LibraryCity inspired mentions on the Atlantic Magazine’s Web site and elsewhere with a call for a national digital library endowment for the United States. Endowment funds would come entirely or almost entirely from philanthropists, in the beginning at least, given the hostility of so many politicians toward new programs. The endowment would be just one source of library funding, but it could make a huge difference.
Ahead is a follow-up, an informal FAQ, to which you can speed instantly; and LibraryCity will welcome your own questions, suggested answers, and other ideas via email or the comments area.
But first some background for newcomers to these issues. Who says American schools are the only settings for “savage inequalities”? Mississippi spent just $1.42 per capita on public library books and other content in fiscal year 2010, according a report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS; and Illinois, the champion, came in at a still-less-than-stunning $7.79. Libraries in my own state, Virginia, birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, far more of a friend of books and libraries than are most of today’s politicians, weighed in at $3.77 per capita. The Old Dominion at least exceeded the minuscule 57 cents in the territory of Guam for that year and the 16 cents in FY 2009. Alas, the newer IMLS report failed to mention Puerto Rico. But the FY 2009 figure from the agency was 35 cents. The per-capita annual spending listed for the U.S. for FY 2010 was $4.22. While inexact, the numbers are close enough. All in all, a paltry $1.257 billion was for content, approximately the $1.3-billion cost of just one terrorist-friendly complex for the Department of Defense. Pathetic.
Put another way, only 11.7 percent of U.S. public libraries’ $10.77 billion in operating expenditures went for paper books, e-books and other content in FY 2010. Just 12.4 percent of the collection spending was for digital media of all kinds. In part, librarians were reacting to pricing discrimination against libraries, refusals to sell e-books for lending, and other hassles from misguided publishers. It’s time for corrective laws, not just more money. I’m especially appalled by contractual restrictions, at the expense of fair use, on libraries’ deployment of dedicated e-readers. Whatever the reasons for the 12.4 percent, E is still a long way from P in the world of library budgets compared even to existing demand—which will grow in the future.
Libraries vs. defense waste?
Sooner or later, anti-library forces are bound to glom on the percentages and yank the numbers out of context. How to stay ahead of them?
Far more importantly, how can America’s approximately 9,000 public library systems better serve patrons and do their part to update “the collapsing U.S. infrastructure,” as The Atlantic’s James Fallows has aptly described it? Talk about threats to national security! Ironically, the military itself will suffer, from ill-prepared recruits, if we don’t modernize our schools and libraries—not just to function in traditional ways but also promote new technologies such as 3D printing.
Early reaction to the plan
LibraryCity’s 5,500-word endowment proposal did not just vanish into the ether. On the Atlantic Monthly site, Jim Fallows ran an excerpt with an enthusiastic introduction. Sabrina I. Pacifici’s award-winning LLRX library journal published the full version and promoted the article on its e-mail list. The 5,500 words also made the TeleRead e-book site. Library blogs at the University of North Carolina and Walden University discussed the plan (here and here) and responded in open-minded ways (here and here; scroll down for the comments in the second “here”) to my replies (here and here; scroll down again).
“I really think it’s a wonderful concept,” the Carolina blogger wrote after I addressed her immediate concerns, “and wish you the best of luck with it.” By way of disclosure, I’m a Tar Heel alum, though not of the library school, and she didn’t know this when the plan caught her eye.
START OF FAQ
(LISNews readers: Welcome to LibraryCity.org! Many thanks to Bibliofuture for the link on March 27 to the beginning of the FAQ itself. But best to read this post from the start to understand the need for the endowment. The introduction includes links to must-see IMLS statistics and to mentions of the endowment plan elsewhere, including the Atlantic’s site, which published a shorter version. – David Rothman. Update, 12:42 p.m., March 27: LISNews fixed the link as soon as I alerted it. Thanks, Blake!)
Even at thousands of words, the proposal could not answer every question, and in the interest of both clarification and refinement of the plan, I’ll welcome queries and suggestions from librarians and others—either by email or in the comment area of this post.
Meanwhile, in response to the early reactions, here are FAQ-style questions and replies along with new ones intended help advance the dialogue. This FAQ is not comprehensive; rather, a start.
I’d love to see librarians take it over and wikify it and otherwise make this a truly collaborative project, dropping my personal references.
On the more ticklish matters, the wiki could lay out the options and include links to forum-style discussion. We can’t separate discussion of the endowment from the controversial question of how to spend the money. Among the disagreements here is whether we need separate national digital library systems for academic and public libraries—genuine systems, plural, not just a “one big tent approach” or helter-skelter procurement arrangements with contractors.
Another issue is the extent to which national library systems should simply aggregate content from other collections, as opposed to storing e-books, multimedia and other items on the systems’ own servers, too—the best way to guarantee perpetual access.
While librarians, not donors, should run the system or systems, successful business people will insist on sufficient details on the matters above and others before committing their money.
If a wiki is not possible to discuss the detail, how about at least some forums on various points in the FAQ below, as well as on other matters?
With more material at hand, supporters of the idea could turn out shorter documents and more successfully lobby policymakers and make their cases with potential donors to the endowments.
Now—on with the questions and answers reflecting my personal viewpoint:
1. How would local librarians—and even publishers—come out ahead?
2. Couldn’t this plan jeopardize the autonomy of state and local libraries and in time even subsume them?
3. But might not the national endowment at least drain away donations to local libraries?
4. How could the endowment organization actually help local fund-raising efforts?
5. Why wouldn’t the endowment reduce voters’ interest in more tax dollars for local libraries?
6. What about the risks of libraries pandering to billionaires at the cost of the local institutions’ independence?
7. Will the billionaires really give, and if not, what should we do?
8. Even with their cooperation, would the endowment by itself be enough to finance e-books and other content?
9. What about other financial and organizational details? For example, arrangements for payments of individual items from writers and publishers? And why this repeated call for separate public and academic systems?
10. Should the endowment be a public agency or a nonprofit?
11. Exactly how would the endowment fit in with Institute of Museum and Library Services and nonprofits such as the Digital Public Library of America and the Internet Archive?
12. How could endowment-promoted technology facilitate sharing of library resources for greater efficacy and efficiency?
13. Could the endowment help finance the popularization of breakthroughs like low-cost 3D printing?
14. Why should I wade through the original proposal and the present FAQ? Never heard of LibraryCity.
1. HOW WOULD LOCAL LIBRARIANS—AND EVEN PUBLISHERS—COME OUT AHEAD?
Q. I’m a librarian. I don’t care what you’ve said in your introduction; what about my job? You want e-books to replace the kind I recommend to patrons face to face. Some benefits!
A. The real danger to you is in not having well-stocked national digital library systems integrated with local schools and libraries. Two words. Amazon. Google.