MacKenzie Bezos can do whatever she wants with the $35 billion of Amazon stock from her divorce. But here’s a friendly suggestion for an accomplished novelist who, in signing the nonbinding Giving Pledge, has talked of the “excitement of the kids in the school we send books to”: dream big. Work with others toward a multidonor national library endowment.
Such an endowment could promote books and knowledge and elevate the quality of American life in general. Prospective donors could meet to create the endowment, ideally in collaboration with librarians, publishers, writers, K–12 educators, academics, knowledgeable advocates for the poor, and other stakeholders.
The need for a national library endowment is dire. All library foundations totaled only $2.5 billion in 2014, according to a Wilmington Trust study. Harvard’s endowment alone is about $40 billion today. The “savage inequalities” of America’s public libraries (85% locally paid for) are worse than those of our K–12 schools (45%). Thousands of certified K–12 librarians have been laid off in recent years, despite extensive research showing that they boost academic achievement. And U.S. public libraries can spend, on average, only about $4 per capita on books and other content. Significantly, recreational reading can improve students’ test scores.
The endowment should not replace local, state, or federal tax money, but it could help. Here are some possible focuses:
1. Providing aid for the most cash-strapped libraries in areas without adequate tax and donor bases. Emphasize basics such as family and adult literacy—and emphasize libraries as coping tools for financial, health, domestic, and other woes. ProLiteracy says that more than 36 million American adults can’t read above a third grade level. Low health literacy, a cousin of the traditional kind, may cost more than $600 billion annually, according to research summarized in Pharmacy Times. Poor readers may mangle doctors’ instructions or those on pill bottles.
2. The creation of two well-stocked national digital library systems: one public/K–12, one academic—separate but intertwined to avoid waste. The missions of public and academic libraries overlap yet differ. Public libraries need bestsellers and other popular offerings to retain local taxpayer support, for example, while academic libraries place more value on scholarly publications and databases. One risk of a single national system is that shortsighted academics or like-minded allies might eventually end up in charge and stint on popular-level essentials. A common digital catalogue could allow sophisticated users to search both systems at once.
3. The promotion of books and libraries in person and in both old and new media. A police series on television, for example, could contain a public service announcement directing viewers to local libraries to check out crime novels and mix with other fans. The PSAs could talk up individual books (print and digital editions).
4. The recruitment, education, and training of librarians from minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds. One count from about a decade ago found 563 male and 5,597 female African-American librarians out of more than 114,227 credentialed librarians, and the numbers are still abysmal today. More role models would help—especially librarians sharing common interests in areas such as sports. The endowment could help the poorest communities pay salaries appealing to bright strivers from minority and low-income backgrounds.
How big should the endowment be, given that the 400 richest Americans were together worth almost $3 trillion in October 2018, according to Forbes? A realistic goal would be $20 billion raised within five years, allowing $1 billion plus to be spent annually. A multidonor approach would let philanthropists still pursue their own priorities outside the library world. Granted, many want to “spend down” their fortunes in their lifetimes. But an endowment is different. Library needs are not closed-ended like those of projects to eradicate malaria; rather, they are ongoing and not met wholly through tax money—hence the attractiveness of an appropriately used endowment model.
Jim Duncan is executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, serving hundreds of libraries and schools (opinions here are his own). David H. Rothman, a former poverty beat reporter, is a cofounder of libraryendowment.org.