June 04, 2014

The Rich Could Tackle Many Social Ills by Supporting a National Digital-Library Endowment

Here’s a not-so-modest proposal for the 400 richest Americans (together worth over $2-trillion, or more than the entire bottom half of our population).

Work toward a national digital library endowment to modernize Andrew Carnegie’s vision of giving the brightest the tools to rise to the top.

Carnegie asked cities and towns to pay for the upkeep and other continuing needs of the libraries he financed, but today’s America is different. Local governments have cut back. A permanent revenue stream from a national endowment could at least help libraries cope with continuing costs ranging from e-books to salaries.

Civic-minded billionaires could get the endowment rolling with a goal of $10-billion to $20-billion for the first five years. The endowment could also help local libraries start Kickstarter-style campaigns through which local donors could send money to their favorite local library projects. The money raised would be crucial to improving school and public libraries—and the reading and math skills of America’s students. Much of the money could go to hire and train librarians, family literacy workers, and others, especially in the very poorest areas.

The endowment could also help pay to narrow the digital divide. Imagine the chance to upgrade Wi-Fi in libraries and other places where the poor and middle class—and, yes, library lovers among the well-to-do—want to read and maybe even connect in person.

Our libraries, in addition, would be able to lend more e-book-capable gadgets, now selling for a fraction of previous costs. In some cases they could even give them away to low-income people who had shown a special eagerness to benefit from library services and others, including job-hunting sites.

Libraries could also promote e-book use among Americans with cellphones. Most young people own e-book-capable devices without even knowing it or knowing what apps to use.

The extra money for content to feed the devices would be a godsend for libraries, affording them more bargaining power with publishers, who would also win through an expanded library market.

Our status quo is a disgrace. America’s public libraries in fiscal year 2011 spent only $4.09 per capita on print and electronic content. Libraries in Mississippi spent $1.42. Should young people in unlucky locations—including students with the brains and drive to become wealth-creators on the scale of Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos—suffer so grievously due to geography? U.S. public libraries spent just $1.23-billion to buy books, journals, and other content in the 2011 fiscal year, less than anyone on the Forbes 400 has in assets.

Alas, America’s richest man, Bill Gates, is stepping in the opposite direction. His foundation announced this month that it would wind down its Global Libraries program in three to five years. The libraries program is disbursing just tens of millions annually in grants to libraries in the United States and elsewhere, a speck of the foundation’s total of several billion a year. But the program is an important one, and that decision points to the increasingly dire need of libraries for more money from other philanthropy.

With Global Libraries on the way out, Mr. Gates should speak up for an effort to reinvent big-time library philanthropy by spreading the idea of online reading.

It’s not the cost savings—such as no need for physical storage of e-books—that will win the day. What should persuade philanthropists who care about education, health, and other matters is the well-documented power of reading.

U.K. researchers have linked recreational reading and cognitive development. University of London academics have found that the benefits from heavy reading were four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree. Even math scores go up when children love books.

“Perhaps surprisingly,” a study summary said, “reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 15 than their parents’ level of education.”

Alice Sullivan, coauthor of the British study, says that “new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers, and it is important that government policies support and encourage children’s reading, particularly in their teenage years.”

Beyond improving the schools, plenty of other benefits would accrue from a digital library endowment. Better-read people with easier access to authoritative medical information are more likely to take their pills regularly and otherwise follow their doctors’ instructions, saving billions over the years in health-care costs.

Consider, too, the millions of baby boomers on the verge of old age and a future in which their mobility and access to physical libraries may suffer. Reading can slow mental decline.

Also, sight-impaired readers of any age can blow up e-book type. And people with dyslexia can optimize type styles and colors or listen to text to speech (likewise helpful to exercisers and commuters).

Other benefits would abound. Books can even help fight crime, and not just by helping low-income people become more literate and more employable. In localities such as Fairfax County, Va., librarians have lowered the recidivism rate among offenders by using literature to gain self-knowledge and build empathy. Imagine the potential of e-books to augment skimpy prison libraries.

Also, the endowment could help multiply the low number of children’s books for racial and ethnic minorities—the majority of newborns in the U.S.

The organization that would oversee a digital endowment’s assets should be a public agency so it’s responsive and transparent. When the nation’s finances get better, some tax money should be added to the private contributions that got the endowment started. To experiment with minimal bureaucracy, it could start as a nonprofit rather than a government agency. Billionaires could be valued advisers, honored in well-publicized ceremonies, but library and business professionals should run the endowment in both incarnations and help establish separate but intertwined public and academic digital-library systems.

Even if Mr. Gates won’t take an interest, maybe Warren Buffett’s daughter can convince her father to talk up and help finance the digital-library endowment. Susan Alice (Susie) Buffett already donates to Omaha public schools and early childhood education; now let’s hope she’ll appreciate the endowment idea’s huge elementary and secondary and family-literacy potential.

Moreover, how about the 100 philanthropy-minded heirs who attended a White House gathering in late March?

Jamie Johnson, the filmmaker and pharmaceutical heir, attended. The Obama administration, as he reported in the New York Times, sought to “find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.”

A national digital library endowment would mean a chance for the heirs and their parents to stand on that “common ground” and be new-style Carnegies in the iPad-and-Nexus era.

David H. Rothman is a former poverty-beat reporter for the Journal newspaper in Lorain, Ohio, and runs LibraryCity, a site that advocates spreading digital libraries. The Baltimore Sun published an earlier version of this essay.