Just give money to state and local libraries? No endowment-funded national digital systems?

By David H. Rothman

MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezo’s ex-wife, shown with her new husband, has shaken up the world of major philanthropy by not doing something with her billions. She has avoided telling recipients in detail how to spend their grants. Instead Ms. Scott has approached established organizations like the YMCA and Black colleges and universities and said more or less: “You know how to spend my donations better than I do. No onerous requirements or conditions.”

Should a national library endowment follow a similar approach? Just how much freedom should recipients enjoy? As a cofounder of LibraryEnowment.org, I believe that the proposed endowment should allow local and state systems to spend the money in many ways and suffer minimal paperwork. The endowment should help fund public/K-12 and academic national digital library systems to increase efficiency and ease of use by patrons. But local and state systems also need to be free to make purchases of all kinds, books and other content included. Don’t impose New England or West Coast tastes on the South or Midwest or vice versa. Same basic idea for the national academic system. The very existence of two intertwined but separate systems would acknowledge the need for public or K-12 librarians and academics to recognize their differences, as opposed to inflicting the same vision on everyone.

Laura O’Grady

But Laura O’Grady, our former library relations coordinator, who at the time was the library director in Hershey, Pennsylvania, would go further—in suggesting a model closer to the one Ms. Scott has in mind. She wants to avoid committing endowment money to national digital library systems, period, even if this is just one expenditure for virtual and brick-and-mortar libraries.

“While I agree that a centralized eBook public library makes so much sense in terms of efficiencies,” she tells me, “I believe many libraries like the fact that their purchasing decisions (both vendor and item) are made at the local level.

“I think when selling people on the Library Endowment idea, it’s much less complicated if you pitch the Endowment as something that would support public libraries in whatever way they choose at the state or local level (buildings, digital content, staff support etc.). That way we don’t need to get into who (OverDrive, DPLA, someone new) would run and oversee the eBook system.”

What do you think? Speak up in the comments area. Keep in mind that the LibraryEndowment.org site is simply a source of ideas for others with more resources who can go on to create the endowment by way of a series of conferences between librarians, prospective donors, and other stakeholders. Any kind of endowment run by well-meaning people will be better than no endowment at all.

Update, Feb. 14, 2022: An article from Laura O’Grady appeared in Public Libraries Magazine, where she discussed the national library endowment concept from her own perspective! She has since moved on from the library world and is no longer library relations coordinator for us. We wish her luck and would welcome hearing from those with an interest in being coordinator.

Related: A Suggestion for MacKenzie Bezos: Fund Libraries, in Publishers Weekly.