By David H. Rothman
Note: A much-shorter version, with bullet points and a video, is here.
Just ten Americans are together worth more than half a trillion dollars, and the assets of the top 400 U.S. billionaires added up to a cool $2.7 trillion in October 2017.
Charity-minded members of the super rich love to give to elite institutions such as Harvard. Its endowment is well north of $35 billion.
The Gates Giving Pledge could free up countless billions in future years. But will America’s libraries miss out while Harvard, Yale and Princeton grow still richer?
Very possibly, if the American Library Association and the rest of the library establishment fail to act in time.
In the philanthropic realm, both the rich and the library world have underperformed. All the foundations and equivalents for public and presidential libraries in the U.S. add up to a mere several billion or so, according to a Wilmington Trust survey, released in 2014. Imagine, just a fraction of the Harvard endowment alone. Even if the total for those categories of libraries is actually $10 billion rather than several billion, that’s a fraction of the size of Harvard’s endowment.
LibraryEndowment.org’s goal here isn’t to drain away donations to Harvard (best of luck to the school in its funding drives: the $35+ billion is a mere speck of all the money believed to be sloshing around—trillions, in time).
Rather, the intent is to argue for a library endowment to make it easier for the more public-spirited billionaires to act out their better sides to the benefit of the entire U.S., not just Harvard—or New York, Boston, Silicon Valley or Seattle. The goal would be a $20-billion endowment within five years.
The super rich would be buying a little guillotine insurance, too, given the escalation of class warfare in the United States. America today may be at least as divided as during the Vietnam War.
This Web site describes the many ways the endowment could help people of all income levels—ranging from improved K-12 education to an upgraded workforce. The latter would be good news for billionaire shareholders, as well as future and present factory workers in need of better literacy skills to help keep up with the new technology.
Similarly the endowment would benefit libraries and other institutions, including Harvard, which would come out ahead with an expanded virtual collections and in countless other ways.
The endowment proposal recommends the creation of two separate but intertwined library systems, one public and K-12 and the other academic. Harvard could play a major role in the latter system by helping to build on the work of the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America (useful and well intentioned but no replacement for the endowment and a more ambitious and focused approach).
Needless to say, a national library endowment could help fund the two systems, with other money coming from states, other government entities, educational institutions and other philanthropic donors.
In a more logical world, the endowment would be an easy sell to librarians, so many of whom label themselves as proud progressives and have spoken up passionately in favor of such disadvantaged groups as immigrants and minorities. Alas, not in the real world.
WHY LIBRARIANS ARE NOT YET SPEAKING UP FOR THE ENDOWMENT PLAN
The American library establishment is actually decades behind the late William F. Buckley, Jr., my ideological opposite.
Sometimes called the Godfather of the Right, this Yalie wrote two “On the Right” columns at my urging in favor of a well-stocked national digital library, complete with the vision of African-American children reading and hearing Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech, and I have no doubt that WFB would have felt the same about a national library endowment. The newspaper column shown here is from 1993.
If anything, the reading issues Buckley worried about have grown much worse. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, as interpreted by the Washington Post, reveals that “the share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.” At least in part, that’s because of even more television watching than in the past. TV might count even more here than social media. Some librarians and educators would dispute the gloomy conclusion, often simply using anecdotes; but the pessimism is certainly in line with other studies. “Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts,” writes Christopher Ingraham, a Pew Research alum now “covering all things data” for the Post, “show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.” Beyond that, consider that all reading isn’t the same. Browsing through tweets isn’t the same as absorbing a long narrative, learning to empathize with the characters there, and maybe even sharing experiences with other readers.
The proposed endowment among other activities could use precisely targeted mentions in mass and social media to promote reading and libraries—everything from library-friendly mentions to celebrity endorsements. Oprah Winfrey’s book club actually put Anna Karenina on the New York Times’ best-seller list. The endowment could sponsor a whole slew of celebrity book clubs while encouraging the VIPs to consult closely with librarians.
Even recreational reading can “put children ahead in the classroom,” and librarians can help guide students and others to the right books and other content. Some reading experts, in fact, might prefer the word “especially” rather than “even.”
So why have some influential denizens of the library world not yet spoken up for the endowment plan despite its potential?
Here, in no particular order, are at least possible explanations:
- Despite protestations to the contrary, many older librarians still are not fully comfortable with technology—which matters, since the endowment not only would help buy paper books but also create new efficiencies through greater use of ebooks and other digital tech.
- According to 2017-2018 ALA President James G. Neal, the organization now lacks the “bandwidth” to work toward an endowment while doing justice to existing priorities.
- His predecessor fears a disruption of the status quo in the ratio between tax money and private sources.
- Some librarians might worry that the endowment would simply replace tax money with private donations.
- Certain librarians may fear the power of big-time philanthropy—powerful rich people telling them how to do their jobs.
- In a related vein, librarians may worry that rich know-nothings will wreak havoc on libraries.
- Some public librarians may fret that Americans would feel less engaged with, less connected to, their local libraries if the institutions were less dependent on tax money.
- Like it or not, many librarians don’t care sufficiently about institutions outside their cities, counties, region or states.
- Some librarians and library advocate may fear that the endowment would siphon away donations from local Friends of the Library-style groups.
As I will explain later in this essay, a national library endowment could successfully address all the concerns above, even localism, and genuinely contribute to the American commonweal. The status quo of the library world is utterly unacceptable if we consider the vast needs that better-funded libraries could help satisfy, as places for education and self-improvement, among other activities.
Long term, the K-12 crisis is really a jobs crisis in disguise, with almost half the adults in Detroit lacking functional literacy, according to a 2011 report. Meanwhile a court has ruled that Michigan students do not even have a Constitutional right to literacy—a veritable outrage, considering that the overwhelming majority of them are capable of it. The schools have been given permission to botch up.
A DANGEROUS STATUS QUO—FOR BOTH THE LIBRARY WORLD AND THE COUNTRY AT LARGE
America’s wealth and income gaps are infamous, perhaps the worst in the developed world.
“Wealth gaps between upper-income families and lower- and middle-income families are at the highest levels recorded,” Pew Research concluded in late 2017. “Although lower- and middle-income families overall experienced gains in wealth in recent years, they were not large enough to make up for the losses these families sustained during the recession. Thus, in 2016, the median wealth of lower-income families was 42% less than in 2007 and the median wealth of middle-income families was 33% lower. Indeed, the net worth of these families in 2016—$10,800 for lower-income families and $110,100 for middle-income families—was comparable to 1989 levels.” Forty-six percent of Americans cannot even cover a $400 emergency expense without taking out a loan, adding to credit card debt, or selling something.
A gap, moreover, has grown even wider between the rich and the rest of us. The one percenter actually own about 40 percent of America’s wealth, or more than all the millions of people in bottom 90 percent. Likewise, as Pew makes clear, the racial economic gap is alive and well: “In 2016, the median wealth of white households was $171,000. That’s 10 times the wealth of black households ($17,100)…”
But there is another gap—one of geography.
People in rural areas could especially benefit from a national library endowment helping to elevate the prosperity and quality of life of the whole country, not just the well-off parts. Of the paltry several billion in assets of library endowments and equivalents, perhaps a third is going just to institutions in New York City alone. As with Harvard, the idea isn’t to reduce donations to the lucky but rather get the super rich to appreciate the needs of the so-far unlucky.
Library funding is an arcane topic, but voters everywhere can at least guess what charities Wall Street Street and friends are supporting.
The disdain of many in the coastal elite toward the rest of America—well-documented in books like Steven Brill’s Tailspin—is among the reasons why people in Trump Country feel alienated from affluent metropolitan areas and well-off blue states.
Millions of “Make America Great” fans must have rejoiced when demagogues on Capitol Hill punished some of the more prosperous Americans through geo-targeted tax legislation, and even a tax on the endowments of institutions such as Harvard. While many voted for Trump out of bigotry toward minorities and fears of cultural and lifestyle changes, we cannot discount the economic motives and the accompanying hostility toward the coastal rich and, in some cases, even the merely affluent.
Frustratingly, many rural places (including those in the Black Belt in the American South) lack adequate tax and donor bases for libraries. Little towns like Norlina, North Carolina, do not teem with multimillionaire stockbrokers and hedge fund managers. Some farming areas are so job-poor they cannot even support enough dentists.
The library world comes with inequalities of its own, and not just geographical ones. ALA’s minority efforts are praiseworthy but still pathetically underfunded by the philanthropic community even though one survey from 2009-2010 found that of 114,227 certified librarians at the time, only 563 were black males and a mere 522 were Latinos. So much for role models for young African-American or Hispanic boys. Meanwhile the number of school librarians has markedly declined especially for black neighborhoods.
African-American parents and activists are hardly oblivious to this, and anger is growing.
Watch a furious rapper’s video below, from Martin Luther King High School, an almost entirely black institution in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. “King Leon X” harangues against the librarian-less library at MLK for slighting African-American history but carrying a number of copies of “the God-damn Diary of Anne Mother F—king Frank.”
Alas, either because the MLK staff and administration didn’t care or the school district got in the way, Martin Luther King failed to proceed with an ebook project which I suggested and to which I donated at least several days of time.The local arm of AmeriCorps had even expressed tentative interest in helping out.
With an endowment and appropriate reforms at the school—ebooks alone are not enough for optimal results, especially without a K-12 librarian!—the MLK AmeriCorps effort might have happened for real.
Instead the school’s principal mysteriously clammed up on me after saying she loved both her e-reading gizmo and the idea of the project. MLK’s elderly tech coordinator, a history teacher who had contacted AmeriCorps, said the principal and faculty would not even offer minor support such as recommending individual books for students to read in digital format. He told me he was retiring after a student assaulted him.
Needless to say, at least at the very start, an endowment could focus more on schools that were not Mission Impossible. But at the same time let’s not forget that the MLKs are the places most in need of the books and change in general. An IRS-compliant advocacy spin-off could work with local and national library organizations and neighborhood groups to help make MLK-troubled schools friendlier to books and learning in general—so serious literacy efforts could succeed. “Advocacy” should include grassroots-level activism.
The actual endowment should come with a diligent crew of auditors to monitor projects constantly to avoid nasty surprises, such as the disappointments that Mark Zuckerberg experienced after he dumped millions into Newark schools. Endowment-funded schools should have to agree to surprise inspections. At MLK the library was locked most of the time, serving on occasions as a kind of Potemkin Village to impress community groups and garner good PR. “Trust but verify” is the operative phrase here. Another precaution is that small-scale pilot projects, working out kinks, could happen before major ones.
The rewards could be considerable, in line with a British study, showing the benefits of ebooks for disadvantaged children. What’s more, a coauthor of major U.K. studies documenting the academic benefits of recreational reading has said that “new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers and it is important that government policies support and encourage children’s reading, particularly in their teenage years.”
Money should be available, too, for plenty of paper books for budget-challenged K-12 libraries. Posters or mock covers touting ebooks are wonderful, but not always the same as the presence of hundreds or thousands of physical books.
That said, much-greater use of ebooks is a “must” if the endowment is to help encourage recreational reading in the most cost-effective way.
In fact, as I’ll explain later, many library users of all ages will actually feel more comfortable with digital books, especially if taught the basics of ebook literacy.
THE PERILS OF RELYING EXCESSIVELY ON D.C. TO RESCUE LIBRARIES AND IMPROVE EQUALITY
However essential is the Institute of Museum and Library Services–very—it is far from a full answer to the horrors described above. If nothing else, keep in mind that IMLS distributes money by a population-based formula even if need is among the criteria.
More importantly, too many national politicians just do not care about about libraries. Thanks to our current book-and-education-hostile president, the composition of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and massive political donations from such anti-tax crusaders as the Koch Brothers, we can expect only so much from the federal government—some incremental increases but nothing compared to the needs of libraries and their users. Massive national deficits aggravated by tax cuts for the super rich will only add to the agency’s current fiscal challenges.
IMLS’s enacted 2018 budget was $240 million or $9 million above the 2017 equivalent, but that’s still a speck in the grand scheme of things. President Trump and Koch-bankrolled House Speaker Paul Ryan, moreover, have tried to kill IMLS.
Even Trump’s predecessor disappointed librarians. Squeezed by Republican congress members in 2011, then-President Barack Obama reduced IMLS’s proposed budget from $282 million to $243 million while increasing spending on some other cultural activities. Both he and his wife are passionate book-lovers, far friendlier to libraries than most politicians, and I admire both their past achievements and their aspirations for the country, but if we can extrapolate from the 2011 Obama example, then libraries can not count on a definite fiscal nirvana even if the Democrats recapture Washington.
Consider, too, that most public libraries must rely on limited amounts of state money, which, in states like Kentucky, some politicians have been trying to reduce to still lower levels.
Perhaps four-fifths of public library funding is instead from local tax money—worsening the famous “savage inequalities” about which Jonathan Kozol wrote in Death at an Early Age. While Kozol’s main topic was the public schools, he might as well have been writing on libraries in rich and poor districts. In the plight of K-12 libraries, the two issues converge.
The effectiveness of well-trained school librarians in elevating students’ academic achievement makes the underfunding and the inequalities all the more outrageous.
Shouldn’t ALA and its members care as much about black children in rural Mississippi—and brown ones in Puerto Rican villages—as about those in well-off library and school districts?
LESS THAN SATISFYING STATEMENTS FROM ALA
Why, then, is ALA not pounding the table for the creation of a national library endowment—not to replace tax money but to augment it?
One clue lies in a statement from 2016-2017 ALA President Julie Tudaro, who, asked about the endowment plan, told the Christian Science Monitor: “We need to be very careful that we are not talking about an alternative to the current mix of local, state and federal funding that supports our libraries today.” So Dr. Tudaro is happy with public and presidential library foundations totaling a mere several billion while Harvard’s endowment is more than $35 billion? That is what contentment with the status quo means.
A year or so later, I sat down to a delightful lunch in New York City with then-ALA President Neal and now-ALA Executive Director Mary Ghikas, both of them far, far more open minded. They of course were genuinely excited about the possibilities of an endowment—why else the lunch? Mary told me she liked the thousands of worlds of analysis I had written to support the proposal.
Jim leveled with me, though. While optimistic, he carefully warned me that an endorsement of the plan would need the approval of the ALA Executive Board.
How that caveat mattered! In early 2017 Jim emailed me: “David, the ALA Executive Board has discussed the role of ALA in the advancement of the national library endowment. We acknowledge the importance of expanding funding for libraries in the U.S. But ALA is focused on fiscal and organizational strategies to improve the effectiveness of the Association and our support for the work of libraries. And our responsibility is to raise funds to advance the priorities and programs of the Association, and to sustain and grow federal funding for libraries. Therefore, ALA will not be participating in the work to establish the national library endowment at this time.”
Asked for details, Jim said: “The concern is our need to focus on ALA resource development and on federal funding advocacy. It is a bandwidth issue.” According to him, “there was not a formal vote—all members agreed to this action by consensus.”
I caught up with another prominent library leader I admired. Privately she or he made two points of special interest to me. First, librarians are primarily concerned about their own geographical areas. Second, this person noted that the Library of Congress felt very protective about its own donors. Ouch. Does this mean that Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, a past ALA president, would not be gung-ho on the endowment idea?
Here’s what it boils down to in the end. The ALA has commendably spoken up on behalf of the brown-skinned babies in cages in Texas and raised tens of thousands of dollars for Puerto Rican libraries and cared about innumerable other minority causes; but the organization so far has refused to endorse a proposal that could help minorities and disadvantaged people all over the country along with more fortunate library users of all skin colors.
A RESPONSE TO LIBRARIANS’ CONCERNS AND POSSIBLE CONCERNS
Ideally the ALA executive board can take time to review this essay and revisit the endowment issue. Note the “at this time” in Jim Neal’s emailed rejection of an endorsement. Maybe a few months will make a difference. Here is a response to various concerns.
Concern: You rely too much on ebooks—I hate them, even if I won’t admit it
Certain librarians use phrases like “digital-era libraries.” But how comfortable are they really with the actual technology as a way to read, especially at the personal level? I asked one prominent older librarian if she read ebooks. The answer? Not much and just on an aging Nook. Even now, well into the e-book era, some librarians have denigrated the tech because they feel uncomfortable with it or worry about the preservation of brick-and-mortar libraries. Still others may say that not that many people want to read off screens.
I wish these library leaders could take the time to befriend the technology and encourage librarians to teach genuine e-book literacy, an activity the endowment could promote. Too many Americans today don’t even know such basics as how to combat eyestrain (heavier-weight fonts if available can help, since you can turn down the brightness).
Furthermore, you need to understand you can’t read an ebook like an ordinary book. Navigation is different. People also need to learn to slow down and use such features as highlighting and note-taking. They may well find they get more out of digital books. Be deeply skeptical of comprehension studies, especially those that don’t allow subjects to adjust fonts and other visual variables.
Besides, the issue also should be, “How many good books available to all?” Digital books are far more economical to distribute, especially to library users in rural locations. U.S. public libraries right now can spend only about $4 per capita on books and other content, according to IMLS. In rural areas and elsewhere, libraries could maintain paper collections on popular topics and in popular genres, but let Americans in even the most remote hamlets enjoy far more extensive digital collections matching their needs and passions.
Meanwhile, it isn’t as if ebooks are going to fade away. Sales of ebooks from major publishers have been declining due to high prices and users’ increasing unhappiness with Digital Rights Management, which prevents people from owning ebooks for real. But many indie publishers and self-published writers are doing just fine with more reasonably priced ebooks.
What’s more, borrowing for free is different from owning. OverDrive, the main supplier of ebooks for libraries and schools, is thriving, with a 14 percent increase in ebook and audiobook loans from 2016 to 2017. The number of OverDrive loans reached a whopping 225 million, not bad even considering that this is a global figure. Many library-goers already favor ebooks thanks to portability, adjustable type sizes and styles, and countless other advantages. What’s more, Apple is making it easier to turn off distractions from social media, and other vendors sooner or later will follow, especially if librarians, educators and others speak up.
Of course, some library users will forever prefer paper books, which hold out special attractions for tactile-oriented younger readers; and if nothing else, the endowment could pay for pulped-wood books, too—one way, as noted, to help keep books of all kinds on the minds of K-12 library users. Certain books such as picture books and art books might be more widely available on paper than books in general.
At the same time, however, we need to remember that more and more libraries are downplaying displays of paper books to make way for community and study areas, and if we care about books as a medium, then libraries need well-stocked virtual collections to help fill in gaps in the stacks.
Concern: The ALA lacks the “bandwidth” for both the endowment and other priorities
Just how much time or money would ALA need to spend if it merely said in a news release or official resolution, “We support the basic concept of a national digital library endowment, with details to be worked out later”?
If ALA wanted to explore the issue in greater depth but required more resources, I’m confident that philanthropists could be found to support at least this trail-blazing work. Or ALA could seek out a partner—such as Harvard University—that in fact did come with the resources. I would love to see ALA leaders among the organizers of a Harvard conference bringing together librarians, prospective funders, and other stakeholders, including representatives of poverty- and minority-related groups.
Meanwhile the ALA needs to keep in mind all the billions that libraries may be leaving on the table if they fail to work toward the creation of a national library endowment to at least help libraries of all kinds survive amid all the fiscal uncertainties.
“In Washington, D.C., where it’s already difficult to get things done, governing is likely to get exponentially harder in coming decades as the baby boomers retire and fiscal pressures mount sharply,” writes David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.
“More states and localities,” he says in the New York Times of June 20, 2017, “will also face budgetary crises as pension bills come due and as fiscal conservatives prioritize tax cuts over public investment.”
How to respond? “All told, over $20 trillion is likely to find its way to philanthropy in the next half century.
“It’s true that philanthropy doesn’t have anything close to the resources of government and can’t replace vital functions of the public sector. But the giving power of private funders has grown more significant as federal spending has flatlined, especially funds that can be used flexibly. Nondefense discretionary spending totaled $518 billion in 2016, compared with charitable giving of $390 billion last year. This gap is likely to keep narrowing as budget cuts hit harder and the wealthy step up their giving…”
The beauty of a multi-donor national library endowment is that librarians, not just philanthropists, could be major participants from the start and run or help run the endowment day to day with the same transparency we should expect of government agencies. The endowment would not depend so much on the whims of individual multi-billionaires, while still leaving them with plenty of cash for their pet projects not related. At the same time, the endowment could tap their expertise in business and technology.
What’s more, in the natural course of things, there could be overlaps. Bezos see himself as an enabler of space exploration to assure the survival of humanity in case a major calamity hits earth. We really can not be human without memory, and that is part of what libraries are about. Library ebooks could accompany future settlements in far-off worlds.
Caught up in the present, some will ridicule Bezos. My own response to him would be, “I can appreciate what you’re doing, but we also need to worry about the here and now, given the growing wealth gap and the possibility of the end of America as we know it. How comfortable would you feel, as a business owner and publishers, living and working under an authoritative regime in a bankrupt or at least greatly diminished country? In an endowment, you have a wonderful chance to strengthen the America of today and leave a wonderful legacy that would enhance rather than compete with your space efforts. The endowment could even encourage the creation of similar organizations in other countries—or other worlds.”
Yes, there could be a certain healthy separation in important respects between the endowment and donors like Bezos. Precedents exist. While Bezos owns the Washington Post, he does not micromanage it. Similarly, Bill Gates did not insist that recipients of Gates Foundation grants use Microsoft products. The very multi-donor nature of the endowment, along the participation of nondonors in its governance, would make it more resistant to its exploitation by individual donors.
Perfect separation between the donors and the endowment? Of course not, since the donors would play a role in governance. But separation could and should be more than just adequate, and the among other things the endowment could take special precautions to prevent itself from being used as a marketing tool.
If nothing else, ponder the alternatives. Let’s fight hard for IMLS but consider the possibility that Trumpists and or equivalents may someday succeed in either killing it off or turning it into a propaganda agency, in line with the Goebbels-style approach to PR of the current administration. Ask EPA climate scientists and others how free they are to speak up, even on matters where there is a scientific consensus. No, we must not politicize libraries, but it would be foolhardy to act as if nothing has changed in the Trump era. Consider all the ramifications that could arise from a more conservative Supreme Court in areas such as gerrymandering. This disgrace is so often catnip for extremist budget hawks on social spending, but a toxin for progressive politicians favoring much more for IMLS. As promoters of fact-based knowledge and of community—both threats to our our authoritarian President with a “l’état, c’est moi” mindset—our libraries may be imperiled in time. Conservative politicians less vicious than Trump have shut down hundreds of U.K. libraries.
In the U.S., the anti-IMLS efforts could be just the start. Even if Trump resigns or is forced to leave office, more menacing demagogues may put the library world at risk in the future. Diversifying the range of funding sources for libraries—especially sources far beyond the reach of Trumpists at any level of government—would help. Remember, endowments keep on giving regardless of who is in power at the national, state, or local level.
Concern: A major library endowment wouLd disrupt the ratio between public and other funding sources
Let’s hope so. I’ve already discussed the perils of counting simply on the usual sources of funding. Why should not libraries also enjoy a never-ending stream of revenue from an endowment to at least mitigate the uncertainties somewhat?
We envision the endowment working toward $20 billion within five years. Five percent of that would be a billion a year, although spending could exceed such a level if enough new donations were coming in. A billion would still be just a fraction of the approximately $12 billion that public libraries are spending yearly on operating costs, and remember, other kinds of libraries would also benefit. Here is a very tentative idea of how the billion might be spent.
Rather than simply duplicating existing expenditures, the money could go for such purposes as expanded minority opportunities in the library world, national digital libraries and massive promotion of libraries and books, embedded in context in mass and social media. See How the Hernandez family will benefit from a national library endowment and two well-stocked digital library systems for a hypothetical example of the possibilities.
In the Hernandez scenario, parents with financial and health challenges turn their lives around after the mother watches a vampire show and sees a commercial especially targeted at followers of the fanged set. It helps her connect through an 800 number, the Web or texting with the local library, which, she hears, not only offers vampire books but also a chance to connect with like-minded readers. It also reminds her of the many self-improvement educational opportunities available at the local library. If libraries depend simply on existing funding sources, such undertakings will never happen on the scale they should. Same for other endeavors such as vastly expanded aid for minorities, or other groups such as immigrants and their children.
But what if the annual amount from the endowment vastly surpassed the billion? What a problem! Does this mean that librarians would not welcome more money for content, professional development and other purposes in ways that didn’t simply replicate existing revenue sources?
Concern: A national library endowment would simply replace tax money with private donations
The antidote is already built in. Major donors would not contribute if they felt that the endowment would essentially just substitute its funds for tax money at all levels. Determinations in this regard would be made before grants were issued. Heavy emphasis would be on demonstration projects that helped pave the way for public funding, and an IRS-compliant spin-off of the endowment could help underwrite and expand existing advocacy efforts.
Some of America’s poorest communities, yes, would receive money to help expand hours and services and help promote the latter, but even in those cases, the ultimate goal would be the availability of more tax money, if nothing else through economic development benefits—for example, making communities more attractive to new employers and retirees.
Above all, keep in mind that, just as with IMLS, the endowment would contribute only a fraction of library revenue. The public funding model would still be alive and well.
Of course, if the fiscal situation worsened and direct public funding for libraries fell off even at the local level, thanks to anti-library activism and anti-library court rulings, yes, the percentage of endowment funding for local activities could grow—especially as the endowment’s size increased. But even then, most library funding almost surely would still come from tax money and other nonendowment sources.
Concern: I’m worried about the power of billionaire philanthropists, in general
Excellent point! Here is how the national library endowment plan could address the very legitimate worries of Stanford University Prof. Rob Reich, an ethics and philanthropy expert, as paraphrased in Against Big Philanthropy, Alexis C. Madrigal’s article on the Atlantic Web site:
- “…big foundations are unaccountable. They answer neither to voters or to marketplace competition.” Yes, some philanthropists might be consulted during the endowment’s creation and sit on the board, but professionals from the library world and education would also be on the board and set the general direction. I would also recommend the inclusion of other stakeholders, such as people from demographic groups the endowment would be helping. No, the endowment would not be a government agency directly accountable to the taxpayers. Perhaps later this could change. But by not being part of government, an NGO could be more free to experiment—especially in an era of powerful demagogues hostile even to proven science, such as global warming.
- “…they do not have to be transparent. They file one tax form. The $8 billion Simons Foundation International doesn’t even have a website.” The endowment could be run with full transparency, by way of the Web and in many other ways. It could actually as open or more so than the government, especially in an era when the President and friends are eager to control all information.
- “…they are donor-directed. The employees—the people on the ground—‘can’t determine the mission’ of the organization.” See the item immediately below, telling how the endowment would reflect the expertise of actual librarians.
- “…the donor’s intent must be respected even when the donor has died. Societies grow and change, but the mission defined by the creator of the foundation remains the mission in perpetuity.” Do we really think the need for libraries is going to vanish? The endowment could help all kinds of libraries in all kinds of ways even while paying special attention to the needs of disadvantaged people most in need of library services.
- “…on top of all this, foundations are tax-subsidized.” No small concern when taxpayers indirectly help subsidize vanity projects! But the endowment would be addressing very real needs of society at large, at a time when federal money for the same purposes may not be so readily available in the amounts necessary.
Concern: I don’t want big-time philanthropists bossing public and school librarians, when they don’t know squat about what I do.
An understandable fear! Too many philanthropists have imposed their own pet visions on, say, the field of education rather than listening to veteran professionals. But the endowment plan is different.
Librarians, educators, and other professionals would play far bigger a role in its creation and operation than would normally be the case. The executive director, President-CEO, whatever the description, might have run a large or at least highly successful library system and perhaps even be an alum of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Business people could help address financial concerns to allow the librarians to focus on being librarians.
Significantly, too, the plan does not come from a mega-foundation or a high-tech billionaire eager to turn the entire planet into one big startup. LibraryEndowment.org is a tiny grassroots virtual group. My own background is as a former poverty reporter. I consulted closely with a sister who taught elementary school for years and who first-hand experienced such phenomena as the fourth-grade slump. The other participants are credentialed librarians with experience in public, school, and academic libraries. Our vision reflects time-tested precepts of the library and K-12 worlds.
We know, for example, that good school libraries work. One Texas study as summarized by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that “although socio–economic factors continue to be the strongest predictor of academic success, school library characteristics may account for up to 8 percent of the variance in reading–related test scores. Effective librarians perform a variety of tasks, including student instruction and teacher professional development. Inequity in the quality and availability of library resources continues to exist between both high– and low–poverty schools as well as high– and low–performing schools.” Even considering the possibility of correlation rather than causation, that figures are striking—-especially when other research shows the benefits of recreational reading.
The real issue isn’t so much, “What to do differently?” as it is, “How can we get more resources for the good work that libraries are already doing?”
Granted, the endowment proposal vision depart in some way from the norm, such as with more emphasis on digital reading than some older librarians unfamiliar with the details of the technology might prefer. But on the whole, the vision is in close alignment with traditional librarianship despite new wrinkles such as the proposed creation of two well-stocked national digital library systems. More money would be available for national outreach in the mass and social media. But people would be directed to local libraries.
This and other concepts in the plan reflect the philosophy of the late S. R. Ranganathan, the great thinker behind the Five Laws of Library Science. I’ll quote them below in an endowment context. While Ranganathan used the word “books” in his Laws, the same precepts would apply to all kinds of content and services. If writing the Laws today, Ranganathan would also use “she” or “she or he” rather than just “he” alone.
- “Books are for use.” In our vision, local tastes would be respected—one reason why we advocate intertwined but separate public and academic library systems, as opposed to one gigantic library imposed from above. The endowment could help states form their own public library system, ideally in partnership with the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. The library world is very hierarchical, and without the dual system approach, the danger exists that academic librarians could prevail at the expense of responsiveness to local tastes and needs. Needless to say, the two systems could share some resources, people included. Likewise, the expanded use of ebook technology would also be in line with, “Books are for use”—-given the benefits for Americans who might otherwise miss out on many titles because their school or public libraries were too small or cash-strapped. Community colleges and historically black institutions with limited budgets would also benefit handsomely.
- “Every book its reader.” Here again, expanded use of digital technology would help. So would endowment-financed promotion of individual titles in mass and social media. That would benefit libraries everywhere. For poorer communities, endowment would help libraries expand hours and better address digital divide issues.
- “Every reader his book.” What better way than e-books, targeted media campaigns, and librarians to help readers connect with the right books? Keep in mind that libraries would not be the only organizations coming out ahead. So would publishers. Many TV, Netflix, or Amazon Prime viewers might choose to buy rather than just borrow—or they might buy after after borrowing. Excepting textbooks, the average household spends only around $100 a year on reading material of all kinds, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We can’t do much worse than this.
- “Save the time of the reader.” Sorry to be repetitive, but here again, those two national digital libraries and expanded access to ebooks would help. No, physical libraries would not vanish. There are plenty of reasons to visit libraries other than books—for example, book clubs and lectures and community activities and maker spaces.
- “The library is a growing mechanism.” The $20 billion ideally would be simply a five-year goal, and with more money, then more would be available for new content and other offerings far beyond what individual libraries could offer on their own. Once again, the use of digital tech would help since added ebooks do not need additional shelf space.
Concern: People would not feel as engaged with their local libraries if the institutions were less dependent on tax money
First off, the endowment could rely heavily on matching grants—with special consideration for poor communities with the needed donor and tax bases. So ample incentives would still exist for localities to contribute local tax money even for special endowment-related activities.
Beyond that, who says taxes are the only way to connect people with local libraries and along the way encourage citizens to value them more highly? May I mention a useful library administration book, Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage, by Valerie J. Gross, former president and CEO of the well-regarded Howard County library system in the D.C.-Baltimore area.
The title scared me at first. Was this simply a routine PR guide, complete with a new version of library-speak? But, no, it is more than that.
Ms. Gross’s big point is the need to reposition libraries, in public officials’ minds, as educational institutions and downplay the recreational aspects in most situations (not all—such as with fun-seeking teenagers or, I’d hope, those vampire lovers mentioned in the Hernandez scenario). I’m not certain we should replace “patron” with “student.” But her main points are well taken. If relabeling a library director as “president and CEO” helps both the public and local officials value libraries more highly, then why not?
Of greater importance, in terms of engagement, Ms. Gross lists possible community activities ranging from spelling bees to “Battles of the Book.”
I watched a YouTube clip of the Battle in Howard County. One-third of the fifth graders reading 15 preassigned books! The combined audience at various locations reached 6,000! That’s the kind of library-related activity—among many—that an endowment could help encourage even in places with challenging demographics, through funding for extra staff time and promotion (ideally in partnership with local newspapers and broadcast stations).
Granted, library users are not necessarily library supporters. But especially on educational matters, significant overlaps can exist. In Howard County, public libraries also make special efforts to issue children library cards as soon as possible, and they work closely with school libraries. We need both kinds.
Paula Wyatt, K-12 library relations director for LibraryEndowment.org, considers school libraries to be training wheels for the public variety. The best school librarians are like good street cops close to the people on their beats—they are integral parts of their communities and can team up with teachers on curriculum matters and countless others. Ms. Gross, in her book, seems respectful of K-12 librarians even if her real focus is on the public variety.
I need to acknowledge that Ms. Gross warns against libraries simply being treated as not-quite-essential places for charitable handouts. But I’d hope she would be speaking more about the local level. Ideally she’ll be open to the idea of a sustainable national endowment to help not only libraries in general but also those in communities with insufficient donor and tax bases. Otherwise it becomes harder to address the “savage inequality” issues of the library world.
On the positive side, I see an important overlap in visions. Ms. Gross, too, recognizes that we cannot separate library advocacy from daily operations. She talks about renaming key functions (e.g, changing “Reference Desk” to “Research Desk”) to reinforce the image of libraries as educational institutions. The proposed endowment could, as mentioned, embed in-context mentions in mass media of specific titles and services available and position libraries as places for self education and other kinds of learning, just as Ms. Gross wants. Without in the least violating the spirit or letter of any law, this initiative in effect would be a constant source of well-targeted “accidental” advocacy—so that local libraries would be one step ahead, come the next library-related vote.
Among the main arguments of anti-library forces is that no one goes to libraries. National stats show otherwise. But keep in mind the need to draw people there not just to see videos but engage in education, other self-improvement and community activities.
The challenge of library attendance is a Catch-22. For optimal results, you need an already-good library with enough staffing, content, services and community-related efforts. Imagine the kick-start that the endowment could give poor communities, in tandem with the efforts of an advocacy-related spin-off undertaking political campaigns.
“Tandem” is a good word here. Again, advocacy needs to be built into libraries’ operations, as a way to make libraries more attractive not just to ordinary citizens but to endowment donors and local ones. So go ahead—rename the reference desk “the Research Desk” to inspire more appreciation of your library’s mission.
At the same, there’s no need to neglect direct advocacy in terms of the never-ending battle for tax money.
The endowment’s proposed advocacy spin-off could benefit immensely from the insights in Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding, by EveryLibrary Founder Patrick “PC” Sweeney and Political Director John Chrastka.
Concern: I don’t give a squat about libraries outside my city, county, region, or state.
Perhaps you should give a squat, even if you live in a coastal city far from the heart of Trump Country.
Like it or not, rural voters command a disproportionate influence in our political system through the Electoral College. Wouldn’t you prefer that fact-friendly libraries—not politicized ones—be around everywhere to enlighten Fox viewers and the rest?
No, libraries should not push back directly against Fox’s conservative politics or anyone else’s: they should carry the works of writers of all ideological stripes and feature all kinds of speakers. But reference desks should be resolute on matters of scientific fact such as climate change, the existence of which Fox commentators have so often questioned.
If nothing else, with greater resources, both public and K-12 librarians could make Americans of all ages more aware of our democratic culture and what’s “normal” and isn’t. We are not talking about Soviet-style political indoctrination; rather, factual knowledge or at least traditional nonpartisan consensus among liberals and conservatives alike. Alas, the ability to separate normal from aberrations isn’t what it should be. When National Public Radio broadcasters tweeted the Declaration of Independence, they “confused” no small number of people, including Trumpists in the Heartland. Some apparently interpreted this routine civic exercise as propaganda against the President or thought a spammer had hacked the NPR account.
While Fox is a popular target for us info-literacy types, the problem actually is worse. As reported by Polifact in 2011, “Fox isn’t last on the list” in terms of viewer knowledge, “although it’s close—35 percent of Fox viewers earned a high knowledge rating, which was tied with local television news and was one point ahead of the network morning shows.” Watchers of some Fox programs actually did better than the country as a whole. But, yes, a major information gap exists between rural and urban regions. Unwittingly, attorneys for Paul Manaford, President Trump’s besieged ex-campaign manager, made this point. They said Manaford could get a fairer trial in a rural area of Virginia with less broadband and fewer media outlets available.
If so many Americans are out of touch with reality, then how can they vote intelligently? No need for them to absorb all the details of the Declaration, but they should at least grasp the spirit of the document. How can we be the United States if voters can’t agree even on proven facts like climate change?
While ignorance isn’t limited to Trump country, that’s where it so often thrives due to lack of media diversity. So, please, librarians, start caring about the know-nothings. Perhaps the library endowment could help fund both legacy media and nonpartisan media startups, on the Web and even broadcast radio, to encourage well-informed discussion of local issues by people of all political beliefs. The same media could promote local and national library offerings. A partnership possibility with National Public Radio or a similar organization, or perhaps the Knight Foundation?
In a related vein, librarians could join educators in teaching genuine critical thinking and information literacy so students and other library-goers would be less vulnerable to malarkey from demagogues and their cults, whether left- or right-wingers. Of course, full media literacy cannot happen without the imparting of traditional literacy—the very forte of librarians.
More importantly, we need to care about the rural and the poor as people with needs—so, so scandalously neglected by the American elite. FDR and his people considered rural Tennessee and surrounding areas to be important enough to create the Tennessee Valley Administration. Can’t librarians show similar vision?
But let’s say even those arguments won’t sway you. Then consider that an endowment could make more books and more services available to all in a cost-efficient way, leveraging technology. Furthermore, while the endowment would give heavy attention to the needs of underserved areas, it could still award innovation-related grants and others to libraries in well-off districts. Come up with the right idea, Beverly Hills, and you, too, could end up with a grant.
Just as with Harvard, the idea of the endowment would not be to drain donations away from libraries in Beverly Hills or elsewhere which were already well-funded. Quite clearly the super rich as a group have enough money to fund the endowment many times over without imperiling their other charitable spending or noticeably slowing down meaningful investments in their businesses. With that context in mind, however, consider the huge fraction of foundation and endowment money and equivalents that just a few have amassed—especially on the East Coast, in Wall Street’s backyard
Summing up the Wilmington Trust-sponsored study in 2014, Pensions and Investments reported that “Library foundations supporting presidential and public libraries have an estimated combined $2.5 billion to $3 billion in assets.
“The total represents the assets of 1,300 library investment portfolios in the U.S., although the bulk of the assets is concentrated in the 25 largest, accounting for $2.2 billion.”
As quoted by Pensions and Investments, the report says the New York Public Library alone has socked away $1.1 billion in its investment portfolio, while the Morgan Library and Museum’s portfolio is $156 million. They don’t use a foundation structure, precisely, but we’re really talking close enough equivalents. Remember, too, that these figures are at least four years old. Both institutions are probably still richer.
While even NYPL can face financial challenges, particularly its branches, isn’t it interesting that so much of money in endowment equivalents is benefiting one city? No anti-New York sentiment here. Once again, I’ll repeat the reminder that the rich have more than enough money to help libraries everywhere. Given all the neglect of libraries in small towns and rural areas all over the country, shouldn’t librarians care? Not to remind the more conscientious billionaires of their national obligations would reflect badly on ALA officials as professionals dedicated to the commonweal.
Please note that the study does not include academic libraries, but if they were counted, almost surely the elite colleagues like Harvard would account for an outsized percentage of the total.
Concern: I don’t want to see the endowment replace my local Friends of the Library.
By no means would the endowment replace local Friends of the Library-style efforts.
First off, the endowment would focus on a very select group of donors, the super rich, the billionaire class, so as not to drain off local donations.
Second, endowment could use matching grants to preserve and even increase local fundraising incentives.
Third, just as the advocacy spin-off aided pro-library lobbying at local and state levels, the endowment in one way or another could help Friends-style groups refine their fundraising techniques and expand their activities. At the national level, the advocacy spin-off could also preserve and increase support for IMLS.
THE FIRST STEPS TOWARD AN ENDOWMENT
ALA—or others if the organization still won’t act—should endorse the idea of a conference bringing together librarians, donors and other stakeholders. Especially helpful would be the presence of representatives from the Council of State Library Administrators.
Harvard would one of the better choices for a conference site because of a chance to build on the existing work of the DPLA, founded there. Also, the super rich would be more likely to participate in a conference at an elite university.
On top of that, a conference at Harvard could use a cross-disciplinary approach, with heavy participation not only by the law school but also the school of education, the Kennedy School of Government, the business school and the ethics center. Harvard, though, should act as a facilitator rather than as a boss, especially on matters affecting public and school libraries.
The goal, as we see it, should be a twin-system approach under which public and academic libraries would better focus on their own needs, even while sharing resources. Issues like family literacy and the digital divide are worlds apart from the concerns of typical academic librarians.
Academics could still be godsends to public and school librarians in such areas as content and technical assistance. But let public and K-12 librarians control their own destinies. Not one current school librarian sits on the board of the Digital Public Library of America, which ideally could be the beginning of a full-strength national academic system—given its focus on public domain and other content of limited interest to the typical library-goer (even though I’d love to see the public national digital system promote the classics and the rest).
Furthermore, academics need to appreciate better the differences in missions, governance and priorities between (1) public and K-12 libraries and (2) academic and special libraries.
The former two are answerable to the taxpayers and cater to mass tastes and needs. By contrast, academic libraries primarily serve the cause of knowledge and come with their own aesthetic sensibilities. They care less about the popular fiction that comforts and entertains rather than challenging. And special libraries? They serve own set of stakeholders—not necessarily the same as a public or K-12 library’s.
There are also software and other vendor-related issues. Universities want to push the results of their own R&D or their partners’. But those products may not always be the best for public library user—hence, a conflict of interest. A separate public system, while tapping the expertise of experts within the academic system, could make its own decisions on ebook-reading apps and others.
Of course, the ideal situation would be an entirely open approach, under which individual users could choose from a number of readers. May the library world reach that goal in time!
Some other software-related concerns arise. Public library patrons above all may appreciate an easy-to-use electronic catalog, while academic go for a more complex but more powerful interface. I can see different interfaces for different kinds of users and even a common digital catalog for those wanting to simultaneously access both the public/K-12 and academic system.
Puerto Rico as a major testbed for the endowment
Among the other topics discussed at the conference or follow-ups might be the possibility of using Puerto Rico as a major testbed. The federal government’s shamefully inadequate response to the hurricane down there is one example of neglect of the island and its people. As of FY 2009, public libraries in Puerto Rico were spending only 35 cents per capita on content—a fraction of the national average. I could not immediately find more recent data. but undoubtedly the figure is still shockingly low.
Rather than ALA and other library groups just sending some cash donations, they could encourage endowment to help Puerto Rico reinvent its public libraries for the ebook era—with digital divide issues addressed along the way. ALA’s new president, Loida Garcia-Febo, shown in the video below, is originally from Puerto Rico, and I see some interesting possibilities here.
In her 2012 talk, she focused on the need for libraries to transform themselves for the new ethnic America. I was very pleased to her positive references to social media and to ebooks, which, after all, can be a very cost-effective way to serve diverse needs. Let’s follow her advice and look ahead as we approach the time when nonHispanic whites will be a minority.
But to do the job right—to multiply the amount of good Spanish-language content from libraries on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico, for example, or pay for first-rate English classes to help immigrants—will not be cheap.
Resistance to far more tax money for libraries will be strong from some elderly white voters and politicians eager to ignore the new demographics. And that battle must go on. But a national library endowment could also help—in fact, not just brown-skinned newcomers to the U.S. but also the white sons and daughters of displaced blue collar workers. In countless ways the endowment would be a force for national unity by reducing the “savage inequalities” that divide us.
Note, from June 29, 2018: This is a first edition—I will add refinements. Corrections and suggestions welcome (email firstname.lastname@example.org)! Also, bear in mind that my personal essay does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all participants in LibraryEndowment.org.
Date of last update: July 19, 2018