Baltimore Sun op-ed on “Books and billionaires” (this means you, Bill Gates)

Wikimedia Commons photo used under CCLibraryCity’s proposal for a national digital library endowment has just made The Baltimore Sun—complete with a personal appeal to Bill Gates to talk up the idea. Books and billionaires does have a ring to it, doesn’t it?

If TeleRead community members can help get the word out on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere and otherwise show support, I’ll be grateful. Granted, the sums involved are large to most people, but they should not be in the least to the American elite as a group. The 400 richest Americans are together worth some $2 trillion, according to Forbes, and the total spending on public library content in the U.S. was only around $1.3 billion as of 2010. In other words, the endowment would cost the rich a crumb of a crumb, and, yes, donations would be voluntary.

The endowment would not end all of libraries’ funding challenges, far from it;  but such an endeavor would still be a very cost-effective way for the wealthy to encourage family literacy and help upgrade the American workforce for the good of everyone. It would not only help pay for content but also its absorption, such as through the hiring of more school and juvenile librarians in our poorest areas, as well as measures to deal with the related digital divide issues. Consider all the possibilities shown in a hypothetical scenario set in San Antonio. A recent UK study documents the cognitive benefits of recreational reading—one good way to help raise the K-12 test scores so dear to Gates.

Ask ’em

Instead of just shrugging off the endowment proposal as a dream, librarians and others should ask the super rich and Gates in particular: “Why not?” Are you a librarian afraid of alienating the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major backer of the ALA (and the dispenser of grants to countless libraries even if the amounts tend to be minor compared to resources available)? Certainly, there are risks. But a bigger one by far is that America’s libraries will not receive what they need and deserve from our super rich in this era of government austerity toward social programs. To give one example, the Gates Foundation’s annual report for 2012 reveals just tens of millions in library-related grants out of more than $3 billion. Yes, Gates is laudably busy with his global health and economic development projects. But libraries must not be lost in the shuffle.

A personal appear in the Sun to Bill GatesIf Gates doesn’t want to launch a major campaign for the creation of a national digital library endowment in the admirable spirit of his Giving Pledge, he ideally will still offer enthusiastic approval of the idea, so that librarians and others can proceed without fear of his grant-givers punishing anyone. What’s more, he could serve as a valued advisor to the endowment and the public and academic digital library systems that it helped finance. Here’s a chance to do Andrew Carnegie’s ghost proud.

An Idea for Other Countries, Too.

Needless to say, other countries could also start digital library endowments and encourage their own super rich to donate, and I hope that the current proposal can serve as a global template. Please read the Baltimore Sun article, wherever you are, New York or New Delhi, Montreal or Melbourne; and don’t just tweet—also contact officials at all levels of government. For most people, alas, this is still an abstract issue. One way to drive it home is to remember the interminable waits for library e-books in many American cities, as well as the limited selection. The very existence of the endowment would help enlarge the market for library e-books as well as increase librarians’ bargaining power with publishers, who would still come out greatly ahead through increased volume.

Related: The thoughts of Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, on the need for the endowment here in the States.

And a reminder of the obvious: The op-ed is not necessarily the Sun’s opinion, just an outside submission. But if newspapers can follow through with editorials, then so much the better. They would be among the main beneficiaries of a better-read public. William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite, wrote two gutsy “On the Right” columns in favor of the national digital library idea I was advocating back in the 1990s. This issue can and should transcend ideology.

This post originally appeared at LibraryCity.org and is CC-licensed.

3 Comments on Baltimore Sun op-ed on “Books and billionaires” (this means you, Bill Gates)

  1. Is it just me, or do others find something more than a little unhealthy about the idea of billionaires bankrolling digital libraries? Personally, I’m delighted that they’re pouring so little money into the idea thus far. As minor fiddlers, they won’t be calling many tunes.

    There are a far better answers:

    1. Major publishers wake up, smell the coffee, and boldly depart the 19th century for the 21st. The current business model for library books dates from the latter half of the nineteenth-century. Libraries placed in public buildings buy physical books to loan them out. (Rich man of his day, Andrew Carnegie, helped fund that.) That’s as ridiculous with today’s digital books as the horse and buggy is for travel. Public libraries should have an entire publisher’s collection available for checkout, along with multiple lendings of the same copy at a time. Publishers and authors should be paid per-use checkout fees. Make the business model fit the technology.

    2. We’re not some unfortunate third-world kleptocracy and we don’t live in mud huts. We don’t need philanthropy and billionaires to fund what we can easily afford ourselves. Seeing the likes of Gates paying makes local support less likely and, contrary to the silly ‘buzz about anything new,’ there’s still a lot of need for local libraries and physical books loaned out by them. Creating some sort of national digital library would weaken local libraries, particularly among busy Kindle/iPad readers.

    One of life’s more important rules is to never expect billionaires to pay for what you can pay for yourself. Let Gates pour billions into finding a vaccine for malaria. That needs Big Money to bankroll. Let communities back their own libraries. They can afford them and, if they pay for them, then they control them.

    I might add that the major publishers are shooting themselves in the foot by not getting into digital pay-per-checkout via public libraries in a big way. Readers are simply bypassing them. They get public domain texts from a variety of sources and spend their time with Jane Austin rather than the publisher’s latest (and probably less talented) romance author.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Thanks, Michael, but please consider:

    1. U.S. public libraries spend pitifully little on books and other content–only around $1.3B per year–and that amount won’t magically increase if they shift to a per checkout model for paying publishers. E-books would be more efficient. But E can take us only so far. We’re talking about current public library spending of around $4.20 per capita per year on content. A national disgrace. That’s about as much as we were recently spending per year just on military aid for Egypt (source: NYT).

    2. The super rich still have a role to play in the tradition of Andrew Carnegie. I’ve already told how library needs are just a crumb of a crumb of the $2 trillion worth of just 400 people. Wait. According to Bloomberg, the figure is now $3.7 trillion for only 300 (bloom.bg/1a2pbbr).

    3. No, we’re not a banana republic yet, but we’re getting there in terms of wealth distribution and maybe have even reached our destination. Just six members of the Walton family owned as much as the bottom quarter of U.S. families (and maybe more than a quarter) as of 2010. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walton_family.

    4. I’d love for the billionaires to pour more money into actual domestic job creation, as opposed to buyouts and investments outside the U.S., and long term, it’s harder to create decent jobs unless you invest in education-related infrastructure—exactly what the endowment would help make possible.

    5. As for the fiddlers and tunes, I’m proposing an open, responsive public endowment instead of the closed, private Gates Foundation model where billionaires call the shots without that much obligation to the public despite all the tax benefits. The rewards would come in the form of public recognition and the reduction of the need to set up their own, oft-problematic charities. As it is, the rich already set the priorities of the philanthropic world, and this model would change it somewhat. And if they didn’t respond? Then, by better defining the issues, the results would help pave the way for tax increases on the super wealth. Support of the public endowment concept would be a great way for the super rich to counter this by showing they cared about democracy and commonweal.

    6. There would still be a role for local tax support. I see the endowment as a way to help pay for content and ways to absorb it, such as the hiring of more juvenile and school libraries. But even money from the billionaires will go only so far. I’m not expecting miracles. The majority of the support would still be local, and care could be taken to educate the public about the economics.

    7. I’d love for the facts to be otherwise, but as most any public librarian in a nonuniversity town will tell you, just a speck of patrons read the classics for pleasure. To an extent I do see popular works as gateways to the greats. But let’s not exaggerate the demand! While some readers may be bypassing libraries to get the classics, it’s not as if these people are typical.

    David

  3. Note: The $3.7 trillion figure turns out to be global rather than domestic, unlike the earlier one I gave. Still, it reinforces my point–the money is there, and not just in the U.S.! David

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