Benefits: K-12, economic, others

Libraries have long been a way for people to befriend desktops, laptops, and tablets. But how about the new 3D printing and other technology that also can make us more productive, creative and prosperous?

Here is a chance to excite K-12 students about the possibilities of high-tech careers—and increase their chances of thriving as workers, managers and entrepreneurs in the new economy. The video above helped pave the way for the Fab Lab at the Fayetteville Free Library in New York state.

Fab labs are just one example of the K-12 and economic benefits from a national library endowment, particularly if libraries, schools, and other organizations coordinate their efforts with prospective employers. Libraries among other things can help restore hope to depressed, drug-ridden regions like Appalachia where old industries are dying. Not every high school student will want to go on to a four-year institution. But libraries, especially the K-12 variety, can help ready them for community colleges and job-specific training.

What’s more, libraries and books can raise the aspirations of the more academically inclined students. An ex-farmboy named Brian Koberlein has told how his local library inspired him to become an astrophysicist. “Broad reading changes you. At nine the idea I would ever go to college seemed like wild fantasy. As I approached the end of high school, I felt ready for the academic world. I was still fascinated about space, and maybe, just maybe, I could become an astrophysicist.”

Consider the following list of benefits and features for different kinds of communities, as well as institutions of higher learning:

  • An investment in our children and in education. Seventy-three percent of surveyed children ages 6-17 say they would read more if they found more books they enjoyed. The endowment’s biggest focus will be on traditional literacy—a prerequisite for children’s full participation as adults in the future workforce. In recent years, the number of K-12 librarians has actually declined despite extensive research showing how they can help boost academic achievement. So can recreational reading. With this in mind, children in public, private, charter, and parochial schools will all be able to access the related national collections via local public libraries and library Web sites. A caveat. Even well-stocked, well-financed libraries are not a cure-all, not a substitute for such efforts as early childhood education. But as vehicles for information and otherwise, they can complement the rest. Warren Buffett was a heavy reader when young, and today he spends four-fifths of his time awake reading books and other texts. One investment tome even “changed my whole life.” Let’s give our children the chance to find just the right books. What’s more, even students destined for blue-collar jobs will need to be able to understand documents such as technical manuals, and appropriate recreational reading can help pave the way.
  • More self-improvement, creativity, and pride. Libraries are tools for people to educate themselves, with guidance from librarians. Along the way, library users can become more creative—a “must” for industrial designers and marketers and many others, not just artists. Rather than reducing pride as handouts do, libraries increase it. In individual accomplishments. And in family and community history.
  • Help coping with financial and health issues and others (including drug use), especially with librarians working in partnership with appropriate specialists. Librarians can direct people to authoritative text and videos for guidance. Result? More self-help. Less dependence on government services, as well as less vulnerability to quacks and con artists of all kinds.
  • Strengthening of social infrastructure. Unlike upscale businesses like coffeehouses, good public libraries welcome everyone—including the homeless, the poverty-stricken elderly, teens from low-income households, and others who may feel out of place at so many commercial establishments. Libraries do not just provide meeting areas for community groups or free Internet access for all. They also offer safe spaces for friends and potential friends to meet—regardless of socioeconomic status—for school, career purposes, or recreation reflecting shared interests. See Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, by Eric Klinenberg, the eminent sociologist who directs the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. The proposed endowment could provide at least limited help to the very poorest communities in keeping those public spaces alive. Also, through an advocacy spin-off, it could work toward more tax money for such spaces in all kinds of localities.
  • More powerful economic engines in our communities. In 2011, Texas public libraries collectively “were found to provide $2.407 billion in benefits while costing less than $0.545 billion, a return on investment of $4.42 of verifiable local economic activity for each dollar invested.” Other evidence shows a high RoI for libraries. Among many other benefits, libraries can be catnip for local entrepreneurs in search of information, and the endowment could bring them new resources.
  • Revitalization of rural communities and now-declining neighborhoods in urban areas. Imagine living hundreds of miles or more from even adequately stocked local library branches. Ebooks downloaded from home could be life-changers for many. National digital libraries supported by the endowment would vastly increase the number of ebooks available even in the most remote locations. In cities, the endowment could help make more books available 24/7 without children and parents having to venture out after dark.
  • Millions more for e-resources and librarians to help make them available to their communities. Online career and job-related resources, programs to help start a new business—those are examples of the types of e-content that is made more valuable having trusted “guides on the side” (aka librarians).
  • Far more books and other items online for students at private, charter, and parochial schools. Same for home-schooled students.  The endowment will not multiply online library resources just for public school students, even though we are big believers in public education.
  • Support for cash-strapped research and academic libraries. That would not only help students and faculty  directly but also assist research projects that could result in medical breakthroughs and greater national prosperity. Everything is related. We need to make it easier for brilliant students from low-income families to bloom on campus. That means research resources. The number of books and periodicals now available at colleges and universities can reflect the sizes of the institutions—especially penalizing bright students at smaller ones who are doing advanced work.
  • Better-informed voters. The endowment will encourage civic participation in a nonpartisan way. It will make it easier to obtain factual information on government and gain a greater understanding of the American political system. Librarians can inoculate students and the rest of us against “fake news”—they teach critical thinking skills and research techniques.
  • More empathy. Simply put, empathy is the ability to get into the other person’s head and understand his or her feelings. It’s a useful trait for anyone ranging from a politician or marketer to a platoon leader—a way to help minimize discord and focus on organizational goals. Good literature promotes empathy.  
  • Ebook literacy. Even many librarians do not know how to read ebooks properly and, for example, rely too much on  digital page flipping and not enough on proper search techniques. The endowment will help pay for professional development to bring librarians and others up to speed. With greater ebook literacy, librarians can demand more from vendors. Until recently, Amazon did not even offer the option of all-text boldface—a “must” for users with contrast-sensitivity issues due to the low contrast of typical E Ink screens. Amazon and other companies will benefit from constructive feedback.
  • Massive, well-targeted promotion of books and libraries in mainstream and niche media, with spots funded by the endowment. A devoted watcher of a vampire show might dial an 800 number and get referred to her local library–and enjoy a vampire novel in either digital or paper form. But that could be just the beginning. Read How the Hernandez family will benefit from a national library endowment and two well-stocked digital library systems. A fictitious scenario tells how just one promo spot turned around the lives of Carmela Hernandez and her family. The same promotional concepts could work not only on network TV but also on cooperating streaming services and even in video games. Get books talked about—make them impossible to avoid. Free public service spots, alas, can go only so far, and even they cost money to produce. The endowment to the rescue!
  • More revenue not just for publishers but also for online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, which will benefit from the above mentions of individual titles. Some readers may prefer to buy rather than borrow and have to read library books before they expire. The average U.S. household spends only about $100 a year on recreational reading of books and other texts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We need to do more to get books on the minds of TV watchers, social media users, and others.
  • More help for immigrants trying to become part of the American mainstream. “With rapid growth since 1970 in the nation’s foreign-born population,” reports the Pew Research Center, “its share of the U.S. population has been rising, from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.1% in 2013.”
  • Help for libraries to be able to reflect our new demographics. Among other things, the endowment could fund recruitment of and scholarships for librarians of color (as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Only around 6,000 African Americans were fully credentialed librarians, out of 114,227, according to a study from about a decade ago. Fewer than 4,000 librarians were Hispanic. The numbers are still dismal.

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