Update, August 15, 2018: To the best of my knowledge, Martin Luther King High School has not followed through with a first-rate ebook initiative. Details included in this essay.
Steve Potash at OverDrive, the leading global source of ebooks for K-12 and public libraries, sold his company for many millions while remaining CEO. Jeff Bezos will be the richest American on good days for Amazon stock. At $85.2 billion, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is $1.9 billion ahead of Bezos as I write this. Tim Cook at Apple was worth $400 million in May. Larry Page at Alphabet, aka Google, is a $44.5-billion man, and Sergey Brin is a $43.4-billion guy.
Now here’s a friendly appeal to all six multi-millionaires—well, billionaires in the cases of Bezos, Gates, Page, and Brin—to help the cash-strapped Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia’s Germantown area if the school district will truly get behind the effort. MLK badly needs a working, well-stocked library with a librarian and aides. The donations from the Golden Six for this particular project could be personal, corporate, foundation-provided, or a mix. Such a collaboration could help perfect the vision of a national library endowment focused on personal donations from billionaires qualifying for the Giving Pledge. The wealth limit would help preserve opportunities for local libraries to collect donations directly from others such as mere millionaires and multi-millionaires.
Just ten Americans are worth upward of half a trillion, and our top 400 billionaires are together worth at least $2.3 trillion, a noteworthy fact in this era of oft-dwindling public resources. A good first step would be a conference where potential donors and librarians mingled and crafted a preliminary road map for the endowment. Among the main organizers could be a prominent librarian, with an MBA, whom Gates already knows and trusts. Via advisory councils and virtual activities, such as Wikis and online forums, the organizers would reach out ahead of time for grassroots input. Ideally plenty of in-person outreach would accompany the input effort to encourage librarians and patrons from all socioeconomic groups to speak out on their needs.
Doubt the need for Gates and others to send money and other resources in the direction of Martin Luther King High School? Most of the time the MLK book room—let’s not call it a library without a librarian and other little extras—is locked. See a previous TeleRead commentary. Once again, below, I’ll embed a YouTube from a black rapper-militant-entrepreneur named King Leon X. Albeit with exaggeration, the headline of his video asks: “This is a library, but where are the books?”
The halo effect: A chance for the Golden Six to do well, not just good
I’m singling out the Golden Six as potential saviors of MLK not only because of their wealth but also because of their corporations’ importance to ebookdom, libraries and schools by way of their products. Ideally Philadelphia-area companies will help out, too. But the Golden Six are the ones with the money to do full justice to the vision here.
Along the way the Golden Six could generate goodwill and win new customers for their corporations by scaling up the MLK experiment eventually and expanding the universe of readers, including book buyers. At a time when anti-trust talk is growing in D.C., the Six could do worse to than pay attention to these social needs. Donald Trump’s hatred of the Bezos-owned Washington Post adds urgency to this matter—the Amazon CEO can stand all the good PR he can get, in case the threat grows in the future. Racism or not, corruption or not, regardless of his unpopularity, Trump may yet survive his first term. Besides, Democrats are growing more open to more aggressive anti-trust enforcement, which in recent decades has been lax compared to earlier eras.
If nothing else, the proposed MLK experiment and more would contribute to the value of all five companies, especially Amazon. With a lofty trailing P/E of 184, it depends on the kindness of trusting strangers. The nicer Amazon is in ways beyond low prices and customer service, the more sustainable the business in the eyes of shareholders and prospective shareholders.
A halo effect from philanthropy has been very good for Warren Buffett, and Gates has benefited, too, even if he is in danger of losing his luster among many librarians by now winding down his Global Libraries Initiative.
The Buffett halo is one reason I own Berkshire Hathaway stock, for retirement purposes, even if I don’t agree with everything his company does. Nor do I go along with all the actions of the other companies and their leaders. But bear in mind that Andrew Carnegie, the best-known library philanthropist, was himself far from flawless, as the history of the Homestead Strike amply reveals. Furthermore, I’d suggest that skeptics read such writings as The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, by David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy. Callahan shows how lazy is it to shrug off all rich people as revenue sources for worthy endeavors. While I disagree with Bill Gates and Bezos on many matters, they are worlds apart from extremist billionaires keen on killing off freedom of expression and even democracy itself. Hence my interest in both as potential endowment donors.
Instead of phasing out the library initiative, Gates and others should turn it into a multi-donor national library endowment for K-12, public and academic libraries. LibraryEndowment.org contains many thousands of words of details with the overview links at the top: Who we are, Our vision, The Need, K-12 benefits, others, How it will work and How to help us. Lower on the home page, check out such items as The details, Needed: New Carnegies, K-12 libraries: How the national library endowment will help and How both public and academic libraries will come out ahead. Among other things, the endowment could help fund two separate but intertwined national digital library systems—one public (including K-12) and one academic—so that the elite did not come elbow aside the masses.
Here’s an example of the need for a two-system approach. Cultural “heritage” is a big priority of the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America. The DPLA has many positives. But mass literacy and self-improvement, not cultural heritage, however valuable it is, should instead be the main focus of a public digital library system organized by the states in close cooperation with the Library of Congress. Instead of being a would-be public system, the DPLA could evolve into a full-strength academic library, considerably stronger than it now is in areas such as science and technology. At the same time it could help develop content for the public libraries and certainly offer technical services to them, including the encouragement of preservation of local culture and history, among other forms of “heritage.” On the public side, a purchase of OverDrive at a fair price from Rakuten would be helpful as a kick-start. OverDrive’s existing people could remain in place as advisors and more. The current management of OverDrive is sensitive to social concerns—the corporation recently won recognition as a B Corp for outstanding performance in these areas—but I worry about the future.
Future OverDrive managements may care more about the short-term. Beyond that, consider whether we really want to privatize public libraries. Right now, Steve Potash is the de facto public digital librarian for the United States. What happens after he dies or retires? Or his children, if they run the company? If a purchase is not possible, the public digital system at least could use OverDrive as a contractor. Same perhaps for the academic side.
Harvard academic appeals to Bezos to help libraries
Earlier this month, the case for a well-funded national library endowment grew even stronger when Susan Crawford, a former Obama advisor and a Harvard law professor well known for her work on technology vis-a-vis social needs, appealed to Bezos to donate to libraries. That’s a good step in the right direction. Actually we need a librarian-run national library endowment with multiple donors, not just Bezos, to increase the resources available and keep the focus on societal needs as opposed to personal or corporate PR, which will come as a matter of course.
Yes, Bezos and other billionaires could help set up the organizational infrastructure and serve on the endowment board. But please—avoid micromanagement. Find good, trustworthy professionals and simply provide advice and resources as needed. In his stewardship of the Post, where Bezos has been there to help but not in a pushy way, the endowment has an excellent role model.
MLK is a good place for experimentation toward the endowment’s creation, with additional efforts to follow elsewhere, particularly in book-starved rural areas. It’s a tough nut—no, stone—to crack. One-third of the MLK kids are special-needs students. Nationally, one-fifth of Americans high school graduates are illiterate. If the Golden Six can succeed at MLK, similar efforts may work out in many less challenging places, and tight-wad politicians just might be more generous toward libraries of all kinds. Same for philanthropists. Library endowments and equivalents in the U.S. total just several billion, compared to Harvard’s $36 billion endowment, despite libraries’ high return on investment. In recent years thousands of school librarians have lost their jobs despite the proven value of their profession and the academic importance of recreational reading, and public libraries can spend a mere $4 per capita on books and other content.
Too bad, and not just for society at large. The more money for libraries, the more for ereaders, tablets, and digital books, which all five companies could help provide, in addition to other services such as cloud storage. Small wonder that Len Edgerly, host of the venerable Kindle Chronicles and a constant Amazon booster, likes the endowment idea. Yes, he is an Amazon shareholder. Other companies, too, could do both good and well under with the endowment, considering the huge upside. American households now spend only $100 a year or so on nontextbook reading, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to several thousand on other forms of entertainment.
Why MLK as a test bed—and the details
So what would be notable about this pilot experiment at MLK?
First, while MLK right now is a educational challenge to say the least, the potential exists for improvement. Keisha Wilkins, the principal for the past two years, is a regular Kindle-book reader and has talked the city into providing Chromebooks for all students, effective this school year. The experimenters, of course, should also try other hardware and software.
Second, if the money came, the students would be able read most all the book they wanted and also benefit from a tech-hip librarian and aides, as well as from the right devices and ereading software. Or if nothing else, they could read far more than the several thousand titles now at MLK, many of them obsolete. Let’s just focus on abundant and optimal content—and on what products work best, and why. Cater to the students’ needs and interests. As noted elsewhere, based on a Scholastic study, “Seventy-three percent of surveyed children ages 6-17 say they would read more if they found more books they enjoyed.” Ideally a detailed survey and focus groups could precisely determine what the students most wanted to read. And the on-the-site librarian could nudge them from comics and strictly-for-fun novels and the like to more serious kinds of books. But first things first.
Unfortunately, despite laudable efforts such as Open eBooks, children at MLK-style schools are a long way from this nirvana. The issue isn’t just the books. It’s also the hardware and teaching them the fundamentals of ebook literacy, which includes traditional literacy and more. A key precept is that ereading devices are like eyeglasses. One size does not fit all at all times. Students at MLK ideally would be able to read not only off Chromebooks and phones but also dedicated E Ink readers, which among other things come without distractions such as social media.
The students and the teachers would be the ultimate judges as shown by usage metrics created and evaluated by disinterested experts. The students’ education would be paramount. But along the way, all five companies would benefit from the insights they received, in terms of hardware and software development.
Needless to say, people at MLK would also welcome money for the school beyond the library. Enough for one-to-one reading invention, ideally from trained professions but if not from volunteers overseen by them, would go a long way.
But let’s not forget the academic importance of recreational reading, which suffers when schools lock up libraries and rid themselves of K-12 librarians, including most of those in the Philadelphia school district. Public libraries are essential for students. But they are no substitute for on-site librarians gung-ho on promoting the book culture, in partnership with classroom teachers. On the average, U.S. students read for fun just eight minutes a day on nights and weekends.
One way to boost reading at would be to offer book clubs—hybrids of in-persons and online—based on the MLK students’ interests and ambitions. Serve food, hold socials, show book-related movies; truly make the clubs parts of students’ lives. With the clubs in mind, multiple digital copies of the matching books should be available for simultaneous checkout. At MLM, interest is strong in graphic novels, and one survey revealed that many students wanted to work in health-related professions and in business. Both fiction and nonfiction could reflect these tastes and aspirations. The clubs could offer not just discussion of books but also visits from professionals in fields like nursing to give the students some in-person inspiration.
The above fits in well with the concept of cell phone book clubs—named in honor of the gadget that the students and adults are most likely to have with them. The idea is not to read off the phones only; rather, to associate books and reading with these ubiquitous gadgets.
Let’s not neglect the students’ parents and grandparents, either. Keisha Wilkins smartly sees the current book room as functioning in the future not only as a library but also as a community room for students and parents alike (but grandparents, too?). Among other things, parents and grandparents could learn to keep up with children’s cell phone habits. The adults could even—by way of software—seek to control these habits and look out for suspicious apps. Best of all, the clubs could encourage the parents themselves to become readers of books and better serve as role models. The library could be be open well beyond normal school hours, including in the summers, with the clubs in mind.
Especially with this multigenerational approach in use, MLK should strive for a seamless experience with the digital incarnation of the Philadelphia public library even if it gets a library of its own. That means giving students the right software. The current OverDrive software that runs on Chromebooks does not even let students export notes via email. The good news is that a Chrome version of Libby, an improved reader, is on the way; and OverDrive also will be offering a K-12 reading app, scheduled to go into beta this fall. Better experiences with Amazon’s Kindle format books would also help. The current Kindle cloud reader for the Chromebook does not even offer all-text bold. Same for Libby for iOS and Android.
The big picture
The above are mere details. What about the big pictures? Again, keep in mind the shocking underperformance of the super rich as library donors, considering the mere several billion that they have provided library endowments—much of it concentrated in just a few cities as New York. No wonder so many Trump voters in the Heartland hate the coastal elite. The national endowment vision refined by experimentation at MLK would at least help correct this while still making more money available for K-12 and public libraries in places like New York and Boston. What’s more, the endowment could encourage close cooperation with local schools, libraries and parents to help avoid the mistakes that Mark Zuckerberg and others made when they poured millions into schools in Newark, N.J. I’d hope that he and the rest learned their lesson. In Newark, as reported in The Givers, the locals didn’t even know about rich people’s grand plans for their children until the news came from Oprah.
Take it for granted that regardless of good communications with parents, mistakes will be made at MLK as in Newark. The difference would be the focus on one school, reducing the expenses of the misjudgments; and by providing advisors as needed on various matters and by using ongoing metrics, the philanthropists would have a better idea of where their money was going. Once the experiment achieved results, cost controls could be instituted, so as to make the efforts more replicable, a realistic goal, given the plummeting cost of technology. But first let’s find out what works in terms of hardware, software, library services, pedagogy, and otherwise, and let well-qualified professional educators and librarians set the direction, just as Bezos let Marty Barton et al. do their jobs at the Washington Post. Offer mentoring and other opportunities for laggards and professional development for all. MLK has been reinvented enough times. Let this one stick.
One way or another, we need to do something about our K-12 and public libraries. The Charlottesville tragedy shows what happens when young people with limited opportunities turn to guns and violence. A former racist from Life After Hate talked on MSNBC about “broken lives.” Decent libraries are one way to help mend them—or, better, keep them intact—through a multigenerational approach. And a well-funded experiment at MLK would be a good way to start.
Note: This is a “first edition” of an evolving document. Corrections and suggestions welcome!