Needed: New Carnegies (plural) for libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere

Andrew Carnegie, the father of library philanthropy, helped pay for several thousand public libraries in the United States and elsewhere. What he did not do, however, was to relieve librarians of worries over the ongoing maintenance and stocking of the libraries. Hundreds of U.K. libraries have closed in recent years. And the same may happen here in time, given all the new headwinds that libraries face.

We need to modernize Carnegie’s vision, especially in the era of ebooks and other digital content that in many cases will require ongoing sources of money.

Here in the United States, we have the right of first sale doctrine, which says books can be truly owned, meaning they can be lent endlessly, one at a time. It’s a good doctrine. But in practice, with publishers and others often insisting on other business models, first sale is far from a full solution. If nothing else, how can libraries pay for ongoing support of electronic data bases from commercial sources? Aggravating the problem is that local taxes are the primary source of money for public library books and other library resources. Biloxi just is not going to have the same funding that Beverly Hills or Bethesda will. What’s more, the average expenditure per capita on public library collection items in the U.S. is only about $4 a year even with wealthy localities included. That is just $1.2 billion.

A national library endowment could help libraries in Biloxi and elsewhere enjoy more of the the funding stability they need to survive in this new environment. Remember, by way of interest, dividends, and stock appreciation, an endowment can keep on giving. Alas, in the United States, public library endowments total only several billion, just a fraction of the libraries’ operating budgets.

No, not everything supported must be digital, but with paper books dominating, only around 12 percent of library spending is on actual content. The majority of the money goes for other expenditures such as librarian salaries. Does this mean we should fire librarians? Just the opposite. If nothing else, as demonstrated by Americans’ vulnerability to “fake news,” exacerbated by their reliance on social media, we need more librarians to promote useful, authoritative content. Executed properly, a digital strategy will mean more outreach efforts, more story-telling hours, more interaction between librarians and patrons. What’s more, via 3D printers and other offerings, it could help whet future and existing workers’ interest in the new technology. Countless American library-goers badly want to learn new high-tech skills, and that should jibe with one of Carnegie’s observation in Gospel of Wealth: “The main consideration” of philanthropy “should be to help those who will help themselves.”

The endowment among other things could help finance the creation of open access works to help drive down the prices of textbooks, which have risen 1,000 percent since 1977 and 88 percent since 2006. See How the Hernandez family will benefit from a national library endowment and two well-stocked digital library systems if you want more specifics. Also check out articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Library Journal and Education Week. To understand the K-12 benefits of e-books when used properly, especially for boys, see a study from the U.K. Literacy Trust. Other major research documents the rewards of recreational reading, which ebooks can encourage.

Is the money there, however? Librarians once hoped that Bill Gates would be their new Andrew Carnegie. Instead the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been phasing out its Global Libraries initiative regardless of the ongoing needs of libraries and their ability to complement his work in areas such as education. Meanwhile U.S. public libraries can spend only a pittance on books and other content, both digital and paper. And American schools have been laying off well-credentialed librarians at the expense of students’ academic skills if we go by past research. What’s more, President-Elect Donald Trump is not a heavy reader and has other priorities such as increased spending on defense and infrastructure, and he even wants to defund the Institute of Library and Museum Services. Its current budget of $230 million is hardly enough to make up for local budget shortfalls, but in areas such as technological innovation, the demise of IMLS would be tragic. Clearly we need both the endowment and IMLS.

We cannot reincarnate Andrew Carnegie. But what major figures in the library and philanthropic worlds can do is to organize a whole collection of Carnegie equivalents. Might the time come for a national library endowment summit blessed by major foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Ideally Gates himself could revisit library issues and help organize the summit—given the high return on investment that libraries yield socially and economically. Should he not be interested, others could step in. But ideally he will care, particulately with all the new talk of massive information illiteracy among the young and among voters of all ages. If nothing else, keep in mind the Giving Pledge, organized by Gates and Warren Buffett, under which signers promise to “dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth essay went further, averring that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

This is the very stuff about Americans debated so fiercely during the 2016 election, amid fears of demagogues and the end of democracy as we know it. While the endowment must not be a political organization, it can at least help narrow the chasm between the .1 percent and the resent of us. The endowment would be a win for all. With a better-prepared, more prosperous workforce, the .1 percent would enjoy a larger market for the goods and services of the companies they owned. The rest of the country could better survive in an era when automation, not foreign competition, will be the main threat. What’s more, if automation ends up shortening the work week of the average citizen, cultural and civic pursuits ideally will count more. Or do we want the extra time to go simply for consumption of mindless videos and VR? The advent of the driverless car if anything could open up more opportunities for reading and other desirable activities if society prepares through the endowment and otherwise.

But is the money 0ut there for the endowment? Surely not from tax funds right now. Moreover, in today’s Washington, freedom of expression has been increasingly imperiled, with talk of “loosening up” the libel laws—hence, the current desirability of a nonprofit model independent of the federal government. Under those circumstances, a privately funded endowment would be most attractive; and, yes, the resources exist for an endowment of $15-$20 billion within five years and its ability to spend perhaps a billion dollars in Year Five.

The Forbes’ wealth figures—for the 400 richest billionaires in the United States—show that the top ten are together worth about half a trillion. Do the math. The half trillion could pay for more than 25 national library endowments. The total wealth of the 400 is $2.4 trillion, with their average net worth at $6 billion. Now, imagine if even just a tiny fraction of the $2.4 trillion goes for the endowment; yes, we are aware of the practical side, such as the need to retain enough wealth to invest in existing and new businesses. But a “Billion Dollar Donors Club” for the endowment could happen without the members sinking into abject poverty and without their grievously depriving their companies of capital. A club member could even spread the billion or more over the five years or ten years rather than donate everything at once.

Needless to say, some or all of the elements of the library endowment model could work in countries other than the United States. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, for example, if the model could be used to help revivify U.K. libraries?

Related: EveryLibrary.org, which helps public and academic libraries fight for adequate funding. It is a cause worth worth donating to and is not in the least at odds with the philosophy of this site—in fact, just the opposite. The endowment proposal among other things calls for the organization to provide matching grants to local public libraries. Local funding is very much part of American library culture. We need to encourage it, not replace it, as opposed to depending entirely on the largess of billionaires.

Image credit: Here. Meanwhile, for an overview of Carnegie’s thinking on philanthropy, please view the YouTube below.

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