A quick look at the National Digital Library Endowment Plan from LibraryCity.org

Note: For more details, see a longer FAQ at http://librarycity.org/?p=6933. David Rothman's email is davidrothman@librarycity.org.

Q. Why a national digital library 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. The figure in the 2010 fiscal year was $1.42 per capita in Mississippi and nationally just $4.22. As reported by the Economist, library sales are approximately 5 percent of those of U.S. book publishers (no wonder the ALA can get only so far in talks with the big publishing conglomerates).

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

A. Costs and greater ease of sharing resources at a national level--while still compensating publishers fairly. Not to mention other possibilities such as reliable interbook links and extensive annotations. Librarians should curate annotations and other user content. The Amazon buyout of Goodreads is an example of the perils of libraries NOT updating their mission.

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 4,350 books, a fraction of Amazon's more than 1.7 million, according to the Economist.

The endowment would at least indirectly free up a bit more money for possible spending on paper books at the local level while still responding to readers’ burgeoning interest in e-books.

Q. How would the plan work?

A. The new endowment could be either a nonprofit or government agency (I favor the latter). 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. Don’t let the wealthy micromanage the library world, even though librarians certainly should listen to good ideas from anyone, whether Bill Gates or a book-loving janitor.

As donors, the endowment would focus on the super rich, a good way to reduce the overlap with typical local efforts. People like 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, but currently isn't financing zillions of e-books for public libraries even though he could afford it.

Here’s a chance to spotlight 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 still welcome. 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 checkoffs (with breaks for low-income people).

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. The big boys would probably come aboard in time.

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).

Nonsubscribers could still have access to everything. They would simply have to wait longer for some of the more popular items from two separate but very tightly intertwined national digital library systems, one public, one academic.

Q, Why two national digital library systems financed by the endowment?

A. As I’ve written at LibraryJournal.com, the needs of typical patrons of public and academic libraries are rather different. Academics as a rule don't care as much about library-related digital divide issues for the masses, which the public system would help address.

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. A related item on the Atlantic's site is at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/infrastructure-watch-buffett-as-the-next....

Q. How can I help?

A. Librarians could refine the plan with a community FAQ. Meanwhile letters to Congress members would help---encourage them to contact IMLS and the White House, and document the need with local specifics. CC davidrothman@librarycity.org.

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