s to a multidisciplinary world!

Note: Just another reminder that this is a dynamic document and may change. Also, as of now, late Sunday night on the East Coast of the U.S., you should consider the above to be a first edition, with more deglitching and other refinements to come. Please email me with glitch reports.

Update, April 18: I have in fact made tweaks, such as the suggestion that the endowment could take a special interest in school librarians and in professional development in general, with digital needs in mind).

Further update, May 5, 2014: I’ve mentioned that perhaps the endowment could start out as a nonprofit and evolve into a government agency later on. I also suggested that Harvard could organizationally host an embryonic endowment and an embryonic public system with the understanding that its priorities should overlap somewhat with those of the DPLA (an academic system in disguise) but not be the same. A genuine public librarian should lead the public library effort. At the same time, by way of the Harvard hosting, this could help foster academic-public cooperation and serve as a compromise with those at Harvard who keep insisting on “one big tent.” The DPLA could show its good intentions by dropping the P word from its name—as noted, a threat to the branding of true public libraries. Rename the DPLA  the Digital Academic Library of America or something similar. The endowment and the public and academic systems could evolve into government organizations later on but be nonprofits at the start, so as to encourage experimentation.

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2 comments to “A national digital library endowment: More details, an FAQ, and an invitation to librarians and others to help shape the proposal”
2 comments to “A national digital library endowment: More details, an FAQ, and an invitation to librarians and others to help shape the proposal”
  1. If I might, I would like to propose a statement of purpose for the National Digital Library. Often times during my forty year career as a public school librarian I had to reflect upon what my profession’s purpose was.

    The National Digital Library should provide a setting where one can develop skills necessary to locate, analyze, evaluate, interpret, and communicate information and ideas in an information-rich world. It should encourage all to realize their potential as informed citizens who think critically and solve problems, to observe rights and responsibilities relating to the generation and flow of information and ideas, and to appreciate the value of literature in an educated society.

    It needs to serve all individuals in the community–not only the most powerful, the most vocal or even the majority, but all of the citizens. The collection has to include materials to meet the needs of all, including the gifted, as well as the reluctant readers, the mentally, physically, and emotionally impaired, and those from a diversity of backgrounds. It should strive to maintain a diverse collection that represents various points of view on current and historical issues, as well as a wide variety of areas of interest to all served.

    The National Digital Library should be the symbol to us of our most cherished freedom–the freedom to speak our minds and hear what others have to say.

    Therefore, I totally support David Rothman and his crusade to provide a program for our citizens which will be critical for our nation’s future intellectual growth.

    • Hi, Don. Nice to see such enthusiasm from a veteran school librarian. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, agree with your priorities, and will have more to say today or tomorrow (Wednesday).


      Update: Actually it might be Thursday or Friday (or a little later). Swamped today. – David

      Further update: Next week, actually–I want to catch up with a Department of Ed report.

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