Will Harvard get richer while libraries lose out? The short version

By David H. Rothman
Cofounder, LibraryEndowment.org

Note: The full 11,000-word version is here.

A $20-billion national library endowment—the idea should be catnip for librarians. No such luck for now. The American Library Association says it would rather devote its “bandwidth” to causes such as the budget of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Of course. But can’t ALA at least release a short statement endorsing the basic idea of an endowment, with details to be worked out later? The need is there. Watch this video.

Here are some bullet points:

  • Our libraries need the money as an education-related investment in our children and workforce, among other beneficiaries.
  • All the public and Presidential library foundations, endowments and equivalents total only about several billion or so in assets.
  • By contrast, Harvard’s endowment alone is far north of $35 billion—with undoubtedly much more to come in the future from some signers of the Gates Giving Pledge or others. Perhaps one-third of the paltry several billion or so for public and Presidential libraries has been invested for institutions in New York City alone.
  • The idea isn’t to hurt Harvard or New York but lift all boats. A $20-billion endowment in five years—the goal here—could go a long way, generating more than $1 billion a year. U.S. public libraries’ total operating expenditures are about $12 billion. While far from a full solution, the endowment would help.
  • LibraryEndowment.org will keep advocating the endowment idea with or without ALA’s participation, but a few words from the group could provide a nice tailwind and make the main library organization look pretty good in retrospect, once the endowment happened.
  • The Institute of Museum and Library Services is an essential, well-run agency, but the Trumpists and friends will very possibly keep trying to kill it. Even if IMLS survives and the Democrats regain control of Congress, don’t count on increases as massive as they should be. Look at the past. Barack Obama, a passionate booklover, trimmed the IMLS budget while sending some more money to other cultural agencies. Political action is a “must” but won’t eliminate the need for vastly expanded philanthropy.
  • Incremental increases ahead for IMLS? Very possibly. But libraries deserve so much more, especially our cash-strapped school libraries. The number of school librarians has actually fallen markedly in recent years—in minority neighborhoods in particular.
  • The endowment could not only aid libraries directly, especially in poorer districts, but also help pay for two national digital library systems, one public/K-12, one academic. This would allow for a more focused approach than that of the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America, on whose valuable work the endowment could still build.
  • Some influential librarians involved with ALA—not everyone associated with the group—need to rise above prejudice against ebooks. Digital books are thriving in the library world. We just need more of them for more library users, along with greater attention to related digital divide and ebook literacy issues. The endowment could still fund paper books, especially in poor districts (among other things, the physical presence of paper books can help keep books on students’ minds).
  • An elite institution like Harvard would be a good setting for a conference between librarians and potential benefactors, who would value the prestige.
  • Harvard’s involvement could be far more than just the provision of meeting space. The university could offer cross-disciplinary technical help from the law school, the graduate school of education, the center for ethics and the JFK school of government.
  • ALA leaders should educate librarians on the need for an endowment to care about cash-strapped libraries outside their localities, regions or states. Didn’t FDR push for the Tennessee Valley Authority to help part of the impoverished South during the Depression era? Let’s see the same vision for libraries, even if the money comes from the endowment rather than the usual government sources.
  • Some localities in Puerto Rico could be among the endowment testbeds. As of FY 2009, libraries there could spend only about 35 cents per capita on collections—a fraction of the approximately $4 average.
  • Like so many literacy issues, this is a civil rights and political one. Almost half of Detroit’s predominantly minority workforce were found in one study to be functional illiterates. Barely literate people can never be as effective politically as better-read ones.
  • 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.

The above are the personal views of LibraryEndowment.org cofounder David H. Rothman and do not necessarily represent those of other participants.