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Against (Too Much) Library Philanthropy

If there’s still room on the list of “things I didn’t go to library school to do,” I’d like to add riding a bookcycle around town. Special training in peddling a heavy bicycle isn’t something they should add to the library school curriculum.

But that’s at least a realistic way to get library services out to people who might need them, especially those children who don’t read over the summer and fall behind.

If only all those children were being sent to enriching summer camps. That’s what rich people do for their children, after all.

What rich people aren’t doing much of these days is giving money to libraries, but at least one person thinks they should.

Here’s a not-so-modest proposal for the 400 richest Americans (together worth over $2-trillion, or more than the entire bottom half of our population).

Work toward a national digital library endowment to modernize Andrew Carnegie’s vision of giving the brightest the tools to rise to the top.

Something tells me this isn’t going to be very persuasive.

For one thing, the request itself is different, because Carnegie wasn’t just handing money away. “Carnegie asked cities and towns to pay for the upkeep and other continuing needs of the libraries he financed, but today’s America is different. Local governments have cut back.”

So the proposal is for the super rich to fund some sort of digital library when even the communities that people live in won’t fund libraries.

Carnegie might have been on to something. If communities had to pay something themselves, that gave them a sense of ownership and an incentive to keep supporting the libraries. If communities gave up on themselves, Carnegie would give up on them.

The oddest part of the request is to “modernize Andrew Carnegie’s vision of giving the brightest the tools to rise to the top.”

Something tells me the super rich already think that’s happened.

We live in a meritocracy, so the story goes, and in a meritocracy the ones with the most merit are the best and they rise to the top. The super rich are at the top. Thus, they must have the most merit. The brightest have thus risen to the top. Problem solved.

Just ask investment bankers or tech billionaires whether they deserve to be at the top. Of course they do!

That means, of course, that all of us not at the top don’t deserve to be, and that those of us on the bottom deserve that, too. Those without merit deserve to be at the bottom. Ask them, and they might be dispirited enough to agree.

Thus, it might be hard to get the richest 400 Americans to give anything when they deserve all they have.

There’s another problem with this suggestion, though. When Carnegie was handing out money to libraries, the idea of society as a whole making sure everyone got an opportunity to succeed, or at least not fail miserably and die in squalor, didn’t have a lot of believers in America.

In the meantime America changed a lot. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, various welfare programs for the poor and for children, all these came along. Even public libraries were part of this, and communities funded them for the good of everyone.

So getting a handful of super rich people to fund things that for most of the last century we agreed should be publicly funded is a big step backward.

Libraries and schools are either public goods or they’re not. People deserve fair opportunities for education in life or they don’t.

Publicly funding libraries is a way of saying they’re public goods and people deserve some fair opportunities for education.

Begging charity from the super rich is a way of saying they’re niceties and that opportunities are alms for the super rich to dole out to the bottom half when they feel like it.

Carnegie’s contribution to American libraries was significant in its time because the idea that everyone should have the educational tools to succeed was a relatively new idea.

But now it’s an old idea, and an idea that a lot of Americans are abandoning. Trying to get the super rich to give alms to some poor people rather than paying more taxes is just an admission that Americans in general don’t care about the opportunities of anyone but them and theirs.

And it’s not going to solve any long term problems for libraries.

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Comments

  1. noutopianlibrarian says:

    Hear, hear! Not only will being beholden to wealthy donors not solve long term problems for libraries, it also enhances the potential for those donors to affect library selection policies, service offerings, purchases, etc. But wait – perhaps individual librarians can get wealthy donors for themselves, much like Congress! After all, libraries should represent their communities just as Congress does. How better for the community’s voice to be heard than through their hard-earned dollars? I’m in favor of free speech and I select materials and make purchase recommendations – wealthy donors should can contact me to exercise their free speech rights!

    • just sayin says:

      Yea, better to close our doors that risk taking a gift with strings attached. After all we librarians NEVER let our compasses get in the way of selection. John Lennon had is right: “You’re all fucking peasants as far as i can see.”

  2. KidLib says:

    I think there’s room for both. Day-to-day operations should be public funding. On the other hand, if a library needs a new wing, or all new computers, or it is in desperate need of repairs and tax dollars are lacking, or it wants to re-paint or get new furniture… that’s what you need donors for, in a big way.

  3. Luckily Annoyed does not speak for the adults at LJ. Annoyed has done a great job of missing out on the nuances of my national digital library endowment plan in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Furthermore, total investment portfolios of U.S. public libraries are now only around several billion, a speck in the grand scheme of things. And yet our friend worries about about “too much” philanthropy. A detailed reply is at http://librarycity.org/?p=10571. I’d urge people to read it, as opposed to mindlessly repeating outdated opinions from library school.

    David Rothman
    Cofounder and Editior-Publisher
    LibraryCity.org
    @librarycity
    dr@librarycity.org
    703-370-6540

    • noutopianlibrarian says:

      siriusly – the displacement of publicly funded and supported libraries with philanthropy carries seeds of destruction for the idea of equitable public libraries without a lot of caveats that frankly don’t exist in privately funded philanthropic institutions. sure – let’s bus the city kids once a year from limited to non-existent library service areas to the well-to-do suburbs and enclaves where the money will go just like we do museums and the symphony. folks who believe them wealthy peoples are gonna take care of all of us, really!! are sadly deluded. demand and support public funding for democratic and accessible educational institutions for everyone, libraries included. as the community-mindedness that underlies taxation for education and libraries falter (and it is trending that direction in the U.S. and beyond), so does democratic and equitable access. so go get them dollars for your digital library vision and power to you, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that this is a viable solution to the decimation of public funding. “outdated opinions from library school” – nice ad hominem approach!

  4. @nonutopian librarian: Thanks very much for your comments. But care to drop the “non” from your screen name? Reality intrudes. Our local governments keep stinting on libraries–in my city the politicians talk of books vs. police officers, and guess who wins?–and we need to make up for the shortage of cash for content

    Don’t we want library books and other items and good service to be universally accessible–no bussing needed? A national digital library endowment could help multiply the number of books available in, say, isolated rural areas. And it could help pay for the hiring and training of librarians and other professionals in the very poorest places. Doesn’t that mean more equitability, not less? Furthermore, it isn’t as if the endowment will go away once set up. A well-run endowment, as I’ve written, will keep endowing. Given the vast resources of the super rich, who could build up the endowment with minimal effort, it actually could keep growing. The Gates Giving Pledge certainly could help. The money from the Pledge will be going somewhere. Shouldn’t libraries get some of it, considering all the societal benefits they provide?

    But even then there will still be a place for local taxes to support libraries. You continue not to grasp the fact that I’m advocating the addition of revenue, not displacement. The taxpayers of each locality can decide funding levels. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, where the City Hall won’t make more than $2.60 available per capita for public library content. If Alexandria can increase that paltry sum and still benefit from the national collection, then great. If not, that’s still a local decision. We’re not talking about a federal or philanthropic takeover of our local public library systems.

    Of course, against my hopes and yours, someone else could take over the systems in effect. Wall Street and friends. Get rid of public libraries or cut back sufficiently on them, and we may well see corporations stepping in–both the virtual and physical varieties. Amazon already has subscription services via its Prime Membership. Then there’s OverDrive, which wants even more dominance in the library market than it enjoys now. What if OverDrive ditches the libraries and goes to the public directly? And I’m not even mentioning new companies such as Oyster. Talk about reasons to have the endowment to help public libraries keep going!

    Meanwhile our local library systems limp along. Content spending in some jurisdictions is a dollar and something per capita. Just go down to Mississippi. Alas, you still don’t have a viable answer for the here and now. I do. Flexibility, please. Libraries should go after both public and private money at all levels. Let librarians not be like the Tea Partiers in lack of flexibility. You know the mindset. Just cut back public spending and everything will work out in the end. Who cares if kids starve and miss out on cancer treatments? Ideology ahead of human needs! I’m not saying you’re a Tea Partier. But in this situation, you might as well be.

    As for the library school reference, it’s highly apropos.

    Granted, LIS schools have many virtues and foster professionalization and the accompanying values such as editorial integrity. They are one reason I believe the endowment could happen without the rich controlling acquisitions–beyond the fact that local systems could still buy their own paper or electronic books, not just benefit from the nationally available ones. What’s more, I’d love to see the endowment at least help LIS schools keep their graduates up to date. I’m pro-LIS school!

    But sometimes even the most wonderful LIS schools and their friends can be slow to change. I’m the former editor-publisher of the TeleRead e-book site. As a nonlibrarian, I spent years fighting the notion that e-books would never take off, especially for recreational reading. Believe me, certain LIS luminaries were among the worst offenders.

    Ideally, however, they will will now show more open-mindedness than you toward the endowment concept rather than see public libraries fade away.

    Thanks,
    David Rothman
    Cofounder and Editor-Publisher
    LibraryCity.org
    @librarycity
    dr@librarycity.org
    703-370-6540

  5. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @David Rothman. I’m sure you’ll find great success with your mission in advancing this Digital Public Library initiative via endowments to your project and save libraries from their groupthink, Tea Party-like mindsets. After all, by dismissing the risks of substituting plutocracy for democracy as a model for public institution funding because there is no other way than having the wealthy endow your project (I’m likely correct in assuming that a public funding model for DLPA hasn’t panned out), you’ll find fertile ground among those who have become quite adept at funding select projects that erode public supported institutions. It will be quite sad if you are right – that wealthy endowments are the only way to adequately fund public institutions – but let’s be clear here – while you freely promise pennies from heaven for every library constituency under the sun (more for children! More for library schools! Possibly even more for library readers of paper books!, etc.) in your marketing (I meant articles) as if you are benevolently speaking for the needs of libraries and their users (especially in Mississippi – let’s hear those stats again) – you are really fundraising for your vision represented through your project and represent your vision and interests, and as future-oriented, supportive, and positive as these outcomes may be, accusing librarians of groupthink as a campaign strategy is obviously not directed at the library community. Your participation on their forum reminds me of the self-interest of another non-librarian with their own organization who also knows what’s best for libraries and their users. Must be a sign of the times… noutopianlibrarian (not nonutopianlibrarian)

  6. noutopianlibrarian says:

    I’ll try one more time – I apologize for conflating LibraryCity and DPLA in my comments.

  7. Oh, come on, noutopianlibrarian. I’m an ex-poverty beat reporter, and the LibraryCity site has no commercial agendas. I am not gunning for a job with the proposed endowment or any other organization. I’m in my 60s with a sick wife, my main priority. I just love public libraries and don’t want them Amazoned and Googled away.

    LibraryCity is lean, independent and self-funded and does not accept donations. I do the Web work myself. Within the limits of their busy schedules, librarians voluntarily contribute articles. The LLRX library site, run by Sabrina Pacifici, an LJ Mover and Shaker, regularly picks up LibraryCity posts. I started the present LibraryCity site at the suggestion of Tom Peters, a veteran academic librarian and public library advocate. So just what’s the K Street or Wall Street angle here?

    What’s more, I’m open about my identity. Care to use your real name and tell me more about yourself and mention any relevant professional, organizational or business ties so we can find out what your own agendas might be? If not, why not? Perhaps you’re just plain wrong without any nasty motive. But I would like to know why you’re so hatefully anti-endowment, beyond the arguments you’ve offered so far. Have we personally crossed paths before, online or offline?

    Meanwhile I very much appreciate your apology for conflating LibraryCity and the DPLA. Might that also be a retreat from your other comments about me? Ideally so. If that’s the case, thanks in advance. I’m a fast forgiver.

    Ironically I’ve annoyed certain DPLA people by insisting that there be separate public and academic digital library systems. I don’t want public libraries gentrified. Public librarians, not academics, should run the public digital system, which should augment, not replace, local libraries. I don’t want even the public online system to use the P word in its name. Save it for brick-and-mortar local libraries. Huge mistake on DPLA’s part! At my suggestion, Tom Peters asked COSLA to request a name change from the DPLA, and an official resolution followed. I remain disappointed that the DPLA is deaf to COSLA’s plea.

    At the same time, yes, I believe that the public system should work closely with the DPLA, which should become an openly academic system, as opposed to using the word “Public” in its name. The two systems could share common infrastructure and many gigabytes of great content. And everyone wanting to could use a common online catalog even though there would also be separate ones. I’d also love to see the proposed endowment benefit a reinvented and renamed DPLA. Get it? I just don’t want the university types bossing the public system. The money could be there for both to do what they do best, as opposed to “one big tent” without enough respect for the distinct identities of public libraries–both as individual institutions and as a group.

    Regarding the groupthink issue, I’m confident that many librarians would quietly agree with me, even if they’re too busy to speak out here (and maybe also too scared of groupthink).

    > Your participation on their forum reminds me of the self-interest of another non-librarian with their own organization who also knows what’s best for libraries and their users.

    Who is this other nefarious person?

    > It will be quite sad if you are right – that wealthy endowments are the only way to adequately fund public institutions…

    How many times do I have to repeat myself? I’m not saying the endowment should be the sole source of library funding. I’m all for more tax money for libraries. It’s just that the politicians aren’t obliging. Where do we get the resources? I say, “Ask the super rich for them while making arguments in terms they can understand.” I am for working peacefully within the system on library matters and others such as reform of our outrageously unfair tax laws–one way to free more money for libraries. What’s the alternative? Are you advocating bloody revolution and aggressive confiscation of wealth? I doubt it. Meanwhile, however, you have yet to supply answers for the here and now. We’ve got a whole generation of young people growing up without all the library books and librarians they deserve. Let’s change that.

    Please keep an open mind. At least you understand now that I’m not the DPLA even though I respect the gifted and other wonderful people there with whom I disagree at times, such as on the two-system issue and the need for a name change.

    Maybe with the additional facts here, you’ll change your mind about both the endowment idea and my motives. Again, many thanks for your DPLA-related apology!

    David Rothman

  8. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @DavidRothman. No intent to be nasty or mean on my part, David. I was reacting to your casting Tea Party and groupthink aspersions on those who disagree with you, and to the general tone in which you addressed the concerns raised by AL and the satirical observations I made related to this. AL’s column is known for matchless wit and insight with a twist of humor, sometimes a little deadpan and subtle for an age of shock jocks and Youtube.

    For what it’s worth (not much, I suppose), I share your concern for the future of public library funding, I heartily welcome wealthy donors and foundations to give to public libraries, and I recognize an increasingly digital future for libraries. The solution, David, is to work toward reclaiming tax-based public funding of education, infrastructure and social services from the extremists who want to starve these resources and institutions. The solution is to decry privatization and wealthy patronage as substitutes for democratic, community-based resources. If Gates, or Warren Buffet’s daughter, or anyone else wants to make philanthropic contributions toward libraries, as Bill & Melinda Gates did splendidly through their foundation with a grant mechanism, that’s wonderful. I happen to believe, however, that taxation of wealth and fair taxation of everyone toward the social good, continues to be the tool that we should continue to focus on, not handouts from plutocrats. So I applaud you for wanting to raise more money for libraries, but caution you in my sometimes acerbic manner, that credibility and support are not built by criticizing those who raise concerns and have different opinions with ad hominem characterizations of them and the mindset that you believe educated them, at least not unless you wish to weather reactions to these comments. I have not met you, have no personal issues or concerns, applaud your antipoverty journalism work, and wish you and your partner well in your personal life. I have no influence in the library world. And I was referring to the SafeLibraries.org as the other outside grassroots organization we hear from (on a frequent basis – I think Dan really looks up to AL – or maybe he just posts in every library forum that he can, go figure – if my daughter had been given that unquestionably pornographic Caldecott book, Mangaboom, by a certified MLIS ALA member librarian (!!) I’d surely be on the warpath also!) regarding libraries and librarians. You don’t have anything else in common with them (though the Tea Party comes up related to that organization, albeit in a far different way than your remarks. Finally, I don’t care to disclose my personal identity. While this isn’t 4chan, moot definitely had a point in his TED talk about how anonymity facilitates a creative freedom of expression, even amidst abuses. Fortunately, AL has different standards than moot so we have creative discussion, and even disagreement, without the nastiness that also comes with /b. Regards! noutopianlibrarian

  9. “The solution, David, is to work toward reclaiming tax-based public funding of education, infrastructure and social services from the extremists who want to starve these resources and institutions.”

    Well, noutopianlibrarian, I’d agree with that sentence, just so we can also work in the desirability of philanthropy as well. Thanks in part to billionaire-optimized tax laws and globalization and the scalability of certain kinds of technology, the rich control a disproportionate share of wealth. Let’s encourage them to put a lot of it to work in socially useful ways and also sign the Gates Giving Pledge!

    At the same time, yes, the philanthropy should respond to mass needs and wishes, not just those of the elite. We both believe that the DPLA’s current approach is not sufficiently community based, if we think of “community” as typical librarians and typical library-patrons and if we remember the significance of the words “public library.”

    On that note of friendly agreement, I’ll wind down–except to say that LibraryCity’s focus is the opposite of SafeLibraries.org’s. The big problem isn’t what’s in library collections. It’s what’s not. Here’s to more spending on content (and other good things)!

    Regards right back,
    David

  10. Sarah says:

    Grouping them all together as “super rich” or “philanthropy” does nothing in terms of discovering who they are (individually and collectively) and what their philanthropic goals, if any, are. Many younger philanthropists want to see direct results to specific initiatives. Others want all sorts of recognition and the chance to be on the board of the organization. Having been involved – still being involved – in the art/culture war being waged against classical music in Minneapolis, and watching how “donors” and boards operate in San Diego and now NYC (the Met), I’m not seeing those “investment portfolios” being opened without protracted struggles on multiple fronts.

    And this isn’t going into the issues related to a “digital library” – technology, staffing, maintenance. People like to give for something (an Edifice complex, perhaps). They don’t like to give for operating expenses.

  11. Peter Ward says:

    So well said! The greatest institution for promoting democracy and equality should not depend on charity from those who have already “secured the blessings of liberty” in order to grow and do even more great work. In an increasingly “work, work…buy, buy” America we need our public libraries to remind us that as Americans we have a responsiblity to live up to our scared creed. And that creed has nothing to do with who can own the most toys! It is a dark day when more young people know who Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber are than those who know about Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

  12. Hi, Sarah. A few points:

    1. The Endowment would target the richest of the rich and give them very conspicuous public recognition, if desired–even in White House ceremonies. You’re absolutely right that donors vary all over the place. But especially I have in mind the older, wealthier donors who want to be remembered. They prefer not to worry about all the details; notice how Warren Buffett has tried to farm out most of his philanthropy to Bill Gates, perhaps so Buffett can focus on growing his fortune? Smart move. All the more money for Buffett to amass for charity–the destination for the overwhelming bulk of his wealth!

    Not everyone dreams of micromanaging or being on a board. For the board-inclined, the library endowment could have a valued advisory board even though I believe that professionals should take care of the actual operations of the organization. Like The Annoyed Librarian, I think we’ve got enough plutocracy already. I envision the endowment as an additional operational buffer between donors and librarians even though the wealthy could help start the organization. Remember, we don’t have to win over all of America’s billionaires. Just enough.

    2. Yes, I know that donors love for their names to be associated with buildings. But what about the names of the endowment’s benefactors instead going on collections–appearing in tasteful ways in catalogs and the actual books? E-books, archived properly in national digital libraries, could last far longer than buildings. Links from the names in the books could go to photographs, videos and other information about the donors. If you wanted immortality, you’d get it.

    3. Of course technology costs money to maintain. All the more reason to create an endowment that would keep on endowing.

    The fact that so many local donors don’t want to help out with operating expenses is just one more reason for a national endowment.

    Meanwhile here’s one other argument for a national approach. As of FY 2011, a little over half of America’s public libraries reported no e-book holdings, according to IMLS. I’m sure that’s changed, but you get my point.

    Simply put, it is wrong, wrong, wrong to allow these inequalities to persist, and given the miserliness of Congress, the endowment approach is the way to go. I’m happy for the good people of New York and Minneapolis and other resource-rich places. But how about Mississippi? Shouldn’t we care, regardless of whether or not the power elites down there do? In the end it’s ordinary people–especially children–who are the victims.

    Instead of looking for reasons not to support an endowment, let’s embrace the idea. What happened to the can-do-ism of the America of yore? Enough defeatism.

    I speak as a former poverty-beat reporter and as a life-long progressive Democrat appalled by the indifference of some members of the big-city and bicoastal elites to fellow Americans in less fortune areas of the country. The endowment would be one way for us to start thinking of ourselves as one nation again just as the more reasonable politicians of both parties did in D.C. during the 1930s.

    That’s an important subtext of this discussion. I find it fascinating that the late William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite, was a huge supporter of national digital libraries for the masses as far back as the 1990s, while few of my fellow liberals and progressives gave a squat.

    For now, the very best of luck with your fight on behalf of classical music–which, by the way, national digital libraries could help popularize, even in the most rural parts of Mississippi. All the more reason for an endowment approach, especially with the focus on the kind of donor less likely to try to micro-manage!

    Thanks,
    David Rothman

  13. @Peter: As I’ve noted before, I’d love for local donors and for taxes at all levels to be able to pay for everything. That’s not going to happen very soon if ever. What to do you do about the book-starved people down South? Or even in my own hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, Amazon’s supposedly “most well-read” city, which spends just $2.60 per capita on public library books? Needs first! Hence, the necessity of the endowment.

    Of course I’d prefer a fairer tax structure at all levels, and thus more money for libraries, but thanks to gerrymandering and billionaire-optimized campaign laws and other dirty tricks, that isn’t going to happen soon. Meanwhile just 400 Americans together control more than $2 trillion of wealth, more than the bottom half of the country. If we can persuade just a few of them to support the endowment, that will significantly improve the lot of libraries and librarians even if it won’t be a total solution.

    “In an increasingly ‘work, work…buy, buy’ America we need our public libraries to remind us that as Americans we have a responsibility to live up to our scared creed,” you say. Exactly. The endowment would strengthen the libraries we both love so much. Methinks that some of the more enlightened billionaires might agree with us. And if not, as I’ve written, that will just help the case for tax reforms that could grow the revenue base for libraries. I’m in favor of such reforms whether or not the endowment happens. Please, let’s not think “either or.”

    David Rothman