I’ve knocked Donald Trump again and again, deservedly. But yesterday he gave a speech with a lesson well worth imparting—on the perils of thinking small.
“Americans are the people that tamed the West, that dug out the Panama Canal, that sent satellites across the solar system, that built the great dams, and so much more.
“Then we started thinking small.
“We stopped believing in what America could do, and became reliant on other countries, other people, and other institutions.”
I loathe Trump’s sleazy ways, xenophobia and other bigotry, and I believe in foreign aid and free trade (albeit with far more protection than U.S. workers enjoy today). Still, Trump is on the money in his warning against thinking small.
As I observed on the LibraryCity site, the investment portfolios of U.S. public libraries total no more than several billion, a speck in the grand scheme of things, and public libraries can spend only about $4 per capita per year on books and other content.
Meanwhile, just 400 Americans are together worth more than $2 trillion, according to Forbes. Would it really bankrupt them to raise $15-$20 billion within five years for a national digital endowment, with more available later on, ideally from both public and private sources?
I wish tax money could come now. But realistically we know that won’t happen, and interested members of the super rich could step in to fill the vacuum. They might think of this as a form of guillotine insurance.
Endowment money could go for not just for well-stocked national digital libraries but also for hiring and professional development of such key groups as school librarians—along with plenty else, such as family literacy campaigns and technology. Too bad Bill Gates and other philanthropists didn’t think big enough to buy out OverDrive before a Japanese conglomerate swooped in. Gates has actually been phasing out his global libraries initiative.
Doubt the need for more library resources? Consider this little nugget from a news release from the Knight Foundation: “While there is a long history of philanthropic funding for libraries in the United States, most public libraries rely on government funding for financial support. Local funding accounts for nearly 85 percent of public library funding, and state funding has decreased nearly 43 percent over the past decade.” Poor communities without wealthy taxpayers suffer especially. Talk about “savage inequalities”!
The Knight release announced the award of a $300,000 grant to the Foundation Center to help libraries better connect with funders, and I couldn’t think of a better use for the foundation’s money. Nice going! But the $300K won’t address the root problem—not enough resources for libraries in the first place.
I’m not going to approach the Trump campaign with the endowment proposal, given my contempt for the man and everything he stands for. But I have been in touch with an influential Hillary Clinton supporter on this issue. I’ll hope that maybe, just maybe, something can happen. Hillary Clinton herself has called for public works programs and other spending increases, of which I fervently approve—she herself is thinking big. Furthermore, the Clinton Foundation has done far more good than its critics would have you believe (regardless of the understandable concerns over donors). But the foundation’s health initiative and other programs are no substitute for library donations. And even the Clinton Foundation can conjure up only so much. We badly need a national digital endowment with participation from many philanthropists.
Along the way, let’s create intertwined but separate public and academic national digital library systems so public library needs don’t get lost in the shuffle. One reason for the rise of a demagogue like Trump is that Washington has shafted the non-elite in countless ways. The proposed endowment mustn’t repeat that mistake.
Related: The New Yorker on Donald Trump’s less than impressive charitable donations. The think-big rhetoric is fine. But don’t confuse that with true generosity at the personal level.