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.

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 ten-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 11 members of the DPLA education committee, just one is school librarian.

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 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.