The national library endowment vision must evolve

By David H. Rothman 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 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 the higher the percentage of 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.

Latest revision: November 2022.

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, 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 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.

Finding new Carnegies for libraries: Spread around our free NISO PowerPoint

2021 update: The Gates library initiative presumably has been phased out by now. Here’s a chance to start fresh. Meanwhile we learn that the Gateses are divorcing. Although they say the foundation will go on, this is yet one more argument for a multi-donor approach for a national library endowment—with different stakeholders, not just one individual or couple, making decisions.

Bill Gates once was on his way to becoming a new Carnegie for libraries, but his foundation has been winding down his Global Libraries initiative.

NISCO presentation cover pageHow to bring Gates back and find other receptive billionaires—maybe even Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man?

A good strategy would be a well-structured, well-managed national library endowment with a tight focus on the needs of the poorest communities, as well as on the encouragement of innovation benefiting all kinds of libraries.

Now you can download a free PowerPoint presentation on the need for the endowment and how to make it a reality. A PDF version is here. We encourage you to share both formats with colleagues, policymakers, academics, journalists, and other influential people via email, print, or otherwise.

The authors are veteran librarian advocates. Corilee Christou is‘s director of library and publisher relations emeritus, a library consultant, a retired K-12, academic and special librarian, and a former Reed Business Information executive. David H. Rothman is another co-founder, a former poverty beat reporter, editor-publisher of TeleRead, and author of The Silicon Jungle (Ballantine) and six other books. Christou and Rothman delivered the Webinar presentation on October 10, 2018, to the National Information Standards Organization, a prestigious group for both librarians and publishers, including some majors such as Penguin Random House. Software developers also belong. Our participation in the Webinar isn’t necessarily an endorsement from NISO, but we’re endlessly thankful to the organization for its open-mindedness.

Other participants were Lance Werner of the Kent District library system in Michigan and Alan Inouye, director of policy for the Washington Office of the American Library Association.

The three presentations complemented each other. Christou and Rothman summed up the benefits of libraries and explained the need for the endowment and how it could happen through a well-planned conference at a prestigious university. Many stakeholders from various fields could attend and provide input—not just librarians, prospective donors, and content providers, but also others such as academics and well-regarded advocates for the people most in need of library services.

Lance Werner then offered solid tips on how librarians and friends could speak up for more public money. He said some of the most effective library advocacy is of the informal variety, where library supporters win over existing contacts.

Alan Inouye said ALA hoped for new federal library funding from sources far beyond the Institute of Museum and Library Services. At the same time, he reminded the Webinar of nongovernment possibilities. strongly supports ALA efforts.

NISO presentation - where the real money isSo why the need for the endowment, with a goal of $20 billion in assets in the first five years?

First, IMLS is essential but can fund just a speck of the approximately $12 billion in U.S. public libraries’ annual operating expenditures (this figure does not include those for K-12, academic, and special libraries).

Second, the proposed endowment would focus tightly on the needs of libraries without worrying about whether their missions overlapped with, say, those of NASA or the National Archives. Even the Library of Congress can do only so much. It doesn’t give out money to libraries in the most poverty-plagued towns for emergency roof repairs, for example, or hiring of qualified staffers to extend library hours. Preparation and hiring of minority librarians, providing good role models for K-12 students and other people of color, would be a special priority—and one unlikely to be a priority of the current administration in Washington or of many in Congress.

Third, being a nongovernment organization, the endowment could pick up functions of IMLS in case library-hostile politicians defunded the agency or forced it to engage in propaganda-related activities despite laws against the latter. President Trump already has sought to defund IMLS; that does not look likely now, but he may be able to cripple it in the near future through the appointment of a director less than fully enthusiastic about the agency’s mission. Trump has used similar tactics at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Fourth, the endowment could focus on appeals to rich donors. Individuals in 2017 gave $287 billion to charity. Bequests accounted for $36 billion. Foundations gave $67 billion. Only $21 billion came from corporations, where the issue so often can be dividends vs. donations.  No small amount of corporate charity is self-serving. There is room for all kinds of approaches, but the real potential is in appealing to billionaires interested in good treatment in the history books—especially with just 400 Americans worth some $2.5 trillion. More than $20 trillion is expected be available for philanthropy over the next half century.

Fifth, a tax-compliant spin-off of the endowment could blend into the existing library advocacy ecosystem and fund political initiatives by ALA and other existing groups to work toward more public funding. The endowment could also help pay for stepped-up legal efforts to detail with such issues as censorship.

To access an archive of presentations like ours—not just the texts but also the accompanying audio—you can join NISO.

Meanwhile, since NISO brings together librarians and publishers, some people within both fields might be interested in research findings, from the OCLC global library cooperative, that we wish had known about before the presentation. Experts found that:

  • “People who shop for books online are more likely to check out books from the library.”
  • “People who browse library shelves buy more items online.”
  • “People who download items from the library shop for items online more.”

If nothing else, the research might intrigue one of the world’s biggest booksellers, who, ideally, would find promise in the multi-donor endowment concept—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. He could help out in a major way with just a fraction of his charitable spending. The related OCLC blog item, by Associate Research Scientist Chris Cyr in response to an economist’s Forbes commentary saying Amazon should replace libraries, bears the headline “Meet your guide for an Amazon journey: a librarian.”

Beyond improving the discovery of books and other items, via national digital library systems and other means, the endowment would vastly increase the amount of money librarians could spend on content. The average figure for U.S. public libraries as of the 2016 fiscal year was only $4.33 per capita on the average and just a fraction of that amount in places such as Mississippi ($1.47). Interlibrary loans can do only so much to address those issues, especially for patrons working on deadlines, including students with last-minute research needs.

In addition, the national collections could feature buying links to online and offline stores, even independent bookshops, with patrons able to prioritize the order in which the links appeared. is reachable at or 703.370.6540.

Photo credit: By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland – Melinda French Gates, Bill Gates – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009. Uploaded by ComputerHotline, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Note: The PowerPoint and PPT files for the NISO presentation were changed on November 25, 2018, to update our pointer to a summary of a key U.K. study on the connection between recreational reading and academic achievement. The Web address we originally used no longer worked.

Will America’s libraries miss out while Harvard grows still richer? Library endowment could help

By David H. Rothman

Note: A much-shorter version, with bullet points and a video, is here. The information below was current as of December 2018.

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 $2.9 trillion in October 2018.

Charity-minded members of the super rich love to give to elite institutions such as Harvard. Its endowment is well north of $35 billionThe Gates Giving Pledge could free up countless billions in future years for prestigious institutions like Harvard.

But will America’s libraries miss out while Harvard, Yale, and Princeton grow still richer?

Very possibly, if the American Library Association and other good people in 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. come to a mere several billion or so, if we extrapolate from a Wilmington Trust survey as summed up in 2014 in Pensions & Investments. 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.’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 philanthropic money expected be sloshing around in next 50 years, more than 20 trillion).

Rather, the objective is 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 library endowment could help Americans of all income levels—ranging from improved K-12 education to a smarter, healthier workforce. The latter would be good news for billionaire shareholders, especially in this era of outrageous health-insurance costs borne by workers and employers alike. Of even greater importance, consider present and future workers in need of better literacy skills to help keep up with the new technology. Significantly, librarians and books can raise ambitions of Americans who might otherwise not dare to dream. Just ask Brian Koberlein, a former Midwestern farmboy turned astrophysicist.

Needless to say, the endowment also would directly benefit libraries and other institutions, including Harvard, which would come out ahead through expanded access to virtual collections and in countless other ways. In a related vein, the endowment proposal recommends the creation of two separate but intertwined national digital 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. The national endowment could help fund the two digital systems, with other money coming from states, other government entities, educational institutions, and other philanthropic donors.

But why two systems? Public library issues are far, far more complex than many academics realize, and not just in terms of content and service choices, family literacy, or matters such as the digital divide. The Colorado Library Consortium, for example, is battling “smut”-obsessed activists opposed even to the very idea of electronic databases. A twin-system endowment could better respond to the vast cultural differences among American communities than would a “one big tent” approach. At the same time, the two systems could share people and resources and even offer a unified digital catalogue accessible to millions of Americans under arrangements the two systems could work out.


The endowment plan reflects more than a quarter century of thought—I started writing about related topics back in the 1990s, in a Washington Post op-ed and elsewhere—and ideally it would be an instant sell to librarians.

So many librarians label themselves as proud progressives, and they have spoken up passionately in favor of low-income Americans, immigrants and minorities. The very creation of a national library endowment, making libraries even more useful than they are now to poor people and the rest of us, would be a powerful rebuttal to such malarkey as two Forbes columns calling for Amazon to take over their their functions. One essay appeared in 2014, the other in July 2018. Embarrassed editors have since deleted from the Forbes site the second commentary, perped by a spectacularly out-of-touch economics professor, who wrote that “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.” Ironically, the endowment would actually be good not just for libraries but also for Amazon and other booksellers by expanding the universe of readers of both paper and digital books—a fact that librarians could use to help sell the idea to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest American, who, with an estimated net worth of some $150 billion, could help kickstart a multi-donor endowment with just a fraction of his wealth. Along the way, the resultant goodwill would add to Amazon’s current market capitalization of some $900 billion. Needless to say, Bezos isn’t the only possibility here. But in terms of wealth and tech savvy, he could bring much to the endowment, just as he has to the Washington Post, which, but for him or an equivalent, might be a shadow of its present self.

Alas, in the real world, many librarians have been slow to commit to the idea of a national library endowment, perhaps in part because the concept is so far outside mainstream professional thinking, which focuses foremost on local government funding. Ideally the details ahead will help change minds. The endowment would augment, not replace, local tax money. But it would at least help reduce the “savage inequalities” of  libraries, including Puerto Rico’s, which, as of about a decade ago, could spend only about 35 cents per capita on books and other content. A place for some local testbed sites for an endowment? Same for Mississippi ($1.47 in the 2016 fiscal year), Georgia ($1.65), Alabama ($2.21), or West Virginia ($2.84),  say, or maybe Indian reservations out West. Go here and here for screenshots of state-by-state listings of 2016 collection expenditures.


Lakeland Ledger - Google News Archive Search

The American library establishment so far 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 “TeleRead” 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. The equivalent of the TeleRead vision has evolved considerably (a different business model and no TV tax, for example, and more respect of libraries’ model of free lending). Also keep in mind that WFB should have played up the network distribution more. Still, albeit with his own twists, Buckley captured the essence of the idea and, above all, the reason for TeleRead.  “There is, first, the growing indifference to printed matter… One library, in one school, didn’t have a biography of George Washington.” As a best-selling writer and member of the Authors Guild, this legendary free-market conservative understood that libraries are good for the book business and society in general. Ideally Amazon’s Bezos would nod. Americas today spend just a tiny fraction of the amount on books compared to other entertainment offerings. Better-financed libraries—marketing, in essence—would at least increase the percentage.

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. Both TV and social media could be causes. 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.”

Significantly, 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. Libraries should be about much more than books and should offer everything from community meeting spaces to instruction in 3D printing, and, in fact, the endowment could help fund all kinds of services. But reading should be a focus. In that respect, we cannot even take solace in the fact that most American adults carry library cards. To visit a library, as perhaps half may have done in the past 12 months, is not necessarily to enjoy books.

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 TV-show plots to well-placed Facebook links and celebrity endorsements. Oprah Winfrey’s book club helped to 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.”

Sadly, as noted in the Forbes-provoked Twitter exchange below, even households able to afford books don’t always buy them for their children.

Of course, as pointed out already, the interests of Amazon and libraries can very much overlap—not only because libraries create future book-buyers but also because Amazon itself makes money off library-related services. Librarians really, really shouldn’t write off Bezos, along with other billionaires, as a potential benefactor.

So why haven’t some influential denizens of the library world spoken up yet 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.
  • Much of the problem could be pure visceral hatred of the rich, not the most sympathetic group, even though the robber baron Andrew Carnegie came as close as anyone to being the patron saint of the library world.
  • 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, just as so much education-related philanthropy has gone awry.
  • 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, regions or states.
  • Some librarians and library advocates 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 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.


America’s wealth and income gaps are among 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 percenters 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 or so in assets of library endowments and equivalents, perhaps a third belongs to institutions in New York City alone even though local branches there are still hurting. As with Harvard, the idea isn’t to reduce donations to the relatively 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 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 most 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 credentialed librarians at the time, only 563 were black males and a mere 522 were Latino men.  So much for role models for young African-American or Hispanic boys. A 2017 ALA membership demographics survey does not provide much encouragement, either. Meanwhile the number of school librarians has markedly declined especially for black neighborhoods. “The nation’s public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, from more than 54,000 to less than 44,000 in 2015,” Education Week says in an analysis of federal statistics.

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” fumes 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 Facebook’s 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.


However essential is the Institute of Museum and Library Services–very—it is far from a full answer. 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—maybe 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 are 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? Or, for that matter, about the poor of any color. “Libraries by Amazon would eliminate the most important function libraries have—as a socialized daytime service to cash-poor and working class people left behind by digital advances,” a poet-librarian named Cyree Jarelle Johnson has tweeted in response to the Forbes commentary. Exactly. Needless to say, training and hardware in libraries can help the poorest Americans go digital to one extent or another in an era when so many want ads and government services are Web based. Libraries are already doing what they can with available resources, and an endowment could help them do still more.


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.

Some months 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-related 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.


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, in no special order, are responses to various concerns.

Concern #1: 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 ebook 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 ebook 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 or fully consider the need for ebook literacy.

Besides, the issue also should be, “How many good books will be available to all?” Digital books are far more economical to distribute, especially to cash-strapped 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, which, as noted, has compiled state by state statistics (screenshots here and here). Let’s make the most of the extra money from the endowment. Yes, as noted, it could help pay for paper books, especially on popular topics and in popular genres in poorer places, but let this be a community-by-community decision.  Americans in even the most remote hamlets should be able to enjoy extensive digital collections matching their needs and passions, especially with help from the endowment and others on digital divide and ebook literacy issues.

Of course, some library users will forever prefer paper books, which hold 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.

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 perhaps 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.

Concern #2: 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 one or more partners—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 educators and representatives of poverty- and minority-related groups.

Meanwhile 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 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? Philanthropists have an opportunity here, and ALA and others  could point them to it. “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, the goals of the endowment and donors could overlap in many cases. Jeff Bezos sees 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. As a business owner and publisher, how comfortable would you feel 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 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 #3: 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 public 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 her local library. She hears that the library not only offers vampire books but also a chance to associate with like-minded readers. The commercial reminds her, too, of the many self-improvement educational opportunities available at the library.

If libraries depend simply on existing funding sources, such outreach 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 disruption of the funding ratio 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?

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 would 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 #4: 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.

Concern #5: I truly, truly loathe the rich and don’t want anything to do with them

Believe me, I myself would take issue with Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and others on such issues an anti-trust enforcement. But they are leagues apart from, say, the Koch Brothers. The endowment would focus on prospective donors motivated far more by a desire to leave a legacy behind than to use the endeavor simply to further their business interests. If we want to speak up for unionization rights and higher minimum wages, then, yes, go ahead. I intend to! The endowment is no substitute for a society with more just laws just (nor for other measures such as more funding for vocational education and preschooling). But let’s also look for common interests with even the super wealthy and avoid lumping all the rich together—even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett deplore the inequities of the tax system.

In high technology, competitors often cooperate toward mutual goals such as technical standards, and one might also keep in mind the famous dictum of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Must progressives fight the super rich on everything, even at expense of the commonweal?

If nothing else, keep in mind the Homestead Massacre and other horrors associated with Andrew Carnegie and his lieutenants. Should local communities in need of libraries have turned him down?

Concern #6: I’m still 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:

  1. “…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 help set the general direction. I would recommend, too, 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 climate change.
  2. “…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 library endowment could be run with full transparency, by way of the Web-based disclosure  and in many other ways. It could actually be as open or more so than the government, especially in an era when the President and friends are eager to control all information.
  3. “…they are donor-directed. The employees—the people on the ground—can’t determine the mission’ of the organization.” I have already told how the endowment’s governance could benefit from the expertise of actual librarians.
  4. “…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.
  5. “…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 #7: 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. 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, the 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 the laws 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.

  1. “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 couldn’t afford to buy them. For poorer communities, the endowment would help libraries expand hours and better address digital divide issues.  Community colleges and historically black institutions with limited budgets would also benefit handsomely.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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 #8: 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 without 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 message 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 government 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, 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 time, let’s not 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 #9: 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 the 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 Manafort, President Trump’s besieged ex-campaign manager, made this point. They said Manafort 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 and so often misunderstand the basics of our system of government.

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 of all political beliefs. 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. Ideally librarians and donors receptive to the endowment idea can 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. 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 siphon 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. We just want more geographical and other kinds of fairness. Consider how just a few institutions account for so much of total worth of library-related endowments, foundations, and equivalent—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 & 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 #10: 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 federal and state levels, the endowment in one way or another could help local Friends-style groups refine their fundraising techniques and expand their activities. At the national level, the advocacy spin-off could preserve and increase support for IMLS.


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 and follow-ups 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 an overlord, especially on matters affecting public and school libraries.

If Harvard didn’t step up to the plate, other possibilities could exist, including maybe even a magazine like Fortune, widely respected by the super rich—it even has a CEO Initiative, “dedicated to preserving a well-functioning society in a time of political tumult.” One of the main themes of the initiative’s 2018 gathering was none other than “Developing and Training the Workforce.”

Whoever hosted the conference, attendees should begin with a discussion of needs and other basics. For example, how about 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 or needs. By contrast, academic libraries primarily serve the cause of knowledge and come with their own aesthetic and cultural sensibilities. They care less about the popular fiction that comforts and entertains rather than challenging. And special libraries? They serve their 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 built-in 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, as noted, 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 some communities in 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. Remember: as of FY 2009, Puerto Rico was spending only 35 cents per capita on public 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 the 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 see 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 hateful toward 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 or! Also, bear in mind that my personal essay does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all participants in

Related: Finding new Carnegies for libraries: Spread around our free NISO PowerPoint.

Date of last update: December 12, 2018

Top Photo: “Harvard Yard as seen from the Smith Campus Center,” via Wikipedia. Taken by Chensiyuan. CC BY-SA 4.0.

A K-12 librarian on the urgent need for a national library endowment

Update, May 2018: Read School Librarians, Where Art Thou? in School Library Journal and Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds in Education Week. The decline in the past two decades has been around 20 percent, with minority children among the main victims. 

By Paula Wyatt
K-12 Library Relations Director,

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The creation of a national library endowment is essential for strong libraries.

I am on the front lines as a school librarian in a large Midwestern city, and I can tell you we are losing battles—from funding to public sentiments about libraries and librarians.

To preserve democracy as we know it, we must protect our school, public, and academic libraries. Freedom of information is a right for everyone, not just an elite few. My own parents were not library patrons, so I had never been to a library until I started school. I could not get over my ability to choose books myself and take as many home as I could carry. It was the first time I can remember feeling empowered, and I was certain I could solve any problem with the right information. For me it was better than being in the proverbial candy shop.

When I began my teaching career in 1992, however, the librarian at my school infuriated me. The children did not have access to quality materials, and the librarian often pushed his own agendas on the students. My second graders complained how much they hated “library.” I mustered the courage to air my concerns with my principal, and he gave me one year to get my credentials and take the position and put my ideas into action. Until then, becoming a librarian had never crossed my mind.

In the late 90s, when I took on my first position as a school librarian, we had a librarian in every school, with their own budget line, and my district had a department of libraries teeming with people to support the schools with tons of resources. My advocacy was limited to my students. I immediately changed the curriculum to enlighten them on the importance of libraries—for all—as community cornerstones. A place to go to when you need answers, when you need rest, when you need help. I started applying for grants to create a good, welcoming atmosphere in line with my vision.

Fast forward 20 years. A former colleague, now a principal, needed a librarian with a vision for her school and reached out to me. It was like a time warp back two decades. The space was decrepit and the collection ancient. No technology was available for the students. I reached out to the department of libraries to reintroduce myself and found it decimated. I learned that five out of six librarians in local public schools had been cut over the years and all those library doors had been shuttered and their collections were no longer available to students. Parents of former students were angry I took the library job. “No one needs librarians anymore—we have the Internet,” explained one parent, and another told me, “Well, you are a dying breed!”

Most shocking was when I showed students, including eighth graders, how to use our Chromebooks to find books on the shelf. We looked up titles, and I showed them how the numbers online corresponded to the labels on the spines. They looked at me in awe, clapped, and asked me to do it again. That’s how out of touch they were with the benefits of modern K-12 libraries and knowledgeable librarians.

For my students, the first place I went for help was to my local public library branch. The librarian was excited to partner with me and showed me unbelievable resources available to students not only at the physical branch but online. Live homework help, databases, thousands of ebooks, editors, movies, music, and more. The resources are endless. I began to think of my library as a “learning library”—with training wheels, so to speak, to prepare students to navigate and use public resources.

One stumbling block, however, is that many of my students lack access to a device at home that can be used to access many of these applications that are available. Some own phones, but most have limited data or the phones are too small to be productive for the entire scope of services. I am working on finding grants to expand an exciting project. My goal here is to increase students usage of the public library by allowing them to check out Amazon Fire tablets from me and use them at school to download books, movies, and music that they could then access at home even if they lack WiFi. If after hours they need services, they could connect to family WiFi, or could access the school’s WiFi from outside the building. I have collected some initial data and enough Fires and iPads to launch the instruction with my most reluctant readers, seventh and eighth grade students. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I find donors willing to donate enough money to offer these students the devices for check out.

How wonderful if the library endowment could help fund innovative programs like the one here at my elementary school! Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of school libraries lack the resources to replicate what I’m doing here. I still don’t have enough. And the resources I have I really had to scramble to find. Not every school librarian has the skills and time to draw small grants as I did through the site. The endowment could help augment scarce tax money. Among other things, it could help pay for badly needed renovations of the kind that my school was lucky enough to be able to enjoy with a grant from the Donner Foundation. See this video to understand what a difference more funds can make in the lives of children. It is amazing to watch how suddenly their library had become so much more inviting as a place to read and learn!

For school librarians, I have become active on many fronts but truthfully don’t have a clear plan on how to best call attention to our plight. Recently I read a study by a famous think tank regarding the changes in the form and function of public libraries. What I found most stunning is that a key component was never mentioned—how will the public learn to navigate these services? As Web applications become more complicated and wider in range, how can we ensure that the public knows what is available and that they have the skills and confidence to use it? Our children need librarians in their schools. They need to learn how to find, use, and evaluate resources. If they don’t, they may never know that feeling of empowerment, or the important role libraries play in our community in fostering lifelong learning and providing free information to all citizens regardless of their status or ability. A national library endowment could help address those issues.

Libraries are changing to meet modern demands, but the need will always exist for well-staffed school libraries, on site and well integrated with the rest of the schools. The benefits are already well known in areas ranging from reading abilities to test scores and general scholastic achievement. If enough public money won’t be available, we must come up with other ways to preserve and protect our K-12 and public libraries.’s efforts to find new paths for funding are exciting. Philanthropists and others in a position to make a difference need to understand the harm that underfunding of libraries will do to us as a society in the long run.

Paula L. Wyatt volunteers as K-12 Library Relations Director of Library You can reach her at

The details: Articles in WaPo, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Education Week and elsewhere (Updated) is an overview site for the busy—read our vision in 100 words.

But you can also drill down for details here and elsewhere. See articles in the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, Library Journal, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy (image). Also see our Inquirer article on the need for two national digital library systems, which the endowment could help finance.

LibraryCity is the small grassroots group that created From the start, our vision has been broader than simply bigger and better libraries in digital format. We care endlessly about physical libraries as well and have spent a lot of time talking up the benefits of any kind of reading. Significantly, we are not the Digital Public Library of America, a valuable but different organization with different priorities.

To avoid confusion, we’ve dropped “Digital” from the proposed name for the endowment even though the new technology is still a core part of our vision, given its usefulness for bringing vast collections even to small libraries. Warren Buffett has said just one book changed his life when he was young. That possibility is the glory of books of any kind.

Some basics:

Other writings from us:

Background on digital library and digital literacy issues, from others—as well as general library issues:

Photo credit: The shot of the young Poe-reader is Creative Commons-licensed and is from the Unquiet Library (not associated with this site).

Corilee Christou: Our new library and publisher relations director emeritus

Corilee Christou, a veteran of the library and publishing scenes as well as a grandmother passionate about literacy, has stepped down as library and publisher relations director for and LibraryCity, effective Aug. 17, 2018.

She continues to believe in the library endowment cause but wishes to spend more time with her grandchildren. We encourage others to apply to replace her in this important voluntary position. Contact Library Endowment cofounder David Rothman at or call 703-370-6540.

In honor of Corilee’s past contributions to, including coauthorship of a commentary in the Washington Post, she will now be library and publisher relations director emeritus.

During her time with us—Corilee started November 2016—she advised on strategy. Another title summed it all up: library evangelist.

LibraryCity, the parent of, is the small informal group calling for a national library endowment. As library and publisher relations director, Corilee explained the endowment vision to librarians and publishers. The endowment initiative is a heartfelt grassroots cause—LibraryCity is all volunteer. But along the way, if the actual endowment happened, major opportunities would grow for librarians, publishers, and writers through expanded markets.

Corilee herself has experience in both the library and publishing worlds. Visit Amazon and you’ll see review blurbs from Publishers Weekly. That deal is just one of the many Corilee has helped make happen over the years to the advantage of all involved.

Among other jobs, Corilee was VP of new media licensing and business development for Reed Business Information, the one-time parent company of Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. She has also worked for LexisNexis and other information-related companies as well as for public, K-12, and academic libraries. In addition, she has been a rights consultant for C2Consulting and a columnist for Information Today.

Needed: New Carnegies (plural) for libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere

Andrew Carnegie, the father of library philanthropy, helped pay for several thousand public libraries in the United States and elsewhere.

What he did not do, however, was to relieve librarians of worries over the ongoing maintenance and stocking of the libraries.

Hundreds of U.K. libraries have closed in recent years. And the same may happen here in time, given all the new headwinds that U.S. libraries may face in the future from foes of adequate support for them.

We need to modernize Carnegie’s vision, especially in the era of ebooks and other digital content that in many cases will require ongoing sources of money.

Here in the United States, we have the right of first sale doctrine, which says books can be truly owned, meaning they can be lent endlessly, one at a time. It’s a good doctrine. But in practice, with publishers and others often insisting on other business models, first sale is far from a full solution.

If nothing else, how can libraries pay for never-ending support of electronic databases from commercial sources? Aggravating the problem is that local taxes are the primary source of money for public library books and other library resources.

Biloxi just is not going to enjoy the same funding level that Beverly Hills or Bethesda will. What’s more, the average expenditure per capita on public library collection items in the U.S. is only about $4 a year even with wealthy localities included. That is just $1.3 billion, as reported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. School libraries, meanwhile, have been laying off well-credentialed librarians at the expense of students’ academic skills if we go by past research.

A national library endowment could at least help K-12 libraries and other kind in Biloxi and elsewhere enjoy more of the funding stability they need to survive in this new environment. Remember, by way of interest, dividends, and stock appreciation, an endowment can keep on giving.

Unfortunately, in the United States, library foundations and equivalents for public and presidential libraries total only several billion  or so, just a fraction of the libraries’ operating budgets. Compare that estimate to some $36 billion just for Harvard’s endowment alone.

This is, clearly, a social justice matter. Granted, an endowment focused on donations from the super rich would come with issues of its own, such as how they amassed their fortunes. But we must keep in mind that tax money itself is hardly pure. It comes in part from massive polluters and other corporations with less than perfect morality. Besides, we should not lump together all the super rich. We can disagree with Bill Gates and Microsoft lawyers over some aspects of antitrust and on many other matters, but recognize that he is worlds apart from, say, the Koch Brothers.


The proposed library endowment not only could send more money in the direction of libraries of all kinds, including academic libraries, but also use technology to help them spend it more efficiently and better serve their users.

No, not everything supported should be digital, far from it; but with paper books dominating, only around 12 percent of public library spending is on actual content. The majority of the money goes for other expenditures such as librarian salaries. Does this mean we should fire librarians? Just the opposite. If nothing else, as demonstrated by Americans’ vulnerability to “fake news,” exacerbated by their reliance on social media, we need more librarians to promote useful, authoritative content.

Executed properly, a digital strategy will mean more outreach efforts, more story-telling hours, more interaction between librarians and users, and better school libraries. To understand the K-12 benefits of e-books when used well, especially for boys, see a study from the U.K. Literacy Trust. Other major research documents the rewards of recreational reading, which ebooks can encourage.

Among other things, the endowment could also help finance the creation of open access works to help drive down the prices of textbooks, which have risen 1,000 percent since 1977 and 88 percent since 2006.


What’s more, via 3D printers and other offerings, the endowment could help whet future and existing workers’ interest in the new technology.

Countless American library-goers badly want to learn new high-tech skills, and that should jibe with one of Carnegie’s observation in Gospel of Wealth: “The main consideration” of philanthropy “should be to help those who will help themselves.”


Significantly, the endowment would be a win for the elite—the potential donors—along with workers. With a better-prepared, more prosperous workforce, the .00000001 percent would enjoy a larger market for the goods and services of the companies they owned. The rest of the country could better survive in an era when automation, not foreign competition, will be the main threat.

Moreover, ideally, if automation ends up shortening the work week of the average American, cultural and civic pursuits will count more. Or do we want the extra time to go simply for consumption of mindless videos and junky VR? Entertainment has its place. But let it not push aside other activities.

The advent of the driverless car if anything could open up more opportunities for reading and other desirable activities if society prepares through the endowment and otherwise.

Otherwise we may be left with an entertainment-fixated citizenry more vulnerable to demagoguery.


Is the money out there, however, for an endowment to become a reality?

Librarians once hoped that Bill Gates would be their new Andrew Carnegie. Instead the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the major recipient of charitable donations from Warren Buffett, not just the Gateses, has been phasing out its Global Libraries Initiative.

This is happening regardless of the ongoing needs of libraries and their ability to complement the foundation’s work in areas such as education and public health (more literate people live longer).

Furthermore, the foundation is not eternal: “Because Bill, Melinda, and Warren believe the right approach is to focus the foundation’s work in the 21st century, we will spend all of our resources within 20 years after Bill’s and Melinda’s deaths. In addition, Warren has stipulated that the proceeds from the Berkshire Hathaway shares he still owns upon his death are to be used for philanthropic purposes within 10 years after his estate has been settled.”

Ideally the Gateses and Warren Buffett will reconsider their moral obligations to future generations further into the future. While Andrew Carnegie himself did not leave behind a library endowment per se, he wanted his education-related work to go on “in perpetuity,” and he provided for this.

“Andrew Carnegie endowed the Corporation with the bulk of his fortune, $145 million,” the Carnegie Corporation of New York says. “As of 2015, the endowment stands at $3.3 billion.” In addition, Carnegie gave his trustees “full authority to change policies or causes hitherto aided, from time to time, when this, in their opinion, has become necessary or desirable.”

Carnegie, then, very possibly would have approved of this endowment plan even if it is odds with his original fund-and-run approach for public libraries. Today’s digital technology is inherently efficient. But as noted, if we are to pay authors and other creators and content providers fairly, we need to provide for ongoing expenses such as the databases that compensate news organizations. Furthermore, in a multimedia era, especially when many books will no longer be in tangible form, we will need to try harder to keep reading on the minds of the citizenry. Libraries will have to expand outreach efforts significantly.

One bonus is that the publishing industry also could benefit along the way. For example, the same promotion of specific titles in a library context—to draw Americans to brick-and-mortar libraries and their ebook sites—could help the sales of publishers and authors since many readers would want to buy books to keep or to avoid wait periods. Not just digital books but also paper books would come out ahead. Ever the capitalist, Carnegie would have approved of those collateral benefits for the private sector.


Alas, however, beyond the Gates Foundation’s phaseout of its Global Libraries Initiative, other challenges exist at local, state, and federal levels. Cash-strapped cities must choose between funding libraries sufficiently vs. the needs of, say, police forces.

What’s more, President-Elect Donald Trump is not a heavy reader and has other priorities such as increased spending on defense and infrastructure, and he is even trying to defund the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Its current budget of $230 million is hardly enough to make up for local budget shortfalls, but in areas such as technological innovation, the future demise of IMLS would be tragic.

Clearly we need both the endowment and IMLS. If nothing else, consider that in today’s Washington, freedom of expression has been increasingly imperiled, with talk of “open[ing] up our libel laws”—hence, the current desirability of a nonprofit model independent of the federal government.


We cannot reincarnate Andrew Carnegie to create this independent endowment. But what major figures in the library and philanthropic worlds can do is to amass donations from a whole collection of Carnegie equivalents. This could happen even if they do not donate the same percentage of their fortunes to libraries.

Might the time have come, then, for a national library endowment summit blessed by major foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?

Ideally Gates himself could revisit library issues and help organize the summit—given the high return on investment that libraries yield socially and economically. Should he not be interested, others could step in.

But let’s hope he will care, particularly with all the new talk of massive information illiteracy among the young and among voters of all ages. If nothing else, keep in mind the Giving Pledge, organized by Gates and Warren Buffett, under which signers promise to “dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth essay went further, averring that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

The distribution of wealth issue is the very stuff about which Americans debated so fiercely during the 2016 election, amid fears of demagogues and the end of democracy as we know it. While the endowment must not be a political organization, it can at least help narrow the chasm between the .00000001 percent and the rest of us.

Objecting to an endowment, some might say the money should come from taxes instead—that the rich are undertaxed. We fervently agree that the wealthy are not pulling their weight. The federal estate tax, for example, now targeted at individuals leaving behind more than $5.49 million and couples worth above $10.98 million, should  not be repealed. Gene Sperling, once economic advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, has in fact said it should be raised. We agree. For that matter, to their considerable credit, Warren Buffett and William Gates Sr. and his son want heavier taxation of the wealthy.  But we need to be realistic. Revenue for libraries, from all levels of government, is unlikely to spike in the near future, even with the most passionate and skillful of library advocacy.

Thanks to gerrymandering, voter suppression and a corrupt system of campaign financing, we cannot expect the composition of Congress to change sufficiently for libraries to get their full due soon in Washington. Meanwhile our libraries need the money now. Furthermore, as we have pointed out, libraries should enjoy diverse sources of funding—one protection against the possible demise of IMLS or restrictions that would compromise its mission, such as a ban on ebooks with birth control information or those advocating thoughtful but controversial political viewpoints. Under the Trump administration, our foreign aid program already is defunding nonprofits that even mention the option of abortion to the women they are helping. A private endowment could at help protect libraries against government censorship.

Of course, some might argue that an endowment increasing the percentage of private support for public libraries would cause local and state governments to reduce library funding. But the endowment could deal with this issue by relying heavily on matching grants (with allowances for poorer communities without much revenue or many well-off donors). What’s more, if localities merely shifted the burden, rather than increasing funding in the future, the endowment could make it harder for them to win grants in the future. That could be determined on a case-by-case basis. As another precaution to protect public libraries’ local ties, the endowment could accept donations only from billionaires, so as not to pre-empt Friends-of-the-Library-style efforts. Even multimillionaires would still have to contribute directly to local libraries. In a related vein, an offshoot of the endowment could help fund local library advocacy on behalf of more tax funding and more local charitable contributions.

While most public library funding would still come from nonendowment sources, the new revenue could make a major difference, especially in low-income communities; and the amount available would grow over time as the endowment grew.


Yes, the resources exist for an endowment of $20 billion within five years and its ability to spend perhaps a billion dollars in Year Five. The Forbes’ wealth figures—for the 400 richest billionaires in the United States—showed that the top ten were together worth about half a trillion as of fall 2016.

Do the math. The half trillion could pay for more than 25 national library endowments. The total wealth of the 400 is $2.4 trillion, with their average net worth at $6 billion. Now, imagine if even just a tiny fraction of the $2.4 trillion goes for the endowment; yes, we are aware of the practical side, such as the need to retain enough wealth to invest in existing and new businesses. But a “Billion Dollar Donors Club” for the endowment could happen without the members sinking into abject poverty and without their grievously depriving their companies of capital. A club member could even spread the billion or more over the five years or ten years rather than donate everything at once. The endowment also could accept lesser amounts from the super rich.

Needless to say, some or all of the elements of the national library endowment model could work in countries other than the United States, with the U.S. endowment encouraging similar efforts elsewhere. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, for example, if the model could be used to help revivify U.K. libraries, as well as help those in developing countries?

Update, May 10, 2018: Jeff Bezos is now said to be the world’s richest man, worth more than $130 billion. In 2017 his wealth grew by about $40 billion. For a prominent academic’s perspective on Bezos and charity, see Better Ways for Jeff Bezos to Spend $131 Billion, a New York Time opinion piece by Prof. Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago.

Related:, which helps public and academic libraries fight for adequate funding. It is a cause worth worth donating to and is not in the least at odds with the philosophy of this site—in fact, just the opposite, as shown by our interest in increasing local tax support and local contributions to public libraries.

Image credit: Here. Meanwhile, for an overview of Carnegie’s thinking on philanthropy, please view the YouTube below.

K-12 libraries: How the national library endowment will help

Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books could bring a Columbine survivor out of his shell.

Photo: Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books and talk could bring a survivor of the Columbine massacre out of his shell.

Our best school librarians won’t just instill in students a love of books and learning. They will also strive to cultivate a work ethic, curiosity, persistence,  empathy, and an appreciation of harmony at home and on the job. The librarians won’t always succeed. But it is only right that we give them the resources to try.

With that in mind, the endowment will help develop a whole generation of digitally savvy school librarians—as many as possible from poor and working-class families—who can truly connect with their students in rural areas, factory towns, and depressed urban neighborhoods. The librarians’ tech prowess will itself serve as one form of connection. “Develop” can mean anything from the availability of work-study scholarships to courses in areas ranging from psychology and bibliotherapy to digital-era outreach. The same programs could also help present and future public librarians working with young people. But gung-ho school libraries are key, since they are in the same buildings as the students and, in fact, school libraries make up four-fifths of all U.S. libraries.

Just how can school librarians connect with students, especially at-risk ones, to improve them as both young scholars and people? Here is an example involving paper books, although, as you’ll see in time, ebooks and other tech could have helped as well:

The Columbine massacre had traumatized one of Kerri Smith’s high school students. He wore a black trench coat, he apparently did not bathe,  his grades were slipping, and he seldom spoke. “I couldn’t get anything out of this kid…I was desperate,” she recalled 26 minutes into the video below. But everyday Ms. Smith saw him read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and, as a lover of fantasy, she decided to do the same and talk about the books with the boy. The result? His marks shot up, and the next year he became her classroom aide and helped teach a class. Along with similar cases, that was why Ms. Smith decided to become not just a teacher, which she already was, but also a school librarian. The old cliche holds true: books can transform children’s lives. By themselves, however, as Ms. Smith’s experience shows, books and other collection items are not always enough. We also need librarians, especially well-prepared school librarians for low-income areas where student may not benefit from the encouragement and role models that already bolster middle- and upper-class children.

Not every child lives through a Columbine nightmare. But millions of K-12 students suffer less dramatic forms of trauma in their own homes—impeding their academic performance, jeopardizing their health, and increasing the chances of their getting into fights. Properly prepared school librarians with both teaching and library credentials can befriend students like the Columbine survivor and stand a better chance of turning their lives around. And what better way than for books and other library  items and services to serve as tools to make the connections?

Books can also launch K-12 students and others on journeys of self-discovery. Near the end of Hillbilly Elegy, author J. D. Vance tells how he felt “weird” talking to a counselor about childhood traumas. But then “I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study.” He found that “four in every ten” blue-collar people “had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma” ranging from parental violence to alcoholism or drug abuse. Via printed books, ebooks and other online resources, school librarians can introduce at-risk students to a larger world so the children acquire a better sense of true normalcy. The operative word is “can,” since not all students will respond.

But within the realm of school libraries, here is what can often help at-risk students and others—in terms of connecting with them and in other ways:

–Realization that schools alone cannot with work miracles at a time when millions of parents must juggle multiple jobs (assuming they can find work in the first place) and when other issue exist such as the drug epidemic. Even the stress of poverty may itself impair students’ ability to learn.

–Using early childhood education, related outreach, family literacy programs, and other strategies to reach students at an early age and following though. The Columbine survivor, despite personal problems, had a head start on millions of others—he at least cared about books in the first place. Endowment-financed activities will promote books and reading among both students and parents.

–Awareness that existing resources will not suffice. Consider the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESEA). It can help in areas ranging from technological resources to professional development opportunities for school librarians. But it is not a substitute for the additional funding and other assistance that the endowment would make available. Furthermore, we must look ahead for the future when policymakers may roll back existing legislation even though ESEA is alive for now. Losses from past cutbacks still plague us. See statistics on employment of librarians, including school librarians. The number of full- and part-time school librarians fell from 80,000 in 2004 to a little fewer than 66,000 in 2014. The beauty of books and multimedia is that students can teach themselves to a great extent, but we will still need librarians to help them find and absorb the most relevant and authoritative materials, as well as mentor and inspire students, especially at-risk ones. It is folly to see technology as a full substitute. Beware of shortcuts. Creating successful school libraries is not like writing computer programs, where a few brilliant people may achieve better results than hundreds of good ones.

–Acknowledgement that conventional text is not always the optimal way to reach all students. Many students, especially boys, will respond better to ebooks than to paper books. Others may benefit from text to speech. Cell phones are a good way to reach receptive young people, but they are not a panacea as a platform for ebooks or audiobooks. Screens may be too small for some readers; they will prefer tablets or E Ink devices. The endowment will make more resources available for different platforms and foster ebook literacy. Encouragingly, brand-name tablets now sell for as little as $50 from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and while screen resolution could be better for ebooks, the tablets will be at least usable for many. Resolutions of even basic models will improve eventually.

–More electronic books and multimedia items and other content, via national collections, and in some cases more money for buying paper books. The new technology will facilitate sharing of digital content and at least help narrow the funding gaps between rich and poor schools. The average school library contained only around 13,500 books as of 2012, a fraction of the collection at a typical public library, which itself could be larger. Students will be more inclined to read if they can be led to, and then read, books matching their exact interests. More current books, which the new technology makes possible, will also help. In the ever-changing area of health and medicine, Dewey range 610-619, the average copyright date as of 2012 was 1996. Needless to say, more endowment-funded availability of content from dynamic databases could likewise help students stay current; not all authoritative information is free on the Internet.

As for physical books, there will still be a place for them. Kerri Smith was able to see the trench-coated student reading Wheel of Time day after day. What’s more, physical books can be discovered on the shelves without need for any electronic device.

That said, paper books should be viewed as gateways to electronic books. The chances of finding exactly the right book for the right child—in line with the Five Laws of Library Science—will be so much greater if the student can choose from a national collection. The Open eBook initiative for schools with children from low-income families is a good start but not sufficient. It depends on donated books from publishers and has started out with a collection of only 10,000 titles.

–Information literacy not only in a Web context but also a book context.

–Recruitment and retainment of the right people as school librarians—people who care about other people, not just technology and content. Beware of laying off dedicated, fully trained librarians to make way for replacements without the same qualifications. There is a place for gung-ho volunteers or, in support and training jobs, nonlibrarian techies. But that is not the same as forcing trained school librarians out of school libraries and closing the libraries or turning them into soulless “media centers” or book warehouses. In one school librarian’s words, she and peers teach students “how to learn to learn.” That should be the goal of every teacher, in every class, but school librarians are the true specialists in learning through research. Furthermore,  they can help faculty members in different areas coordinate lesson plans and know early on what content exists for teachers and students.

–Collaborations with social workers and others to improve home environments, while recognizing that all the professionals in the world cannot eliminate poverty if systematic changes don’t occur. As noted, poverty itself can impair learning.

–More socioeconomic diversity among school librarians. We need more “hillbilly” librarians and more from blue-collar homes, including households without books. No, we should not compromise standards. Rather, school librarians and others should strive to identify promising students early on and encourage them them to join the profession. Work-study scholarships from the endowment could make this possible. The successful graduates of these programs would be duly rewarded with salaries paid for entirely or partly by the endowment, just so they worked in low-income or depressed areas—ideally their hometowns.

–More racial, ethnic, and gender diversity if we want school librarians to be the very most effective role models. In 2010, just 6,160 of the 118,666 credentialed librarians (not the total number) were black and a mere 3,661 were Latinos; this includes  all kinds of librarians, not just school ones. Only 572 African-American male librarians were found among the credentialed. Does this mean that white female librarians cannot connect with male members of minorities? Of course not. But just as newspapers have learned that the presence of minority reporters improves news coverage, so it is that serious affirmative action could go a long way in the library world. Most Americans by mid century will be members of minorities, but the numbers have yet to reflect even today’s demographics. Here’s are the dismal findings from an 2017 ALA membership survey. Socioeconomic and gender diversity, not just race and ethnicity, should count in affirmative action programs. Four-fifths of librarians are female. The endowment will work to increase the number of both female and male school librarians but especially keep in mind the need to raise the percentage of the former. At the same time, we need to be realistic. Cultural norms are a barrier to the recruitment of more males, even though we should try. The inclusion of makerspaces in libraries, as well as more emphasis than now on books of special interest to boys, including those from blue-collar families, will help.

–More diversity in books and other content, which endowment grants to writers and perhaps publishers will encourage. In 2013, when  U.S. publishers released some 5,000 books for young children and teens, just 63 were by black authors and a mere 93 were about African-Americans.

–Long enough hours at school and public libraries, so children can use them as safe havens if home environments are too chaotic. Ideally transportation arrangements can be worked out.

Details: Parents want more cooperation between schools and public libraries, and not just in in regard to summer reading programs. When K-12 classes require certain books or other items, the material should be available from public libraries even if school libraries can’t oblige. Of course, with electronic resources and sufficient funding, the material can be everywhere. In a related vein, see a Pew report on parents, children, libraries and reading. “94% of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79% describe libraries as “very important.”

Credit: The Sioux Falls school system produced the oh-so-persuasive video featuring Kerri Smith and other librarians. Also see the video below, from Capstone Publishers, on the changing role of school librarians in the 21st century.

How both public and academic libraries will come out ahead

How the Hernandez family will benefit from two well-stocked national digital library systems and a digital library endowment is the title of a LibraryCity essay. It appears in shortened form in the January-February issue of Information Today and also as an updated version on

The Hernandez scenario tells in detail how endowment-supported activities could help a fictitious family in San Antonio, Texas.

But the scenario lacks a point-by-point list of features and benefits that a national library endowment will offer public libraries. This post fixes that omission. Also, it covers academic libraries in depth as well. The points here apply even though we’ve changed the name of the proposed endowment from “National Digital Library Endowment” to simply “National Library Endowment.”

For both kinds of libraries, the foremost feature and benefit will be the endowment approach itself. All too often, foundations regard libraries simply as places for experimentation rather than as beneficiaries of long-term funding to help insulate them from political whims.

While libraries, culture, and knowledge are valuable in themselves, there are also solid business reasons for permanent ongoing funding of national collections and plenty else. Libraries need to be regarded as public services for us and our descendants, not mere experiments. They offer a significant return on investment. Many of the most successful investors in the stock market tend to think long term. And the same business people, in their philanthropic roles, should not shorten their time horizons for libraries. In fact, they should look beyond their lifetimes and think not just of names on buildings but also of content and of ways to disseminate, find and enjoy it, with or without brick and mortar. Names can go on virtual collections, not just physical ones.


The priorities of public and academic libraries overlap but are far from exactly the same, the reason the U.S. needs two separate but intertwined national digital library systems.

Public libraries cater to popular tastes and offer self-improvement opportunities and coping tools for the masses, such health or financial information available through books, multimedia, or reference desks. Taxes support them. Without recreational reading for average citizens, public libraries will die. Academic libraries, however, serve a different demographic group. They strive to play up the factual, insightful, important, and beautiful, not necessarily the most popular even though it can be. Basic coping tools, moreover, are not as important a component of the services of academic libraries, or at least are not the same kind.

A national library initiative will lack focus if it blurs distinctions between the two kinds of libraries. A John Grisham novel, for example, offers well-crafted entertainment. But it is not literature in the Flaubert sense. Similarly a pop psychology guide dear to public library users must not be confused with an academic tome. While a common digital catalog should exist for both public and academic systems at the national level, and while the two systems should share people and other resources, they should have different leaders with different priorities, especially at budget time. Here are point-by-point overviews of how endowment-supported activities will help the two kinds of libraries, with distinctions made between the two categories:


The public library system will include K-12 libraries, discussed in detail here. It will also include special libraries and museums interested in participating. Otherwise they can join the academic system. In fact, they can simultaneously be part of both systems. Same for community colleges.

Here are the features and benefits of the mix of the endowment and the public system:

–Use of matching grants to help preserve local control of local libraries. National funding  must not diminish local initiative. At the same time, the endowment should accommodate poorer districts without the opportunity to raise much money locally.

–Governance of the public system by people focused foremost on public library and K-12 issues. The Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of American does not have one current K-12 educator or current school librarian on its eight-member board even though four-fifths of libraries in the U.S. are school libraries. Why not at least a president of a school library association? Furthermore, of the 16 members of the DPLA education advisory committee, just one is a current school librarian (actually now in an administrative role).

Organizations representing school libraries, rural libraries, and others close to the grassroots should play a key role in the creation of the public system.

Significantly, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) passed a resolution against the inclusion of the word “Public” in the DPLA’s name. Public libraries will want control of a national digital public library system. The intent here is not to harm the DPLA. On the contrary—its funding level would multiply in its new incarnation as the National Academic Library of America (NALA), funded by the endowment. The public side might be known as the National Public Library of the United States (NPLUS). Or perhaps just the National Library of the United States (NLUS) to limit the word “Public” to local libraries.

–Economic and social benefits mentioned on this site’s needs and benefits pages, including a reduction in the “savage” inequalities of the library world. On the average, U.S. public libraries spend only around $4 per capita per year on books and other collection items. The $4 falls short of actual needs. Even at that, some libraries in rural areas can spend only a faction of the $4.

–More books and other content, available through a national digital collection even though local libraries could still purchase their own books. One result? Rich collections of ebooks and multimedia items for older Americans and others with mobility issues.

–User access not only to public- and K-12 specific catalogs but also to a universal catalog that will encompass the academic system as well. Public and school libraries will be smartened up, not dumbed down. Their catalogs will be able to include more academic works and source materials of interest to their particular sets of users.

–Easy customization capabilities to allow for localization that highlights content of great interest.

–Ongoing experimentation with different business models, including more development and use of open source material of mass appeal.

–National-level outreach and marketing to point TV watchers and others to local libraries in a highly targeted way. The Hernandez scenario tells of a public service spot that is far from generic. Instead of vaguely talking up local libraries, the spot encourages a watcher of a vampire show to go to the library and check out a vampire book and meet like-minded people. Needless to say, via matching grants, the endowment could also finance local outreach. It could pay for display of such spots, national and local, if alternatives were not available.

–The distribution of promotional text and videos via social media services. Many of the promotions could point to specific library offerings related to a user’s interests, including topics of Facebook-style groups.

–Improved SEO services—for both public and academic libraries—to improve the online visibility of library content and services. Here is an example of the possibilities.

Ebook literacy. Users of both public and academic libraries tend to be using suboptimal devices for their personal needs. Endowment-supported programs will can educate librarians and users and, in some cases, pay for appropriate devices.

–Family literacy programs offering both ebooks and paper books. The endowment will encourage partnerships between public libraries and organizations such as childcare facilities, not just to distribute books as loaners but also as gifts, especially for young parents and their children.

Cell phone book clubs with social events intended especially to reach younger people. The name is aspirational. Participants will be able to read books however they want, including on paper, not just on tablets or E Ink readers with larger screens. But cell phone reading is the choice of millions of younger Americans, especially members of minorities. Phones are among the most ubiquitous of gadgets, carried everywhere, like keys, wallets or purses. Furthermore, future cell phone designs may include screens that can fold out to display more words on the same page.

–Funding for the education, hiring, and professional development of digitally savvy librarians for the poorer districts, especially those from low-income and minority families. Worthy candidates for such programs could be identified as early as high school.

–Money for 3D printers, ebook readers and other new technology. One goal of public libraries should be to interest younger people desiring blue-collar careers to acquire technical skills of interest to employers. Both nationally and locally , public and school libraries should work with prospective employers.

A national digital reference service for the U.S. Many public library users may know in a general way what they need but not know the precise questions to ask. The reference will develop databases with a “wizard” approach to help narrow queries. In addition, users will enjoy access 24/7 to a wide variety of subject specialists. A variant of the service will also serve many users of academic libraries. The public and academic systems will jointly operate the service.

USBook (with US pronounced as “us” rather than as initials), a social media service designed for long-term storage of family memories and for family use. It will not replace services like Facebook. Rather, ideally, through agreements with Facebook and similar companies, it will serve as a repository for content originated there. It may also appeal to users who want a family-friendly environment without constant barrages of ads and of news from unknown sources.

–Promotion of civics courses—and media literacy courses—with multimedia for those who do not absorb material best through traditional text. There is no need for so many millions of Americans to grow up to be “low-information voters.”

–Cooperation with the academic system in access to cultural and historical source material. This is a “must.” At the same time, such a need by itself should not mean that public and academic libraries should be together  in “one big tent.” They can work together on multiple sideshows.


The percentage of money that universities spend on libraries has plummeted, and the efficiencies of the Internet are one reason. Most likely the percentage will never reach the old level. But there is no doubt that we should be spending more on academic libraries in a cost-effective, Internet-wise way while preserving physical libraries. The endowment could help academic and research libraries maximize efficiencies and reduce unnecessary redundancies.

Here are the features and benefits of the endowment vision for academic libraries:

–Board members passionate about the specific needs of academic libraries, even though they will share resources with public and K-12 libraries.

–More content and shorter waits for users seeking popular books and other items. Public library users will enjoy a similar advantage.

–More content and other resources for students at small institutions, including those with special talents who today cannot easily find what they need locally. Significant differences exist between library spending at large and at small colleges and universities, and the number of students is not the only factor.

–Better resource sharing of collections. Many books in academic systems, especially ebooks, are never checked out. A national collection will make it easier to publish highly arcane titles and for them to find readers. It also will facilitate interlibrary loans of content owned by specific libraries.

–More leverage with publishers of serials, the prices of which have increased dramatically in recent years (causing colleges and universities to drop subscriptions at the expense of learning and research). Seventy percent of the materials budgets of surveyed academic libraries go for serials, the prices of which have sharply increased Might this percentage be too high, especially with so many competing needs?

At the same time academic journal publishers that add value will actually enjoy more opportunities. The market will be bigger, with more money available, by way of the endowment.

–Access to the public system as well as the universal catalog, so students and faculty members can still enjoy access to popular fare such as bestsellers.

–More intellectual freedom. Significant differences can exist between the academic community and the rest of the country on many issues. An endowment with a two-system approach will reduce the chances of local jurisdictions pressuring the academic side.

–More use of open source, with resources available for libraries and parent institutions not just to commission such works but also to buy properties from publishers for open source use.

–Development of both general and highly specialized courses, matching disciplines, to enable students at all levels to conduct more comprehensive search and identify the very best sources. The sources can mix human instruction with instructional video and software. Currently, many university faculty members overestimate the information literacy levels of students.

Ebook literacy with special academic needs in mind.

–Preservation of cultural and historical documents, which can be conducted in partnership with public libraries and museums as well as the Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, among other organizations. This can build on the existing activities of the Digital Public Library of America, which, as noted, could be the start of the academic system. The preservation should include both paper and born-digital documents.

–Truly permanent links, accessible from both library systems and the open Web. Networked books and other link-reliant items will never reach their full potential if links come and on. Concepts such as Digital Object Identifiers are helpful. But a library endowment approach will offer the ultimate in technical and financial stability. The public as well as the academic side could benefit.

–Access to other national digital libraries adhering to the same standards of permanence and offering sufficient openness. In time there might be a world search engine or catalog encompassing the holdings of all national digital libraries meeting standards. However, except possibly for backup purposes, we should avoid a global database for now. Too many cultural and political clashes will be at work for it to succeed.

–Development of related infrastructure offering redundant storage, with precautions against hackers deleting or changing content. The public system could share this infrastructure.

–Possible sharing of powerful computing resources linked closely with databases.

–More content of high-level scientific interest than the current DPA offers.

–Sophisticated databases to match up graduates and employers and make clear the long-term needs of both industries and individual employers.

Related: Smartphones Can’t Replace Libraries, by former ALA President Julie Todaro and Irene M. H. Herold, appearing in Inside Higher Ed. “Academic librarians play a vital part in the education ecosystem, putting information into context for students by distinguishing information from knowledge and offering direct assistance to constituents in a personal way that cannot be replicated by an electronic device.”

Photo credit: Here.