Librarians once hoped that Bill Gates, owner of the $154-million house shown above, would be their new Andrew Carnegie.
Instead the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been phasing out its Global Libraries initiative. Meanwhile U.S. public libraries can spend only around $4 per capita on books and other content, both digital and paper, and American schools have been laying off well-credentialed librarians at the expense of students’ reading scores if we go by past research.
A demagogue like Donald Trump cares not a whit about books and libraries or, based on Sunday night’s debate, even a modicum of decency. But a Trump reference is entirely apropos here.
The latest wealth figures—for the 400 richest billionaires in the United States, including Gates and Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos—highlight the “savage inequalities” of American society as a whole. Along with anti-Obama racism and other bigotry, the inequalities explain the rise of an opportunistic firebrand like Trump. His locker-room talk is obscene. But how about the inequalities off which he thrives?
Would you believe, the billionaires in the top ten are together worth $523 billion. Along with others, I’ve called for $15-$20 billion to be raised in five years for a national digital library endowment as a way to help level the playing field a little.
Just one of the ten richest billionaires—I’m especially thinking of you, Mr. Gates—could painlessly chip in a billion dollars to get the endowment off to a start, with more to come. Here’s a chance to be a positive role model for others in the American elite. I’m grateful for your anti-malaria work, your other global charities, and your contributions to wire up schools and libraries. You’ve been far more generous than the typical man of wealth. But let’s expand, not shrink, your library gifts.
I know. Some fund raisers and wealth advisors would regard the B word as less genteel than something like “extremely high net worth individuals.” But so be it. Do the math. The $523 billion could pay for more than 25 national digital endowments.
That isn’t what I’m suggesting, since I’m aware of the practical side, such as the need to retain enough wealth to invest in existing and new businesses. But you get the idea. A “Billion Dollar Donors Club” for the endowment could happen without the members sinking into abject poverty and without their grievously depriving their companies of capital. A club member could even spread the billion or more over the five years rather than donate everything at once. What’s more, Gates ideally could talk up the endowment as a prime destination for already-committed money from the Gates Giving Pledge.
The top ten list
Courtesy of Forbes magazine, here are the ten wealthiest Americans, with Bezos having replaced Warren Buffett as the second-richest billionaire. I’ve inserted asterisks to identify the billionaires who signed the Pledge.
1. Bill Gates*
Net Worth: $81B
Source of wealth: Microsoft
2. Jeff Bezos
Net Worth: $67B
Source of wealth: Amazon.com
3. Warren Buffett*
Net Worth: $65.5B
Source of wealth: Berkshire Hathaway
4. Mark Zuckerberg*
Net Worth: $55.5B
Source of wealth: Facebook
5. Larry Ellison*
Net Worth: $49.3B
Source of wealth: Oracle
6. Michael Bloomberg*
Net Worth: $45B
Source of wealth: Bloomberg LP
7. Charles Koch
Net Worth: $42B
Source of wealth: diversified
7. David Koch
Net Worth: $42B
Source of wealth: diversified
9. Larry Page
Net Worth: $38.5B
Source of wealth: Google
10. Sergey Brin
Net Worth: $37.5B
Source of wealth: Google
In calling for these ten men—no women are in the top ten—to support libraries, I am in part reflecting the philosophy of Carnegie, Gates’s hero. Carnegie saw philanthropy as a way to empower working people with self-improvement opportunities: “The main consideration…should be to help those who will help themselves.”
That’s so much of what libraries should be about, whether it’s instruction in digital literacy, or ebook literary in particular, or an opportunity to tap into vast national digital collections from the most isolated Alaskan hamlet, or to learn Web design or CAD/CAM and 3D printing. Eighty percent of respondents in a Pew poll “definitely” want libraries to “offer programs to teach people, including kids & senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones & apps.”
The endowment among other things could help finance the creation of open access works to help drive down the prices of textbooks, which have risen 1,000 percent since 1977 and 88 percent since 2006. See How the Hernandez family will benefit from two well-stocked national digital library systems and a digital library endowment if you want more specifics. Also check out articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Library Journal and Education Week. To understand the K-12 benefits of e-books when used properly, especially for boys, see a study from the U.K. Literacy Trust. Other major research documents the rewards of recreational reading.
Why an endowment is the securest path to financial security for our libraries
Granted, some of these library-and-book related activities are happening already, but we need to scale up. Let me also note that some billionaires such as Warren Buffett have admirably called for reform of the U.S. tax system, and that could help in time. But even if the Democrats regain control of both the House and Senate and impose new taxes on the super wealth, fiscal hawks may succeed in rolling them back in the future.
The surest path to financial security for libraries is an endowment funded by philanthropists as well as taxes. Needless to say, these benefactors need not come just from the top ten. I’ve merely focused on the people at the top to show the size of their vast concentration of wealth. Just to put the $523 billion in perspective, the wealthiest 400 people in the U.S. are together worth $2.4 trillion.
In other words, the top ten billionaires in the U.S. control more than a fifth of the wealth in the Fortune 400, whose members in turn are worth more than do the 150 million American in the bottom half.
Pros in charge, please, and keep the politics out
Along the way, may I emphasize the need for professionals rather than billionaires to run the endowment (which, as I personally see it, could start as a nonprofit to allow experimentation and evolve into a government agency)?
Librarians without political agendas should choose books. And fund-raising professionals, not politicians, should handle the fund raising so prospects do not feel squeezed by powerful people in office. Billionaires with appropriate backgrounds and interests could help the initiative get underway, assist with fundraising and aid the endowment in other respects.
I don’t want libraries to get lost in the shuffle, but if this business model also ends up being used for other worthy causes, then fine. One way or another, we need to address our great inequalities, or eventually a shrewder Trump-style demagogue with a less distracting libido could reach the Oval Office. Tech-enriched billionaires, especially, should keep that in mind. Self-driving vehicles will throw millions of truck drivers out of work, for example.
Whether through entitlements or greater opportunities for self improvements—ideally more of the latter—we must not forget the displaced. The expected Clinton victory will simply buy us more time. If Secretary Clinton wants to show that she cares about the whole country, not just Wall Street, she would do well to endorse the endowment idea.
Meanwhile she should keep in mind that existing public library endowments total only several billion, according to Wilmington Trust, N.A., and that Deborah Jacobs, director of the Gates Global Libraries initiative, says no Gates Foundation funding is intended to be eternal. The needs of library patrons, though, go on forever. With or without Gates’s cooperation, ideally with, the U.S. deserves a national digital library endowment. Other countries, moreover, could start their own.
Image credit: Here.