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 national 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 nonVIPs. 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 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?