A national digital library endowment: How America’s billionaires could be modern Carnegies for real

Update: James Fallows's blog on The Atlantic's site reproduced part of this proposal, and the long version appeared in Sabrina Pacifici’s award-winning LLRX library journal. More details and an FAQ on the proposal are here.

clip_image001[3]Warren Buffett was on CBS Sunday Morning. The interviewer, Rebecca Jarvis, asked if he owned an iPad. No. iPhone? No.

“He prefers books,” she said in an admiring way, “and reads avidly.”

As if electronic books don’t exist! As if millions of Americans are not downloading e-books to iPhones, iPads and other devices! As if a young Buffett today wouldn’t love to read scads of library e-books each year!

No, I won’t beat up on either Buffett or Ms. Jarvis, given people’s varying tastes in reading formats. In fact, for retirement purposes, I’m a small shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway, his company, and I trust his long-term judgment on Wall Street matters.

clip_image001[6]But now it’s time for Buffett, Bill Gates and other billionaires to think analytically and strategically about something else, America’s digital library needs. I’d much rather that public funding alone sufficed and that enough money come now. But like it or not—I don’t—this is the era of anti-government diatribes and Fiscal Cliffs and other manifestations of rampant dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

So perhaps Buffett, Gates and other billionaires can themselves finance a new national endowment to help fund two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systemsone public, one academic.

On bytes and paprika: Why digital counts

Our libraries need paper books, too, especially for the youngest children and others who may not take immediately to the current digital variety.

hungarian pakrika vendorBut e-books, collections of electrons, not atoms, come with special advantages. For instance, they eliminate physical-shelving costs and are a godsend for blind people and others with special needs. Digital technology also could help multiply the selection of books for hardscrabble farmers in Oklahoma, or for residents of Newark, New Jersey, and other cities with underfunded neighborhood library branches. It likewise could drive down the costs of providing best-sellers as well of popularizing authoritative information on such matters as health and finance.

If nothing else, local libraries could tap into national collections to meet the precise needs of local people through standard Web capabilities such as hyperlinks.

Consider the public library system in Lorain, Ohio, as well as the fact that about 18 percent America’s Gross Domestic Product goes for healthcare costs. The Lorain library is out with a spiffy section on the home page promoting fitness books and DVDs for the New Year. We’re talking about a heavily ethnic town with more than 70 nationalities. Now, what if Lorainites could not just locate generic books on healthful cooking but also trustworthy guides to lower-calorie, lower-fat or lower-sodium variants of popular Puerto Rican, Polish, Hungarian (above photo shows a Hungarian paprika vendor in Budapest), Ukrainian and African-American recipes? And find out the good as well as the bad? Would you believe, the capsicum peppers used for paprika teem with more vitamin C per gram than is found in lemon juice.

Via links on the home page and elsewhere, Lorainites could speed to the actual e-books, articles and online videos—not just catalogs listing them. What more, a well-planned national digital library system could make it easier for local librarians to set up online forums and curated wikis for their patrons to swap recipe tips with their neighbors. Librarians and local patrons alike could link to specific pages within the national collection.

Those are only a few examples of the power of melding local and national. Just as local food-lovers swapped heart-healthy recipes with people nearby and far off, local entrepreneurs could benefit from library-facilitated connections—virtual and face to face—in keeping with public libraries’ potential as drivers of economic development. Also consider such possibilities as the preservation, discussion and dissemination of local history. In other ways, too, digital items like e-books can be far richer in possibilities than paper books and magazines. Writers and publishers can embed multimedia into books, for example, or links leading to related items—ideally aided by the permanence of well-funded digital libraries. No, I don’t want everything, especially novels, to be riddled with hyperlinks that I can’t turn off. But these days I cannot read many books without thinking, “What if I could instantly call up the full texts of the author’s sources or maybe even hear the music she was playing when she composed a certain passage?”

Of course, we have the World Wide Web, but links and content come and go. Even countermeasures, such as the Internet Archive’s fabulous Wayback machine and the Library of Congress’s Born Digital project and LOC’s valuable Tweet-preservation initiative, are far from a full solution. The more we rely on the library model, the more trustworthy and valuable the Internet will be—not just for academic purposes but also commercial ones. If Cengage can turn an extra buck with a history book linking reliably to source documents, I’m all for it.

Why talk of national digital libraries could be extra-timely now

National digital library talk could be extra-timely now, and not just because a local Texas library system is starting out digital from scratch, without any paper books. Also keep in mind the warm response of many to a Washington Post article saying the FCC wants to “create” what the article calls “super WiFi networks across the nation” for public use. Imagine: free WiFi from Uncle to help us conveniently download library e-books, among other items! But dream on. The federal government itself is not currently preparing to build such networks. Still, even without a direct library reference, the Post article was endlessly useful in raising the possibilities, if accidentally—remember who mainly paid for the construction of the Interstate Highway System, with economic and defense benefits in mind. What’s more, the FCC has in fact been working to grow the amount of spectrum space that people and organizations can use for WiFi for free and without licenses.

Here’s one of the many benefits even if the FCC’s proposals are far less ambitious than as described or at least implied in the Post. Local and state government agencies could more easily offer free WiFi service to citizens for general Internet use or for special purposes such as library ones. Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide could especially come out ahead, and via the National Digital Library Endowment proposed here, some of our richest citizens could at least help pay the WiFi-related costs. At the same time we could tackle associated issues beyond content and connectivity, such as training for librarians and patrons, as well as the right tablets and other hardware to encourage reading (this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation).

A tie-in with the Giving Pledge from Gates and Buffett—if they are open to the endowment idea?

A truly major digital library initiative would also jibe well with the Giving Pledge by Buffett, Gates and others to donate “the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death.” I am not expecting the majority of the promised billions to go for libraries. But I’d hope that pledge-makers would be open to the idea of meaningful donations to the National Digital Library Endowment during their lifetimes as well as the posthumous variety. While the Gates Foundation has aided libraries in the U.S. and abroad, it has done relatively little so far to grow the supply of library e-books despite a recent questionnaire offering some hope.

I can understand the concerns of Buffett, Gates and other prospective donors about e-books or about large donations to help public e-libraries pay for them. Unless Buffett is publicly shunning e-books to reinforce his image as The Billionaire Next Door, however, perhaps he can take a little time to acquaint himself with the technology.

Mr. Buffett, meet my sister, a retired schoolteacher.

Dorothy once feared digital books, before she discovered she could read more easily with E: she can blow up the words on her iPad screen. My wife feels the same way. If nothing else, regardless of personal reading preferences, Buffett should dispassionately view library needs just as he does stocks in analyzing them. Go by what Mr. Market says; I’ll supply statistics later in this essay to document the need and the demand.

As for the possible concerns of Bill Gates, he still chairs Microsoft, which has sunk hundreds of millions into Barnes & Noble, and he is accustomed to profiting off content of one kind of another, from software to the contents of the Corbis images service, which he owns entirely. In that sense Gates differs somewhat from Andrew Carnegie, who funded library buildings, but presumably never gave away steel. How to resolve this conflict? One way would be for Gates to disassociate himself, the Gates Foundation or both from content-related efforts entirely and turn the money over to others. But based on what I know of Gates from afar, I suspect that he wants at least indirect personal involvement. So how to be a Carnegie but still be Microsoft’s chair and do justice to shareholders? On the surface, this could be far more of a challenge for Gates than for Buffett to separate his own reading preferences from millions of other people’s.

Perhaps, however, some wisdom would be apropos from The Crack-Up, an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, one of Gates’s favorites:

"Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Now, how about some new context for this old wisdom? Maybe the same test also could apply to a willingness to look beyond the customary business models and even simultaneously promote others. A digitally enhanced public library system could vastly expand the demand for books and in the end actually help publishers and other content providers, not merely libraries and makers of e-book-friendly devices, including, yes, Microsoft’s new Surface tablets—not just Apple’s iPads or Amazon Kindles or Google-branded  tablets.

While Bill Gates will profit off text-related content by way of Microsoft’s investment in B&N if all goes as hoped, he has far more of a financial interest in variants of Windows and hardware that runs it. Ideally he’ll consider this in staking out his position in book-related copyright and library matters.

Gates might also keep in mind some sagacity from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, who, despite libertarian tendencies, has acknowledged the synergies from different business models working together: “I’m a diversitarian,” Bezos says in noting that governments have roles to play, not just nonprofits, individuals and corporations. As I’ll show here, well-financed national digital library systems combined with the private sector would be far, far more desirable than either the private or public approach alone. What’s more, just as gas taxes and other user fees have financed the Interstate Highway System, similar concepts could help make national digital library systems sustainable for the long run, no minor criterion for Bezos. So could the existence of a Carnegie-inspired National Digital Library Endowment, along with recognition of the economic benefits of national digital library systems for the public and even many corporations.

Please note that the Carnegie parallel here isn’t exact. He built libraries but expected others to supply the land and pay for their operation. In a digital era and especially with libraries facing so many financial uncertainties, life for them will be different. The idea of “ownership” diverges from that associated with physical books. As I’ll explain in detail later, an endowment would be one way to help guarantee perpetual access to books even if libraries paid per-use fees (yes, the ideal model from a strict library perspective would be full ownership or, better yet, no limits on use whatsoever—with rights holders paid in advance for removal of all sharing restrictions). Meanwhile remember that local libraries are spending money on paper books anyway, and that most or much of it could be diverted in time to the digital variety through fees paid to the national system.

How the endowment and related efforts could benefit publishing and society in general

Like Brian O'Leary, a Harvard MBA and well-respected publishing expert, I believe that the book world should worry less about dividing the pie through constant copyright wars between librarians and publishers and far more about growing revenues for both sides. One means to bring the latter about would be the creation of an informal Library-Publisher Complex, inspired by the Pentagon and its contractors—with a major difference: this one would be much more respectful of the American taxpayer and rely on private donations as well as public money.

Such a complex could be a far easier sell than the skeptics think. Fifty-eight percent of American adults own library cards, even if 48 percent of the owners of Nooks, Kindles and the like don’t know whether their libraries carry e-books. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “69 percent” of surveyed citizens “say that their local library is important to them and their family.” Use the national collections to empower local libraries, through cobranding and other techniques, besides ease of localization of content; and the Library-Publisher Complex will appeal in time to the hearts and minds of U.S. voters even if the process isn’t instant.

The public wouldn’t be the only winners. Writers, publishers and savvy retailers could benefit from “buy the book” links within library catalogs, just as they do now under the arrangement between Amazon and OverDrive, the largest supplier of library e-books; indeed, users could chose the stores with “buy” links customized for them in particular (including those to a librarian-run service). Given the decline of the bookstore chains in their brick-and-mortar incarnations, just imagine what this could mean in terms of replacement exposure.

Now, consider the chains’ electronic sides. People buying books from Amazon via library links might even enjoy small discounts on Kindles or other products, while those going for B&N’s books would benefit from the same on the company’s e-reading hardware. So it turns out that Microsoft’s B&N interests might not suffer so badly after all, especially if B&N adjusted its product priorities.

But it is the economic welfare of people, not corporations, that is foremost on my mind here. Gates’s father and Buffett have both spoken out against the jarring disparities in opportunities and incomes among Americans, and a Library-Publisher Complex could help both the public and publishers in that regard. According to an analyst from Sanford Bernstein, the lower 40 percent of Americans lack disposable incomes after paying for necessities. The national digital library model, with a focus not just on providing content but on encouraging the public to enjoy and absorb it, through family literacy programs, K-12-related efforts connections and otherwise, would fit in well. Just how many of these truly cash-strapped families will buy book after book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, at least without a concerted national strategy to make books count more in their lives?

No free lunch: Library should start their own e-book rental and purchase program (since affordability isn’t the only issue and even billionaires can’t pay for everything).

Mind you, the issues go beyond household income. The average wage-earning American household spends $2,572 annually for entertainment, but just $115 on books and other reading materials without textbooks included, according to recent Labor Department statistics. How to get people to spend more at the personal level rather than simply rely on library books, especially since even well-funded libraries can’t afford to offer all suitable books?

Well, as it happens, many borrowers become buyers.

Also, libraries could offer and adequately promote a rental and purchase program well integrated with library catalogs—services that subscribers could sign up for through federal and state tax check-offs and take advantage of the economies of scale. This and other library-related services could introduce billions into the publishing industry over the years because of easier discovery of promising books (aided by stable book-to-book hyperlinks, among other capabilities) and greater convenience of buying.

I’m all for private e-book-lending services and for publishers offering their own discovery capabilities both online and, in effect, through physical book stores. But library and commercial priorities can or at least should differ somewhat, especially in regard to which wares are featured.  Different business models are best for different kinds of content. Half of the top ten sellers on an Amazon list in 2012, combining both print and digital titles, were erotic romances; and a librarian-run rental and purchase service could help expand the range and appeal of good books without oppressively trying to turn masscult and midcult into high cult. Paying customers wouldn’t have to wait interminably to borrow bestsellers, at least those covered by the plan—they could in fact enjoy instant access.

Along the way, libraries purchase-or-rent service would help build the public’s interest in greater numbers of books being absolutely free to borrowers without such limitations as extra-short lending periods for the most popular books. Meanwhile low-income people could still enjoy access even if they had to wait longer for best-sellers, assuming they didn’t qualify for subsidies, which I’d hope that many would.

The appeal of “free”

But, yes, “free” is the ideal for libraries in general and their e-books in particular, just so content providers get paid fairly. Doubt its appeal? When asked, fifty-three percent of surveyed Americans “definitely” want “a broader selection of e-books” in public libraries, according to the Pew Foundation’s research. That means free books at the patron level if we’re speaking about the present. Furthermore, the percentage will most likely go only higher as the technology dramatically improves and the number of e-book-lovers climbs. Other Pew research shows a big rise in interest in e-books among U.S. readers who “read at least one book in the past 12 months.” The E-using percentage in the sample zoomed from 21 percent in December 2011 to 30 percent in November 2012, with the percentage now at a whopping 44 percent for book-readers earning more than $75,000 a year. For all readers 30-39 years of age, the percentage was 41 percent.

Hello, Mr. Buffett? Mr. Market is speaking. Eighty percent of respondents in the first Pew survey mentioned in the above paragraph considered the lending of books—not just E—to be “very important” for public libraries, the same percentage regarding librarian-related information services as important.

Libraries today vs. what they could be with help from a national endowment

So what does this all mean? Countless borrowers of library e-books will want access to more than dwarf-sized local collections. At the same time, a national digital public library system could actually strengthen local libraries since local librarians could still play up the material most relevant to their patrons and could buy content from outside the national system.

Alas, while the number of e-books offered by U.S. public libraries has tripled since 2003, the figures are still pathetic in size and outrageous in geographical differences. Check out the Fiscal Year 2010 statistics, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and you’ll find that the number of public library e-books ranged from 157.2 per 1,000 people in the Plains States to fewer than 20 per 1,000 in the Southwestern U.S. An earlier document from IMLS, offering state-by-state breakdowns for Fiscal Year 2009, showed that public libraries in Ohio were spending a mere $7.53 per capita on print and electronic content, the most of any state. The $7.53 was more than four times Mississippi’s $1.53 and many more times the respective 16 cents and 35 cents for the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. The national average for content that year was $4.41 per capita. Illustrating the potential of e-books to drive down costs per book, the $4.41 was just 12 percent of the $36.84 in “operating and collection expenditures of public libraries” per capita at a time where print still reigns supreme in the world of library budgets. With lower costs, E-books could make it easier to mitigate regional differences. Young people, families and others—especially those in rural areas ill-served by physical collections—mustn’t be penalized by geography. Hence the appeal of a national digital library endowment.

Adding to the “savage inequalities” of the present is the tendency of the rich to favor charitable causes benefiting the upper classes, as documented in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in a subscriber-only article headlined “Charities Suffer from a Wealth Gap, too.” Exactly! In the same publication, a writer takes aim at the rich for a number of other tendencies such as “giving to Harvard or any other large endowment” without the same urgent needs as less fashionable and less prestigious alternatives.

The rewards for the endowment’s donors—beyond tax breaks

A national digital library endowment, however, could conveniently package major donations at the national level but at the same time attend to community and grassroots needs. And just like Harvard, it also could provide the accompanying PR rewards—for example, public recognition of top donors in well-publicized ceremonies conducted by both the White House and members of Congress. Gates, Buffett and other business leaders shouldn’t strive to micromanage the library endowment. But they could serve on an advisory committee to elevate the endowment’s profile and strengthen its ties with other potential donors.

Collections in certain categories could be named after major donors with special interests in the various topics. Among the possibilities would be a Bill and Melinda Gates Technology Collection, or the Gates Collection of Popular 20th Century Classic American Literature. What’s more, librarians could serve up lists of specific books for possible support. Then, for example, instead of just acquiring rare editions of The Great Gatsby to stash away in his waterside mansion, Gates could buy the rights for the national digital systems or ideally even for the public domain and see himself mentioned in the e-book edition as donor. You can love or hate Microsoft’s cofounder. But regardless of how you feel—I myself have never hesitated to speak up against various business practices of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and others—bear in mind that he is in some ways positively angelic compared to the Andrew Carnegie as an industrialist.

The business and organizational models

Money for the National Digital Library Endowment could come overwhelmingly and perhaps almost entirely from private sources in the beginning, given the current budget fixations in Washington, even though I’d hope that the public percentage would increase over the years.

Some of the private donations might go for special purposes such as a possible buyout of OverDrive, as well as a burst of immediate collection development. But ideally most of the money would be perpetually invested in the spirit of a traditional endowment; in fact, this is more important in the digital era. Library budgets bob up and down. Correctly, librarians now feel threatened when publishers and others resist their efforts to truly own e-books and other digital content even within the limits of fair use (which in this case means one-patron-at-time use unless legal arrangements allow more). Adding to libraries’ challenges are such practices as publishers overpricing library e-books, putting caps on how many borrowers can see each purchased copy, or even holding books temporarily or permanently from library use. Pick your hassles. Random House commendably said libraries can own e-books, which will help if libraries switch to different aggregators of content. But then what about the prickly issue of RH’s present and future prices?

Steady streams of money from the National Digital Library Endowment, however, as well as greater bargaining power from national digital library systems, could help mitigate the uncertainty. At the same time, librarians also should remember that the demand for most library books shrinks within a few years of publication, and that plenty of libraries regularly cull their collections in the paper era of limited storage. Just how long will they care about offering their most ephemeral titles, anyway?

In return for libraries being more open to metering of E as opposed to full or almost-full ownership, publishers need to be less hawkish on the issue of copyright terms, now grotesquely lengthened by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. With a well-funded digital library endowment and hopefully shorter terms, libraries could more easily keep their non-owned e-books accessible to the public without their being yanked from collections for fiscal reasons. Significantly, publishers and writers, too, would come out ahead, with so many more billions available to the publishing world, even if endowment was far from able to pay for everything. The total net sales revenue of 1,977 reporting book-publishers, in the U.S. in 2011 was around $27 billion, according to an industry survey. While the figure is not necessarily complete and do not reflect full retail prices, it still shows how small the book business is—in a country with a Gross Domestic Product of more than $15 trillion. I see plenty of room for growth, then, given that American read so few books compared to what they could. Far, far better for the book publishers to expand this way than to keep beseeching Washington for increasingly restrictive copyright laws—the very stuff that drives away readers, especially when books have so much competition from other sources of entertainment.

The endowment could be either a nonprofit or a government agency: I can see arguments either way. A nongovernment nonprofit might draw more support from some government-hating business people than would a public agency. On the other hand, a government agency would better blend in with such organizations as the Institute of Museum and Library Services and state and local libraries.

How the endowment would coexist with existing agencies and institutions

Staff could be small no matter what the digital library endowment’s business model. The heaviest lifting would be done by recipients of money from the endowment—for example, the public and academic library systems and a shared technical services organization, as well as IMLS, which would continue its current grants to libraries. In various ways, the Library of Congress might benefit as well (even though its main mission is to serve Congress rather than the population at large). Same for the National Archives and Records Administration, and museums and other cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, just so the main focus of the digital library endowment was on libraries. Agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities would still be free to make library-related grants. A major beneficiary of the digital library endowment might be the nonprofit, Harvard-based Digital Public Library of America (along with its potential contractors ranging from Amazon and Google to the Internet Archive and Haithi Trust).

This above is one option. Anther might be to let IMLS alone determine where the endowment money went—the organization is already accustomed to juggling the needs of competing recipients.

Why the endowment should nudge the DPLA toward a two-system model

In awarding money to the DPLA, the National Digital Library Endowment ideally would encourage the organization to aim for a dual-system approach. One national digital library system, as noted, would be public; the other, academic. With this strategy, a higher than otherwise fraction of resources could truly go for the needs of schoolchildren and others in general population; we mustn’t let the digital divide issue, preschool education, family literacy and others concerns of the nonelite fall between the cracks. Let’s remember that charity gap. For more on the two-system approach and the divide, go here.

The above, the call for separate public and academic digital systems, is no small detail if the National Digital Library Endowment is to get its money’s worth. The DPLA, as one of its founders has wisely observed, can’t be everything to everyone. And, yes, this issue is worthy of public interest; for the organization has attracted luminaries from the library world such as Susan Hildreth, director of IMLS, and it has even held meetings at the National Archives, presided over by David Ferriero, the national archivist. You might even consider the DPLA to be an informal think tank on library issues for the Obama Administration. That actually has its positives. Once annoyingly secretive in some respects, the DPLA has opened up its meetings and improved in many other ways. But consider one example of the DPLA’s continuing need for the greater focus that two systems would allow.

In School Library Journal, DPLA leader John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor who switched careers to become head of school at Phillips Academy Andover, addressed the K-12 angle. I very much like his commentary telling how the library organization could help underfunded school libraries. Let’s hope that the DPLA and related efforts can in fact live up to their potential here, but that Palfrey and colleagues also remember that school libraries and other K-12-specific efforts are no substitutes for preschool education and family literacy programs and others to promote learning and reading beyond the school walls or even beyond summer reading initiatives. A two-system approach, with teachers and public librarians setting the tone for the national public system and playing up the family approach, would help Peoria and Muskogee more than would a public-academic system likely to be dominated immediately or later by the academic and economic elites. What’s more, compared to academic librarians, public librarians would be more responsive to the needs of people without school or other institutional affiliations.

Far from being hostile to the academics, I want much more material from universities and colleges to be available to the public at large, through open access business models and otherwise; and in many other ways, too, such as some overlapping board memberships and a common technical services organization, the two systems should be intertwined. Let’s invigorate our public library collections with the facts and thoughts from campuses. But must we pit the acquisition and popularization of John Grisham novels against purchases and other expenses associated with scholarly monographs, especially when public libraries exist to please taxpayers and academic libraries are for such purposes as the growth and spread of knowledge, as well as cultural preservation? Also, a public system could focus on domestic needs, while an academic one was more internationally oriented in content and other ways. Two systems, then, please—if we don’t want to upscale our public libraries to the disadvantage of the American poor and even our middle class.

Granted, I see the paradox: asking for money from billionaires but hoping that the results on the public side will be small-d democratic. Somehow, though, perhaps in part because Carnegie was self-made, he and the public library world managed to work together for the good of society at large. Ideally such an example can inspire Gates, Buffett and others even if they didn’t start out their careers in a bobbin factory.

More on the need for a digital library endowment

First off, a major caveat: let’s not to play down the importance of brick-and-mortar libraries. I’d worry if, say, the percentage spent on content reached 75 percent rather than the current, much smaller proportion; local librarians offer their share of services as in-person explainers, popularizers and social workers, and that should continue even if the National Digital Library Endowment pays for a 24/7 national reference service to augment local ones. Via IMLS and otherwise, the endowment could help support such activities as family literacy and the use of paper books to help popularize reading of all kinds, including the electronic variety. For reasons of nostalgia and out of respect for history, I myself can still appreciate the paper books even if, for me and many others, well-displayed e-books are easier to read.

Just the same, the future of library books and other content will be overwhelmingly digital. Someday, for example, public libraries may even offer such items as unencumbered files to serve as templates for the design of new products—prototyped through 3D printers. With local libraries providing both knowledge and ways for young entrepreneurs to collaborate online and in person, whether or not they were enrolled in academic institutions, consider the potential for new creation of wealth. Aided by the rise of 3D printing and also robotics eventually, innovations in the most unlikely industries may come from small startups born in garages, some of them in small towns. A digital endowment approach could help our ubiquitous public libraries make those opportunities a standard part of American life, just as the Gates Foundation did with computers in so laudably helping our libraries “wire up”; and all this would certainly honor the Carnegie vision of libraries as tools for self-improvement.

William F. Buckley, Jr., in fact, my political opposite, invoked Carnegie’s name in the 1990s in calling for a national digital library system in the spirit of my TeleRead proposal as it existed then. If Buffett, Gates and others can be 21st-century Carnegies by way of a National Digital Library Endowment—with help ultimately from a Library-Publisher Complex—maybe America can finally catch up with WFB regardless of so many politicians’ current antipathy toward new government programs.

“I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions,” Gates has been quoted, “they will be moved to act.” In a national digital library context, here’s a chance for him and likeminded business people to prove it.

Addendum, Feb. 25: Let me emphasize that there should be no minimum requirement of personal wealth or income for donors to the endowment or institutions associated with it, and also that nonbillionaires should be able to serve on the advisory committee.

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5 Comments

on “A national digital library endowment: How America’s billionaires could be modern Carnegies for real
5 Comments on “A national digital library endowment: How America’s billionaires could be modern Carnegies for real
  1. Pingback: Reading about eReading this week 2/18/2013 « Allegany County Library System Director's Notes

  2. Generally, a great proposal, but here are some practical issues which pop up in my mind.

    First, if everything is centralized, when I put a hot book on hold, does that mean there may be 48,000 people in line ahead of me?

    Second, I think local boards would resent that it’s no longer as easy to pressure the library not to buy certain titles. On the surface that sounds good, but it might also mean that only large interest groups could have enough clout to get things done. A foundation does not have to be democratic.

    Third, there needs to be an easy way for indie-publishers to get into this catalog. (On the flip side: that means probably a lot more x-rated material in the catalog — smashwords has a lot of it).

    Would purchased licenses be permanent or limited in duration? If limited, couldn’t Bill Gates just decide not to renew Bill Oreilly or Glen Beck books or only buy 1 or 2 copies — insufficient to meet demand? (Obviously, in my dream world, this would be great, but these are just examples of possible censorship).

    Would a centralized library not run by the private sector be dedicated to platform independence? How could we be sure? What if a foundation — more for practical reasons than evil ones — decided it will only support the ipad and Kindle platform? Yes, economies of scale might make it easier to code more platforms and that might be better than what Overdrive does today. But at least there’s a small amount of competition in this space to make ebook management systems like Overdrive eager to cover a significant number of platforms?

  3. Hi, Robert. Some quick replies…

    1. I envision a variety of business models in use, but if nothing else, libraries could buy multiple e-copies (or at least “copies” as they would exist for accounting purposes) of popular e-books, just as they can now under arrangements with OverDrive and other vendors. Furthermore, remember that as one of the models, I am calling for a library-optimized-and-integrated paid subscription plan similar to Netflix – great for library patrons who wanted to bypass the waiting periods. People could sign up via check boxes on their tax forms. The plan’s economies of scale could be huge.

    2. Local libraries would still be free to buy e-books independently, rather than rely entirely on national collections, so there would still be local autonomy. I myself am more interested in an inclusive approach and take it for granted that many books I dislike will end up in both local and national collections. I want public librarians, or those accoutable them, to select the books (let them figure out answers to the indie and porn issues – although obviously a library-oriented, QC-heavily approach would be terrific for the better indies). Bill Gates could chose titles from librarian-approved lists.

    3. As noted, I favor a variety of business models. I can see the positives of libraries being able to “own” books to the maximum extent possible for one-patron-at-a-time-per-copy access, but I can also see possibilities for straight per-use payment. Under the endowment approach, libraries would have a steady source of revenue to augment existing sources – one way to help keep the titles available.

    4. Remember, there is a difference between “run by the private sector” and “partly financed by the private sector.” As for platforms (I myself would rather distinguish between that term and “format”), the public and academic systems should share a common one rich in APIs that anyone could use, so that even Amazon and Google could build content from the library systems into their catalogs. And as for formats, I would favor a focus on ePub and other industry standards, with some obvious exceptions to accommodate popular proprietary formats such as those for the Kindle. Of course, in the format department, it wouldn’t hurt for Amazon to join the rest of the world.

    Thanks,
    David

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