Just 400 Americans were together worth some $2.4 trillion dollars as of last fall, or more than the bottom half of the United Sates. The top ten billionaires in the U.S. were worth half a trillion.
A mere speck of a speck of the $2.4 trillion could finance a national library endowment worth $15-$20 billion within five years. Current public library endowments together total just several billion. So imagine the difference this could make. What better use for some of the money resulting from the billionaire-oriented Gates Giving Pledge?
In a nutshell, the endowment will be a Friend of the Library-style organization for the entire United States. It won’t compete with local groups. Rather, it will focus on donations from the super rich.
Some of the money will go for matching grants to local libraries, with allowances for poor localities without much fund-raising potential. Other funds will be for such purposes as the hiring of school librarians in cash-strapped cities or for two national digital library systems (one public and K-12, the other for higher education and research).
Just as a starting point for discussion, a very tentative Year Five breakdown of expenditures is here.
- Nonprofit independent of government control even though the endowment will be strongly supportive of local and state libraries. We are pro-public library. The reason for the nonprofit model is simply to allow experimentation and maximum freedom of expression. The endowment will turn down money from the federal government or other sources if restrictions clash with these goals. The current people behind LibraryEndowment.org are not out to establish the endowment by themselves. Rather, we want those with far more resources—major philanthropists—to do what needs doing.
- Recognition of the different natures of public and academic library systems. Public systems focus not just on culture and learning but also on recreational reading and accommodation of public tastes, as well as on self-improvement and coping skills. By contrast, academic libraries care more about arcane knowledge, aesthetics, and cultural importance. While the missions of the two kinds of libraries overlap, it is dangerous to blur them.
- Encouragement of states to form a public digital system and of the academic community to form its own. Both national digital library systems as well as local and state libraries will of course still be free to use tax money and non-endowment-related donations. What’s more, the two systems will be able to share plenty of resources to avoid wasteful redundancies. A common digital catalog will even exist for those interested in using it
- Cooperation with existing library organizations. The endowment initiative will be in touch with groups such as the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and school and rural library associations. It will also cooperate with the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC), including some 200 consortia of all kinds and all sizes in the U.S. and elsewhere. ICOLC could be a partner in efforts to create similar endowments around the globe. On the academic side, the endowment potentially could use the Association of Research Libraries to enlist the cooperation of libraries at large institutions, while at the same time reaching out to smaller libraries through ICOLC and otherwise.
- Purchase of OverDrive if possible to kickstart the two digital library systems. A Japanese conglomerate owns America’s largest provider of public library and K-12 ebooks. OverDrive is America’s de facto public digital library system. We want real national systems run by librarians—OverDrive people could still serve as advisors. If the endowment could not purchase OverDrive, the company could still be used as a contractor if its prices and services were competitive.
- Use of contractors where appropriate—for example, the provision of highly specialized technical services. At the same time, librarians, not contractors, should be in charge.
- Provisions for the use of different business models while striving to balance the needs and rights of libraries and content providers. Funded library systems could use everything from open access to pay per access or per pages read, or minutes viewed or heard.
- Respect in other ways for the private side. The library model must not be the only one, if we are to enjoy maximum freedom of expression. What’s more, the use of private content providers will be considered in the creation of open access works.
- Sustained national funding to supplement strong local support. Library budgets are too vulnerable to the whims of politicians. The endowment won’t end but will reduce the problem, since the endowment’s investments will create a perennial cash flow. That said, we recognize the importance of local funding as a bond between libraries and the communities they serve. This is one reason why we believe that billionaires should be the only donors to the national endowment. We want others, even multimillionaires, to give directly to their local libraries.
- Heavy use of matching grants, as another tool to encourage local participation—with allowances for low-income communities without enough money from donors or local governments.
- Penalties for communities that use endowment money as an excuse to cut back on tax support of libraries. It will be harder for them to win grants in the future.
- Use of political action committees to fund library advocates seeking more public funds at all levels of government. If EveryLibrary wants to be involved, wonderful.
- Avoidance of an investment bureaucracy. Two possible solutions might be heavy use of index funds and proven outside portfolio managers.
- Easing of the transition from paper to digital. While focusing on the digital challenges facing libraries, the endowment must recognize that most libraries are still heavily invested in physical materials. By helping next-generation library leaders secure a future for libraries, the endowment will invest in the human resource infrastructure behind digital libraries of the future.
- Encouragement of open technology. It is not enough for e-readers of one brand to be integrated with local library collections so patrons can easily download books directly. All makers of e-readers should be able to include that capability in their devices. This is just one example of what open technology could mean. In addition, libraries should be able to enable patrons to simultaneously search and download books and other items from different vendors.
- Inclusiveness. The endowment will employ and be open to ideas from a diverse collection of strategic thinkers and contributors from all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds and in all locations, including the American heartland, Appalachia, the South and rural areas in general.
Disclaimer: The endowment initiative is not at present affiliated with the Giving Pledge or any of the other organizations mentioned here.
Image credit: Here.