The nightmarish coronavirus has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. But at least a few positives have arisen from it, including renewed interest in broadband, especially for schoolchildren in rural areas.
Still, zippier connections, whether for online classes or YouTube, aren’t enough. We should also promote the greater availability of good books and other content everywhere, from Manhattan to tiny Appalachian hamlets. Perhaps the time has finally come for a national library endowment, which among other things could help pay for two national digital library systems, one public/K-12 and the other academic. It could help brick-and-mortar libraries, not just the digital variety—especially school libraries. Along the way, the book business would benefit through an expansion of the universe of readers.
Both the library and publishing worlds, alas, have given the endowment idea short shrift; ideally this will change. I’m a co-founder of LibraryEndowment.org, a Web-based collaboration with some far-sighted librarians. We aren’t out to start the endowment ourselves, but rather to encourage well-meaning people with far more resources to do so. No small challenge. The American Library Association has said it lacks the bandwidth to act on the idea. ALA instead is focused on public revenue sources. They should not be ignored but come with limited upside, given all the competition libraries face from other contenders at all levels of government. Over on the publishing side, a well-regarded insider says: “Publishers don’t care enough about this. I am skeptical.” In fact, too many in publishing mistakenly see public libraries as a threat to revenue.
How to motivate both the libraries and publishers to care as much as they should for the library endowment concept, potentially a godsend for both book publishers’ bottom lines and society at large? We know the need for the endowment is out there. At least 43 million American adults can’t read above a third grade level, according to the group ProLiteracy. Americans spent about 2.8 hours a day watching TV in 2019, compared to a mere .27 hours on reading “for personal interest,” as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The crucial time devoted to “reading to and with household children”? All of just .01 hours a day on the average. Other BLS statistics show that book purchases are just a tiny speck of the thousands of dollars of year that typical American households splurge on other forms of entertainment. Local public library spending on content of all kinds, not just books, is a mere $5 per capita annually, just $1.6 billion, and in recent years school libraries have had to lay off thousands of highly qualified librarians. All the library endowments in the U.S. add up to maybe $4-5 billion if we extrapolate from a Wilmington Trust-sponsored study from 2014—just a fraction of Harvard University’s $40-billion endowment.
Enter the Panorama Project mentioned in an earlier TeleRead post. Panorama is already helping to set a valuable precedent of cross-industry cooperation and trust, aided by the participation of researchers from the publishing school of Portland State University. Ideally, Panorama could expand its portfolio to include research into the national library endowment issue. That, in turn, could help pave the way for joint conferences of potential stakeholders of all kinds—everyone from philanthropists to librarians, K-12 educators, upper-level academics, content-providers, business people, and advocates for minorities and the poor. We need to look beyond the old philanthropic models, where the foundation elite and friends set policy and dole out grants without participation from outsiders. I see the Panorama Project as a good start toward a planning a more inclusive multi-donor endowment, perhaps with a mix of private and public funding. Panorama isn’t necessarily the only path toward such an endowment, but it certainly is a very interesting one.
Significantly, the Panorama Project is not just an effort of librarians even though it’s benefiting from the input of Alan S. Inouye, the ALA’s director of public policy. Among the others involved have been people from the Book Industry Study Group, independent booksellers, Penguin Random House, and OverDrive, the largest supplier of books for libraries and schools. One of the recurring themes in the project’s research is that synergies can exist not only between books and other media, but also between the library and retails models. For example, among several thousand readers surveyed, “38.31% of respondents had bought a book online that they first found in a library (within the last 12 months.” Local bookstores also benefited, and the project intends to explore this further. The findings are just preliminary, but based on earlier work by researchers for OCLC and OverDrive, I doubt there will be surprises in regard to synergies between libraries and retail.
Supplying hands-on usage research for the Panorama effort is the publishing school of Portland State University, hardly a bastion of anti-publisher sentiment. Led by Dr. Rachel Noorda, the Portland State people are familiar first-hand with the challenges of publishers. She herself co-owns ThunderStone Books, a small education-related press, and students themselves staff the award-winning Ooligan Press, a nonprofit general trade press focused on regional books. Here’s a Web page with a video on Ooligan in detail. As a publishing specialist and assistant English professor, Dr. Noorda knows her limitations and isn’t shy about reaching out to economists and others in different disciplines. The Panorama Project’s lead is Daniel Albohn, a former global business development executive at Sony executive who helped launch such products as the pioneering Sony Reader.
Needless to say, were this well-connected initiative to explore the issue of the creation of a national library endowment, enough librarians could be brought in to address library-related details. In fact, Panorama already is sponsoring such activities as Panorama Picks, which taps library databases to alert local booksellers about briskly moving titles for which they could help meet demand. But those activities are hardly a substitute for a national library endowment. LibraryEndowment.org discusses in detail how endowment money might be spent, and I would encourage readers unfamiliar with the site to go there. Here are two areas that we consider especially worthy of much more spending—(1) general encouragement of reading and (2) content, including improved ways to access it.
Area #1: General encouragement of reading
Libraries need more resources for outreach and promotion of books, reading and libraries in general—both in person and through old and new media. By examining media usage patterns, including synergies between books and other media, the Panorama Project is already coming up with research useful in marketing-related areas. For the endowment initiative’s vision in regard to library outreach and promotion, see How the Hernandez family will benefit from a national library endowment and two well-stocked digital library systems. A shorter version appeared in 2017 in Information Today. Yes, the Hernandez family. The Panorama Project has already correctly identified family and friends as major influencers for book recommendations. But at a more basic level, LibraryEndowment.org is also talking about parents and grandparents as role models to get young people reading period. That means not just literacy classes for parents but also timely, compelling books and other texts for them, not just their offspring.
Sadly, many schools systems in the U.S. have played down the importance of recreational reading and other kinds in favor of preparation for standardized tests. Erika Christakis, an early-childhood educator and the author of The importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups, writes in the Atlantic:
“Experts across the educational and ideological spectrums agree that a curriculum rich in literature, civics, history, and the arts is essential for strong reading, critical-thinking, and writing skills. But schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics.”
School librarians can encourage an interest not only in recreational reading and literature in general but also in civics, history, and the arts. But back to the glories of recreational reading. A massive U.K. study quantified its benefits, and a summary even paraphrased Dr. Alice Sullivan, a lead researcher, as saying that “reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.”
In addition, other studies in the U.S. and elsewhere place show that student achievement rises when schools “have high-quality library programs and librarians who share their expertise with the entire school community.” Alas, many school districts, especially in low-income and minority communities, have actually cut back on school librarians. A 2018 Education Week article reported: “The nation’s public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, from more than 54,000 to less than 44,000 in 2015, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data. Many districts lost librarians even as student populations grew by 7 percent nationwide.”
How could the Panorama Project respond? Ideally it could validate existing research into recreational reading and the worth of school librarians. And it could recommend that the endowment pay for demonstration projects to show communities first-hand how good school librarians could make a difference in academic achievement. Perhaps it could even help pay—long term—for libraries and librarians for the very poorest communities without hopes of decent tax or donor bases in the immediate future. In addition, the endowment could establish an IRS-compliant advocacy spinoff to argue vigorously for more and better school libraries and the restoration of those killed in budget cuts. Rather than competing with existing advocacy groups, the spinoff could fund and otherwise help them.
Meanwhile, by way of the Panorama Project or otherwise, the publishing industry needs to take a good, hard look at itself in regard to K-12 education. Does it want to make big bucks with test preparation material or does it really care about books, libraries, and librarians? It isn’t one or the other, necessarily, and, yes, test prep materials can have a place and help students. But I can’t tell you how intensively most of the teachers I know hate all the time that test preparation steals from teaching and otherwise harms actual education. Might a fixation on drill-and-kill and the like be getting in the way of actual thinking and feeling? Good librarians and more books could help fix the damage from the current test-prep mania. Right now, the fact-crazed Thomas Gradgrind would feel too much at home in typical American schools.
Of course, test preparation might be less lucrative for publishers if schools reduced students’ time devoted to it. But might an expanded market for books in general make up for the loss? Perhaps the industry needs the guts to examine this in business terms. Might real books and an expansion of the book culture in the end contribute more to publishers’ bottom lines? Let’s grow the universe of enthusiastic readers, especially among minorities.
In a related vein, more resources for the preparation and hiring of minority librarians could help. Nonwhites will be a majority of the U.S. population in another few decades, but the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees says: “In 2019, just 5.3 percent of [credentialed] librarians identified as Black or African American, 7.1 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 3.5 percent as Asian-American or Pacific Islander.” Research show that minority children may learn better in school if taught by teachers of the same color, and most likely, the same would apply to librarians and books and reading. The endowment could fund minority-related recruitment, scholarship, and hiring programs, building on the ALA’s existing efforts to increase the presence of minorities in the library world. Talk about priorities for literacy-builders!
But could economists and others teaming up with the Panorama Project quantify the benefits of greater literacy in economic terms? In earning power or otherwise?
We do know the harm lack of literacy can do. Most prisoners in the U.S. can’t read, and without this skill, they are more likely to commit repeat crimes as opposed to becoming steady, law-abiding workers. Furthermore, as a LibraryEndowment.org colleague and I noted, in a Publishers Weekly article, illiteracy increases health costs. “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.”
But on the positive side, what about the benefits of more literacy? One massive European study of 5,280 men, as summarized in Electric Lit, “indicates that those who read at least 10 non-compulsory-school-reading books ended up with 21 percent more income.”
The benefits didn’t seem to be as clear after 10 books (per year?) and the research didn’t fully allow for socioeconomic circumstances and cause-effect. Still, if we go by the results of the U.K. recreational-reading study mentioned earlier, which did factor in such circumstances, the economic benefits must be substantial. The Panorama Project could survey the relevant research, perhaps undertake some of its own, and maybe even come up with a ratio between investments in the endowment and the expected increase in earning power. We do know that billionaires like Buffett and Gates swear by the economic benefits of reading. Perhaps more research into this topic could encourage them to put their wallets where their mouths are.
Area #2: Content (and ways to access it)
The paltry $1.6 billion spent annually on content for public libraries ideally should be multiplied, with more available for academic libraries, too. “Content,” of course, means not just not just books but also other media. However, books should hold a special place in the reading ecosystem, given their ability to encourage sustained thought and, in some cases, even empathy along with other psychological benefits.
How to improve the quality and quantity of books in libraries? Granted, copyright reform could increase the number of titles; even many publishers would agree that terms are just too bloody long. But guess what? Most library users are in search of relatively recent books, especially those that have received heavy media exposure. I myself love old books by certain dead writers, but how many typical library patrons are going to want fiction from years and years ago? Similarly, while new business models can be invaluable, including buying up books so they can be legally copied ad infinitum, they are hardly going to work without enough funding. And some publishers and writers will want to stick to more conventional models anyway.
One way or another, public libraries badly need to able to increase the $1.6 billion now spent annually on content, especially since more and better content can increase circulation. On the academic side, more money could help in such areas as serials (as could more reasonable prices!).
The Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America has amassed a wealth of content but is no substitute for a multiplication of the amount now spent on content for public libraries, especially in poorer area. Needless to say, a national approach would help, especially with heavy participation by both librarians and publishers from the very start so the two groups could work out issues such as copyright before they reached court.
The use of the endowment model, offering a certain level of minimum support, regardless of the ups and downs of tax revenue at various levels, certainly could help reduce tensions between librarians and publishers. Remember, the content needs of libraries go on. A Gates-style philanthropist can cure a certain disease and reduce research spending in that area to zero or close to it. But if libraries are to keep their collections current and allow for growing populations, then they need a reliable, ongoing stream of revenue. All too often, library collections suffer because libraries, for understandable reasons, hesitate to lay off people. Books don’t have families to feed or years of experience to protect. The endowment wouldn’t pay for all content needs, far from it, but certainly could help.
As noted, the endowment could help support two national digital library systems, one public/K-12, the other academic, and there could be shared use of resources and even a joint digital catalogue for appropriate users. But why two systems? Because the culture and missions of the two kinds of libraries overlap but are not the same. Public libraries rely on the kindness of taxpayers and must cater to their needs or risk reduced support. They are not the commercial creatures that popular-level bookstores are. But at many use bestsellers as calling cards, especially titles aggressively promoted by the publishers. Popularity, not just merit of materials, counts. At my local library, a good system in a relatively well-educated community, I found dozens of books on astrology.
This isn’t to say that facts don’t count for public libraries—they’re just a different kind. Public libraries provide popular-level information to help their users cope with problems in areas ranging from personal finance to health. They are service organizations for the general population, and many of their offerings reflect this. Some public libraries even lend out items such as tools or fishing rods. Moreover, their catalogues often are designed more to catch readers’ eyes than for sophisticated research.
By contrast, academic libraries care less about catchy catalogue interfaces and more about powerful research capabilities. Of greater importance, they care about more about complicated, factual material gathered for post-K-12 students as well as faculty. Imagine the potential conflicts at budget time–best sellers vs. academic tomes. Also consider that typical academic libraries worry less about digital divide and other access issues than public libraries do, regardless of notable exceptions.
Allowances could be made for individual libraries to belong to one system or the other or even both, with fees allocated accordingly. A community college library system with many remedial students from low-income homes, for example, could benefit from membership in the public/K-12 system. An Ivy League institution, on the other hand, might choose to forego participation in the public/K-12 system or keep fees extremely minimal compared to those for the academic system.
Here is one model that could work at the national level for both academic and public libraries—links that can go from library catalogs to bookstores for people who prefer to buy popular books rather than be put on hold. The endowment could not only link to online stores but also local stores selling paper books.
All this still leaves open two content-related technological issues for the Panorama Project to consider—the digital divide and the controversy over the worth of paper books vs. ebooks. For space reasons, I’ll be brief here despite the importance of both topics.
With the election of Joe Biden, keen on expanded infrastructure spending, I would expect Washington to care more about universal broadband. There will also be technological advances in areas such as low-orbit satellites. One way or another, over time, costs will plummet. Meanwhile, typical public libraries already offer Internet connections through which users among other things can download electronic books. This isn’t to say that’s the only issue. Countless library users also will need technical advice, and the endowment ideally will help libraries provide more of it than is now available. Having trouble with glare? Ideally librarians or assistants could show you how to read your books with a heavier font in use, with the backlight turned down or the device in the “dark mode.” Or they might help you find the right dedicated e-reader, with glare reduced and, in the bargain, no distractions such as Facebook-style instant messages. They could also give you advice on navigating ebooks, where page flipping matters less and searching matters more. Those are just two examples of the usability tips that knowledgeable librarians can dispense.
The good news is that many millions of Americans already have a way to read ebooks—their cell phones. Future phones will be getting cheaper and better, with more readable screens that can fold out to eight inches or more. Ebook technology will improve in other ways—most likely becoming much like paper books in time, with flippable pages, except that the pages can display new content. But flippable pages will not happen immediately, and for many years to come, library users will rely heavily on paper books—especially new readers. The endowment should not limit itself to helping libraries buy the digital variety, despite the efficiencies of ebooks.
Via Webinar presentation for the National Information and Standards Organization, we have explored the funding issue in depth. Some takeaways on financial matters:
- LibraryEndowment.org proposes a five-year fundraising goal of $20 billion from a variety of donors from a variety of sources. The focus would be on the super rich to avoid conflicts with fund-raising organizations for local libraries.
- The money is out there for the endowment. Our NISO presentation quoted a New York Times op-ed from June 21, 2017, by David Callahan, founder-editor of Inside Philanthropy and author of The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. Callahan noted that Forbes 400 billionaires at the time had a “combined net worth of at least $2.4 trillion”—now swollen to a whopping $3.2 trillion. Perhaps factoring in the Gates Giving Pledge, Callahan concluded: “All told, over $20 trillion is likely to find its way to philanthropy in the next half century.” In the aftermath of the coronavirus, which actually has enriched some prominent billionaires, due to increased reliance on high tech, we can expect local and state governments to struggle. An endowment could help interested billionaires redirect at least some of their wealth to libraries to enhance their legacies. At the same time, thanks to the multi-donor approach, they could still lavish many billions on their own pet causes unrelated to libraries.
- Federal money might be used toward the establishment of the endowment, as well for the operation of the twin digital library systems and other activities. Fees from participating libraries could also help fund the systems.
- The endowment would not replace the valuable Institute of Museum and Library Services. However, with a budget of about a quarter of a billion, IMLS can provide just a fraction of the resources that libraries need. Total annual public library spending is about $13 billion yearly. A $20-billion endowment could generate a billion or more in revenue, and ideally the endowment size would grow in time—so that content spending could be in fact be multiplied. As a non-government organization, it might enjoy more leeway than IMLS, especially in areas such as content if a demagogue with greater micromanagement skills than Donald Trump reached the Oval Office.
- Librarians and other stakeholders could help determine at planning conferences the extent to which endowment-supported activities would fit in with the status quo.
One issue for stakeholders to discuss is what to do about OverDrive, just purchased by a hedge fund. I myself worry long term about OverDrive’s future despite the able leadership provided by Steve Potash, the CEO; hedge funds are not philanthropic institutions. Marshall Breeding, writing for American Libraries Magazine in December 2019 before the deal closed, was more optimistic. “At this point,” he said, “the takeover cannot be characterized either positively or negatively.”
On the plus side, OverDrive could, yes, give libraries more bargaining power with publishers than a number of smaller firms. That said, is it really right for OverDrive to function, in effect, as our public national digital library system, however well run? Shouldn’t librarians control libraries, especially the public variety? I can see several possible outcomes. Here’s the first: Since OverDrive relies on libraries for its existence, they could redirect their business to a new organization instead. Another possibility would be for the endowment to buy OverDrive, which Breeding infers was purchased by the KKR hedge fund for $775 million. Still another would be for the endowment to use OverDrive as the flagship contractor.
OverDrive, to its credit, helped get the Panorama Project underway. It is not the project’s sole supporter, but certainly maintains a close relationship with it, and ideally this could be a positive if, say, a sale or contracting arrangement were to happen.
How much would the Panorama Project’s involvement help the endowment cause?
Yes, the answer is: “A lot!” The reason isn’t just Panorama’s OverDrive connection. Most of the endowment’s prospective donors would have business backgrounds, and I suspect they would relate more easily to an organization like Panorama than to one that was strictly a creature of libraries. Yet another factor is that ALA itself has admitted that it lacks the bandwidth to develop the endowment idea. But why not team up with others, including content-providers? Yes, we all know that the interest of librarians and publishers can clash. We could expect many, er, spirited discussions. But as already noted, the mere existence of the endowment would help scale back librarian-publisher tensions—by providing more resources for both sides to work with.
Note: I have not run this commentary past others in LibraryEndowment.org. But most likely, they would agree with all or most of my thoughts here. Needless to say, this article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Panorama Project or its participants—I’m not even part of the project. Also, please note that I consider this commentary a living document, and I may update it to benefit from input from others. Factual corrections welcome.
Related commentary in Publishers Weekly: A Suggestion for MacKenzie Bezos: Fund Libraries. Two industry veterans would like to see Bezos allocate some of her $35 billion in Amazon stock to expand the universe of readers.