Never underestimate the power and glory of the American ego. Granted, it can show its bizarre sides—for example, in the antics and hairdo of Donald Trump. And yet I see the good, too. We have the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the rest, not “Library Donors Anonymous.”

At least some might bristle at this quest for publicity and immortality, as opposed to pure altruism. But let’s remember that despite all the government-and-corporate-enforced conformity around us, we are still in many ways a nation of individualists.

Didn’t Walt Whitman title a poem “Song of Myself,” notwithstanding such lines as “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”?

Shrewdly, then, when the San Francisco Zoological Society held ZooFest 2013, charging anywhere from $500 for single tickets to $25,000 for sponsorship of a table, it let guests bid to name a Sumatran tiger cub. The winner, at $47,000, was Jillian Manus, a literary agent for Newt Gingrich and a number of non-VIPs. Walt Whitman would have understood her choice. Yes, of course—“Jillian.”

Would I prefer that tax money entirely cover the care and feeding of Jillian the Tiger Cub—or America’s libraries? Very much so. And yet realistically that is not possible right now. Hence the need for a national digital library endowment which could appeal as deftly and charmingly to the wealthy as ZooFest does. By way of White House and Congressional ceremonies, as well as public participation in fund-raising committees, the super rich could enjoy major recognition for their donations to libraries. But why digital? Because it’s by far the most efficient way of making the greatest number of books and other library items available to the most people—not to mention such possibilities as permanent links from book to book, so that, for example, our nonfiction books can be better documented than the present variety.

The digital library endowment would not be a cure-all—far from it. But it would be better than nothing. At all levels of government, local, state, and national, many budgets have shrunk, especially in the library world—this at a time when shocking numbers of American families are living in poverty and rely on public libraries as bootstraps.

Still don’t understand the direct and indirect benefits of a national digital library endowment? Consider that in the 2010 fiscal year the total spending on public library content in the U.S. was less than $1.3 billion, which, on a per capita basis, is about the cost of a somewhat upscale hamburger. The endowment must not replace all fund-raising and other nonprofit work in the library area (and, in fact, should focus on a different kind of donor from those supporting local library foundations). But not every city has a Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Clearly we need a true national effort; per-capita spending on library content varied from $1.42 in Mississippi to a still-not-adequate $7.79 in Illinois for the 2010 fiscal year. Even the most radical changes in copyright law could never substitute for ample money for books and other acquisitions. Beyond financing content, the endowment could also promote the Web-era professional development of teachers and librarians, particularly the school variety, given the potential of books and other library materials to raise academic achievement with the right mix of guidance and inspiration.

The endowment would be just one revenue stream for the digital incarnations of libraries. But the wealthy can at least help. An editor for the conservative Wall Street Journal acknowledges that the 400 richest Americans owned just slightly less than the bottom half of the country as of 2007, the last year for which the latter statistics are available. For a complete picture, read Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, a Penguin book by Chrystia Freeland, a Rhodes Scholar who’s now an editor at Reuters. Far from a rant, her book is a well-reported series of detailed vignettes conveying the perspectives of the wealthy themselves, as well as of their critics. Especially disturbing to me is the fact that some of the richest Americans are cutting back on domestic donations in favor of those abroad, rather than seeking a balance. Beyond that, public libraries everywhere can be far from the top of the super wealthy’s priorities, a marked departure from the Carnegie tradition.

Consider Bill Gates. He deserves praise for all the computers and ‘net connections he has helped put into America’s libraries, but if you look at his foundation’s annual report for 2010, the most recent year for which I could quickly find a working link to a PDF, you’ll see listings for a mere $14.3 million for libraries under his “United States” program and just $22.6 million under “Global Development” (some domestic library spending might be included there). Even if you assume that libraries are tucked away in other categories, the total appears to be minuscule compared to the more than $2 billion spent on grants of all kinds. Simply put, at least in regard to his foundation’s relative priorities, Bill Gates today seems a long way from Andrew Carnegie, both nationally and globally.

I can think of eviler acts than diverting money from libraries to fight starvation, AIDS, and malaria. Still, how to fill the vacuum and use a cohesive national strategy?

Perhaps America’s super wealthy could somehow magically crowd-source the task among themselves, but a national digital library endowment would be a far, far better idea, with far more openness and accountability than the public now enjoys from the Gates Foundation. The endowment could be public or nonprofit, although the former approach would respond better to public needs, such as for the partial financing of separate but tightly intertwined public and academic systems. With just one national digital library system, the economic and academic elites are likely to dominate at the expense of, say, young dyslectics who need accessible books and software like Voice Dream (shown at left), or ambitious workers or small business people trying to improve themselves. Needless to say, our national digital library systems could share unencumbered content with the rest of the world, promoting American culture and winning us international goodwill along the way. Far from being a U.S.-only concept, in fact, this one might work in some other countries as well, with both local and American donors. That said, I hope our billionaires will not forget their homeland.

For more on the endowment idea, see A national digital library endowment: More details, a FAQ, and an invitation to librarians and others to help shape the proposal, as well as the original posting (summarized on the Atlantic’s website). Among other things, LibraryCity.org suggests that collections could be named after rich benefactors, who could even sponsor individual books from lists approved by professional librarians isolated from the financial side of the endowment. Names like Ms. Manus’ and her husband’s could appear in tasteful ways in the front of the books.

Imagine the benefits of The Great Gatsby going into the public domain years ahead of time, with fair compensation to descendants of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Watch the Baz Luhrmann movie, then download the book and related commentary immediately for free from your local library’s website, which can pick up the national catalogs and cobrand with the national systems. No, this wouldn’t be the only business model used. Authors and publishers of hot best-sellers and other books could be paid by demand, with digital queues if need be to keep library spending within budgets. Purchase and subscription plans, the latter available for free or at low cost to the poor, could accommodate bestseller fans who didn’t want to wait.

I have no idea whether Jillian Manus would go for the digital library endowment proposal and work with her husband and with her well-placed Republican contacts to get the endowment on the agendas of both the super rich and the nation as whole. But I will contact her. If she follows through, it will be in the spirit of William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite, who in the 1990s wrote two passionate “On the Right” columns in favor of a well-stocked national digital library system. Today’s politicians—in both parties—need to catch up with WFB. Bill was a bestselling novelist and member of the Authors Guild, by the way, not just a political commentator and one of the fathers of modern conservatism. As much as anyone, he was sensitive to the importance of fair compensation of writers. That essential has been in the much-evolved TeleRead/LibraryCity plan from the time I sketched out the first version in the Computerworld of July 6, 1992.

Ms. Manus’ endorsement of the endowment and national digital library concepts would be a constructive response to Paul St John Mackintosh, a UK poet-journalist-translator living in Eastern Europe. He raised valid points about wealth gaps in a literary context, with Manus’ $47K tiger donation used as an example. A library endowment, of course, would indirectly help expand the book market and thus aid writers as well as society as a whole. Significantly, too, Ms. Manus is not just interested in the dollars and cents of the book trade but also in such educational causes such as Communities in Schools.

Her husband, Alan Salzman, a lawyer, is CEO and managing partner of VantagePoint Capital Partners, a venture capital firm with green energy investments in solar energy, power grid systems, and the Tesla electric car, shown here. Ideally both he and she can think of e-libraries as like the Tesla—disruptive but worth the trouble in the long run, given all the benefits, including those on the private side.

The proposed public and academic digital systems would be for the commonweal. But along the way, commercial publishers and booksellers could profitably piggyback on the two systems’ shared infrastructure and take advantage of, for example, the permanent links between books. The private sector itself cannot provide the same archival trustworthiness that serious networked books need over the long haul. At the same time, new and existing corporate players, from tiny startups to giants such as Amazon and Google, could serve as contractors. The current Digital Public Library of America project originated at Harvard has many virtues but is basically just a collection of links, item descriptions, a search engine and related computer code, as opposed to a true archive.

It takes prescience and guts, not merely deep pockets, to lavish countless millions on Tesla-style startups before they turn a nickel of profit. Let’s hope that Salzman, his wife, and other rich people can look beyond the usual philanthropies and also see the future in a national digital library endowment and the two intertwined library systems. Paying for Jillian the Tiger Cub’s food was a good deed, with or without naming privileges; but let’s not forget the care and feeding of Americans’ minds.

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* This Creative Commons licensed post originally appeared on LibraryCity.org, the website of TeleRead founder David Rothman.