February 17, 2018

Endow a National Digital Library | Backtalk

“Close the Libraries and Buy Everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription.” A satirical headline from Stephen Colbert? Not at all. Tim Worstall, a freelance writer for Forbes online, said $120 per year subscriptions to the ebook service could replace local libraries.

Luckily this was a circus sideshow even for a gung-ho business magazine. Most Americans still love their libraries.

Yet libraries could be vulnerable in the future. Only about 12 percent of an average U.S. library budget is for books and other content. Antilibrary zealots will latch onto this statistic eventually, downplaying that libraries are about much more than books.

A good proactive response would be a national digital library endowment and separate but allied digital library systems—one for public library patrons, the other mainly for academia, even though everyone could access both. New digital efficiencies could help libraries offer taxpayers even more value than they do now.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published an endowment proposal by one of the authors for such a plan. Some new frequently asked questions go into more depth about its benefits.

What are the benefits?

U.S. public libraries spend just $4 per capita on books and other collection items nationally. Even the best library advocacy campaigns by themselves will go only so far with budget-fixated politicians. An endowment-funded infusion of digital content is desperately needed in rural America and in “book deserts” elsewhere. Even some affluent localities are shortchanging library collections. Alexandria, VA, despite being hailed by Amazon as America’s “most well-read” city, spends less than $2.50 per capita on library content even though most public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Besides digital content such as ebooks, the national endowment could also help pay for other ongoing needs, for example, R&D-style projects and digital-era professional development of public and school librarians keen on making content universally accessible.

How much money is available to libraries from existing endowments?

Endowments of U.S. public and presidential libraries total only a few billion dollars—that’s a fraction of those libraries’ operating expenses. Furthermore, the Gates Foundation is phasing out its global libraries initiative, which awards just tens of millions of dollars a year out of several billion in grants.

Why separate public and academic systems?

The two proposed systems could share many resources, such as infrastructure and a universal catalog (for those wanting to use it). The academic system could build on the valuable, Harvard-­originated Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). It helps local libraries better justify sharing their historical source materials online, and it aids in discovery of those items and more. But the DPLA doesn’t play up popular-level fiction and nonfiction for typical library-goers and their children. Nor is it sufficiently focused on grassroots-level complexities such as family literacy and the digital divide. Check out dp.la. How much will the majority of your nonacademic patrons care about its offerings?

Could billionaires tell my library what to include in its collection?

Librarians and business professionals could run the endowment while philanthropists serve as valued advisors. Many billionaires would simply relish public recognition. The endowment would merely supplement local, state, and federal funds.

Would billionaires give enough?

The endowment might reach $10 billion–$20 billion in the first five years even if only a dozen billionaires stepped up. Just 400 Americans together are worth more than $2 trillion. A few could make a gargantuan difference. If the donations didn’t come, this would strengthen the already-powerful arguments for more tax money for libraries.

The rich might say they have better causes.

More cost-effective than libraries? Strong, well-run libraries benefit society in areas ranging from K-12 education to academic research, health, and economic and community development. MDs wooed by doctor-short Ft. Morgan in rural Colorado are asking about the quality of the local library, not demanding to see the golf course.

How about competition with local library fundraising?

The endowment could focus on a different universe of donors, billionaires, while running well-funded national media campaigns on behalf of local ­Kickstarter-style efforts. In fact, the endowment could even offer matching funds, while making special provisions for the poorest geographic areas.

Some short-sighted communities might use the endowment as an excuse to trim library spending.

The endowment would make this more difficult by justifying libraries through both deeds and media efforts.

Would the big publishers come aboard?

They would once the library market expanded amply and they enjoyed more sales through increased volume. While seeking value for patrons and taxpayers, ­better-funded libraries could be more flexible about business models. Also, publishers could benefit from sales links from catalogs.

Jim Duncan (jduncan@clicweb.org), a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Executive Director, Colorado Library Consortium—these are his personal views. David Rothman (davidrothman@pobox.com) is Cofounder and Editor-Publisher of LibraryCity.org, a library advocacy website. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com