The national library endowment vision must evolve

LibraryEndowment.org started around nine years ago. A national library endowment would reduce the “savage inequalities” of the U.S. library world, especially those tied to geography, class, and race. Billionaires would be encouraged to contribute, rather than less wealthy local benefactors, so as not to drain money away from local Friends of the Library-style efforts.

Such a goal remains in 2022, as part of the possible road map on this Web site for others to act on. But plenty has changed. Here are my personal views, not necessarily reflecting those of other participants in this small, informal effort. I’ll delve into several issues: (1) The need for librarians to be more proactive, (2) how libraries could accept money from the super-rich while retaining their independence, and (3) the increasing desirability of national digital library systems funded by the endowment, among other sources.

Don’t expect a Daddy Warbucks to rescue you and create an endowment for you

In an era of distrust of the super-rich, librarians and friends should be far more proactive than before. Don’t risk credibility and expect billionaires to oblige with their own organizational framework in the Gates Foundation tradition. Ideally, librarians and friends can team up with like-minded universities, think tanks, and others with the needed expertise.

An autonomous multi-donor endowment would be more durable than one centered around one man or family. The Gates Foundation goes on, but Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates are no longer a couple, and it has been years anyway since Gates envisioned himself Carnegie II. Besides, Gates has wanted to spend down his fortune rather than leave behind a perpetual endowment. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos and his now-ex-wife have gone their separate ways; and as with Gates, other causes matter far, far more than do libraries. The good news is that Bezos at last has promised to give away most of his fortune during his lifetime, and the literacy-minded Dolly Parton is the first recipient of the $100-million Bezos Award for Courage and Civility. That’s not the size of the award fund; it’s what each winner gets to spend on good works as he or she pleases.

Paging Ms. Parton. Maybe part of the money could go to help organize the endowment. Both Ms. Parton and Jeff Bezos, I’d hope, would appreciate the sustainability built into the endowment idea—especially if they read Philip Rojc’s thoughtful commentary in Inside Philanthropy, mentioning the perils of spending down a fortune without a good strategy in place. Rojc loves how MacKenzie Scott, Jeff’s former wife, has strengthened organizations she targeted for her charity with her no-strings approach. But along with his editor, David Callahan, he wonders what will happen if she ends up with much less to give. Not every beneficiary will have an endowment to stretch out the already-received funds. Ideally Ms. Scott herself will understand the complexities here and eventually see merit in helping to pay for structured endowments like the one LibraryEndowment.org has been working toward. She could still continue grants to individual organizations and institutions and even increase those to outstandingly impactful groups like voter registration organizations. No need for a single approach. But a national digital library endowment certainly would be one way for her donations and others to make a perpetual difference.

A big question: Should librarians take money from the rich?

Now—back to a cosmic issue. Regardless of the Carnegie tradition, should libraries even accept major donations from the wealthy? Certain librarians hate mere talk of an endowment relying on the super rich, and some might call attention to charity-related tax deductions for the wealthy costing the rest of us billions. Like it or not, however, it will probably be years before these longtime deductions go away or, as they should be, are meaningfully reformed or replaced by tax credits less tied to income. Meanwhile, let the library world take at least indirect advantage of them, if the incentives result in greater resources for libraries, especially those in low-income communities. 

I can also imagine fears that the rich would influence library content. One precaution could be to prohibit endowment donors from meddling in content matters. Besides, accepting the donations of the rich doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them—an advantage of a multi-donor approach without one billionaire kingpin in control.

Also keep in mind what savvier billionaires understand: boosting the average American’s literacy, learning abilities, and knowledge would be good for corporate bottom lines in the Information Age. Furthermore, with easier access to authoritative, scientifically based information, voters would be more up to speed on complex issues like climate change, affecting everyone, including billionaires with holdings endangered by rising oceans. The smarter members of the super-rich will look beyond simply the public relations benefits and the chance to leave a lasting legacy. They’ll understand the practical benefits of an endowment for everyone, such as a smarter workforce and better-informed voters. Granted, certain billionaires may actually see an intelligent electorate as a strong disadvantage. So be it. Those are the control-freak prospects whom the library endowment should avoid anyway as donors. 

What’s more, I like the idea of the endowment receiving money from the federal government, too, not just from appropriate members of the super rich, to build up its assets. That could be something for the Biden Administration to consider, at least if the political winds shift in the House of Representatives and elsewhere.

For an up-to-date collection of statistics on library revenue sources and needs, see a wonderful compilation from WordsRated, a noncommercial research organization. One eye-catcher is the statement that “government funding hasn’t covered the annual expenses of public libraries for 27 years. 85.69% of which comes from local governments.” The more money from local governments, the more chances for “savage inequalities.” The extent of library usage tends to reflect the money spent on services and on other purposes, including collections. So while libraries in wealthy areas and elsewhere must respond to local needs, they should understand the necessity of expanding resources for less fortunate communities.

Why I am even keener on the idea of endowment-funded national digital libraries

The way I personally see it, content is where a library endowment could especially help—given the expanded ability to share electronic resources over wide areas, while still fairly paying publishers, writers, and others.

Although new readers can often fare better with paper books (three cheers to Ms. Parton’s Imagination Library, distributing them to own!), digital should be the main show in the long run, especially as the technology improves. It’s the best way for the most people to be able to read the books they most like—in line with Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science.

Here, in real life, are Laws #2 and #3 in action: “Every person his or her book” and “Every book its reader.” Recently I benefited from a focus group’s evaluation of an action-suspense thriller I’d written about a genius child soldier in the Congo, forced by terrorists to fly drones. Most of the 66 readers of the first ten pages didn’t want to read on. But guess what? Forty-four percent did, and I was delighted. The survey-takers told me in a form email: “Any score over 10% is considered very good.” See my point? The nasty truth is that few people are omnivorous readers of all books; just a tiny fraction of titles appeal to their values and interests and maybe even spark new ambitions. Sometimes that can mean general titles, other times genre fiction. But general or genre, what really counts in the end is simply this: Is it a good book? If it’s a novel, does it encourage empathy and expand the reader’s horizons one way or another, including ideally a desire for self-improvement although this should not be a requisite? Library and literacy advocates can’t simply go by whether a paper or electronic book is the very optimal format for a reader, but also by whether the content is right.

Others of Ranganathan’s Laws apply especially to ebooks and audiobooks. #1: “Books are for use.” Yes! You can take them everywhere there’s a phone or other device to read them on. #4: “Save the time of the reader.” You can download ebooks from home in the Covid era, assuming they’re not on your device already. #5: “A library is a growing organism.” Libraries can add many more ebooks to their collections than paper books, at least if the economics are right–one of the questions that a national endowment could address.

Already I see much progress on which national digital libraries could build. “Digital collection use accounts for more of total collection use than ever (37.39%), having more than tripled since 2013 (11.74%),” WordsRated says. “Meanwhile, physical collection use has dropped to accounting for only 62.61% of all collection use, down from 88.26% in 2012.” Only around 11 percent of a typical public library’s budget goes for actual content. A national endowment spending heavily on the acquisition and popularization of content would make it possible for libraries to offer more books even if this percentage didn’t increase. It would also help enrich all kinds of library activities such as local programming based on books. Along the way, the publishing industry would benefit through this increased promotion.

For more on the possibility of national digital library systems funded at least partly by the endowment, see Tired of waiting for e-books? Two national digital library systems might help, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. One could be public; the other, academic. The two kinds of libraries have different missions. A local library system near me, for example, won’t honor requests for new books unless there is “demonstrated local demand.” That’s a world apart from an academic system—insulated from the needs and tastes of local taxpayers hooked on bestsellers. Mixing public and academic digital systems would also make the latter more vulnerable to censorship. Let the two share resources, including appropriate content, but not be one big tent.

The above vision for the endowment and separate national digital library systems focuses on the United States, but libraries elsewhere could localize it and also engage in content exchanges with the U.S. and each other. Perhaps the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions could play an important role and even help advise the U.S. domestic effort from the start.

Got any thoughts of your own on the above? The comment area is open!

Image credit: Image created by Felipe Ligeiro, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Revised November 22, 2022.