A to-do for the American Library Association and local and state governments: Resolutions calling for a National Digital Library Endowment

alascreenshotAnd now—a to-do for the American Library Association, meeting in Chicago on June 27 through July 2.

How about an Internet-smart resolution to help deal with the horrific underfunding of both public and academic libraries? Either formally call for a National Digital Library Endowment—funded by the super rich—or at least set the wheels in motion for future action.

Budget-strapped local and state governments should pass their own resolutions, and if other library groups can, too, then so much the better. Washington and the philanthropic community won’t necessarily oblige, but if nothing else, such resolutions will draw media attention. They will also remind the image-conscious super rich and the foundation establishment of their civic responsibilities at a time when so many local and state governments have been forced to slash library and school budgets.

Ahead is an FAQ refined and expanded from one written for LISNews, a librarian-oriented Web site. The FAQ includes suggested wording for an ALA resolution. Exact language at this point is less important than simply getting the basic endowment concept on the agendas of the rich, their foundations, and top Washington policymakers.

Q. Give me half a dozen talking points.

A. First, the endowment will focus on receptive super-rich donors. Second, it will raise money for e-books and other digital items and for more librarians to help people benefit from the items—whether they are K-12 students or Ph.D.s. Third, it will help libraries address related digital divide issues, such as the availability of book-friendly hardware and the acquisition of the knowledge to use it. Four, it will strengthen, not replace, local and state libraries. Fifth, the idea isn’t to do away with all paper books. Sixth, the endowment could be a nonprofit or government agency, although the latter would be more open and more responsive to mass needs.

Q. Why a national endowment?

A. U.S. public libraries now spend roughly $1.3 billion a year on books and other content in all formats, around 12 percent of operating expenditures, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Impressive? Hardly. The figure in the 2010 fiscal year was a mere $1.42 per capita in Mississippi and nationally just $4.22. Library sales are approximately 5 percent of those of U.S. book publishers, the Economist reports; and this small percent reduces librarians’ negotiating power with large publishers.

Of course, the proposed endowment and related activities would still benefit publishers as well, by increasing the total size of the pie. This needn’t and shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. The average U.S. wage earning household spends more than $2,500 on entertainment, of which only about $115 a year goes for books and other reading, excluding textbooks, according to Labor Department statistics. Simply put, the status quo isn’t that great for writers and publishers, and via the endowment and other means, the library model could help.

Q. Why should the endowment focus on e-books and other digital content?

A. Among other advantages, this would allow easier sharing of resources at a national level—while still compensating publishers fairly. Not to mention other possibilities such as reliable interbook links, extensive annotations, and truly permanent archiving at many locations, for safety’s sake. Librarians and contractors answerable to them should curate annotations and other user content.

E-books can efficiently help libraries honor S. R. Ranganathan’s classic Five Laws of Library Science–such as “Books are for use” and “Every reader his book” (or her book). Even academic libraries at well-off universities have limited resources. As for the typical U.S. public library branch, it carries just a fraction of Amazon's millions of electronic and paper titles.

At least indirectly, the endowment would free up money for possible spending on paper books at the local and state levels while still responding to readers’ burgeoning interest in e-books. Individual library systems could still buy paper or e-books themselves and budget to reflect local and state priorities. If a system wanted to spend money just on paper books, it would at least be able to take advantage of digital public domain content and of copyrighted content for which the endowment paid. If, on the other hand, local citizens were enthusiastic e-book readers, then the system could pay extra for such services as faster access to bestsellers. So could individuals.

Q. How would the plan work?

A. The new endowment, as noted, could be either a nonprofit or government agency. The endowment could focus on raising the money, while the existing Institute of Museum and Library Services dealt with challenges of distributing it amid institutional rivalries. Better to separate the raising of the money from the spending. Librarians mustn’t let the wealthy micromanage them, even though librarians certainly should listen to good ideas from anyone, whether Bill Gates or a book-loving janitor.

As for donors, the endowment would aim for donations from the super rich, a good way to reduce the overlap with typical local efforts. People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison could win formal and well-publicized recognition from Congress and the White House for being modern Carnegies in spirit. Gates has been a godsend in certain ways to the library world and deserves applause for his work against AIDS, malaria, and other killers. But today the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends just a speck of its money on libraries despite all the past publicity hailing Gates as a second Carnegie. The foundation’s 2010 annual report shows almost two and a half billion in grants of all kinds, but directly mentions only about $23 million for “Global Libraries” (some domestic ones included?) and $14 million under the “United States program.” Ideally Gates and colleagues will increase their library-related donations but also recognize the need for others to take a more active role in raising and distribution library-related money.

Here’s a chance to invoke Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth and appeal to the signers of the Gates-and-Buffett-promoted Giving Pledge, who have agreed to donate at least half of their wealth to philanthropy during or after their lifetimes.

Q. What if the rich won’t give to the endowment?

A. A small endowment is better than none, and besides, if the endowment failed, this would reinforce the argument for more tax money for libraries.

Q. Is this a total solution to libraries’ funding challenges?

A. Absolutely not. Tax money will still be welcome if/when the public sentiment is there. The LibraryCity plan also calls for other revenue streams, such as a low-cost, high-volume subscription service that people could join through tax-form check-offs and otherwise—with breaks for low-income Americans.

Q. Would the publishers participate?

A. Large publishers might be holdouts at first, but many small ones would leap at the chance to participate in the subscription service and grow with libraries' help. Libraries in California, Colorado and elsewhere are starting to experiment with direct dealing with receptive publishers rather than just relying on middle people and thinking they owe them a markup. The big boys will probably come aboard in time. They’ll go wherever the money is.

As pros at this, librarians could maintain quality control and highlight the better titles from publishers of all sizes. Local and state librarians could link directly to national content (their autonomy is essential, and nothing here would prevent local libraries from buying their own titles in any medium).

Nonsubscribers could still have access to most everything. They would simply have to wait longer for the most popular items from two separate but very tightly intertwined national digital library systems, one public, one academic, both focused on their typical users. That is LibraryCity’s vision, at least. A counter vision from some prominent participants in the Digital Public Library of America is for only one system to exist.

Q. What’s LibraryCity?

A. A public interest site. An ex-poverty beat reporter and creator of the TeleRead e-book site, I cofounded LibraryCity with Tom Peters, now dean of library services at Missouri State University, at his suggestion.

Q. Where can I find the original proposal?

A. http://librarycity.org/?p=6800, with a longer FAQ at http://librarycity.org/?p=6933. A related item on the Atlantic's site is at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/infrastructure-watch-buffett-as-the-next-carnegie/273263/.

Q. How can I help?

A. Librarians could refine the plan with a community FAQ. Meanwhile letters to Congress members would help create interest in the endowment concept. Document the need with local specifics, and share copies with us.

Also ask your local library board and/or city council to pass a brief resolution supporting the general concept of the endowment.

The wording might be somewhat like the one I’ll suggest as a starting point for the ALA:

WHEREAS, America’s libraries promote literacy and learning, and for many millions they are essential sources of content and related services for self-improvement, for coping with medical and financial challenges and others, and for recreation; and

WHEREAS, public libraries are vastly underfunded, with only about $4.22 spent per capita on e-books and other content, and far less in many localities; and

WHEREAS, our academic libraries face their own financial challenges, especially from the rising costs of serials; and

WHEREAS libraries of all kinds must supply both paper and electronic content, adding to their expenses; and

WHEREAS, the hiring of school librarians and the Internet-oriented professional development of all librarians and teachers are especially in need of greater support; and

WHEREAS, we need long-term support for permanent archiving of books, other texts, multimedia, and other digital content; and

WHEREAS, one way to help facilitate all of the above would be to create a national digital library endowment financed initially for the most part not from tax money but from strictly voluntary philanthropic donations—not a full solution but a considerable help; and

WHEREAS, billion of dollars in potential donations are available from ultra-rich Americans, just a few of whom control more wealth than tens of millions of their fellow citizens; and

WHEREAS, this universe of possible donors should be targeted in particular, so as not to compete with local library endowments and Friends efforts;

WHEREAS, the endowment in fact could help local fund-raising efforts increase their online presence and general effectiveness; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, that the American Library Association supports the creation of a government or nonprofit national digital endowment that would finance either one national digital library system or two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems (one public, one academic, both universally accessible and sharing a joint catalogue, but focused on the needs of their respective user communities).

Note: For more details, see a longer FAQ at http://librarycity.org/?p=6933. Suggestions of all kinds welcomed! LibraryCity’s email is info@librarycity.org. Please note that post is a “first edition” and is subject to further revisions, some of them perhaps major, especially in the wording of the proposed resolution.

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