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National Digital Library Endowment Plan: Do a Willie Sutton and ‘Go Where the Money Is’

Librarians and friends need to think like Willie Sutton, who supposedly said he robbed banks because "That's where the money is." The quote in fact is iffy, but not the logic.

Now America's libraries might be a little closer to the cash in the vaults. Here's an excerpt from a national digital library endowment proposal in the newest Chronicle of Philanthropy, the New York Times of its field, read by some leading donors--perhaps even Bill Gates himself:

"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."

While the endowment could help fund digital content and related technology--U.S. public libraries can now spend only around $4 per capita on content of all kinds--the proposal also recognizes the importance of librarians and teachers if we want good e-books and the rest to be absorbed.

Making LibraryCity's national digital library endowment plan all the more timely is the news that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will phase out its Global Libraries initiative. The endowment replacing the initiative would be much bigger and, while tapping the expertise of Gates's talented people, could bring in others as well and expand the donor base.

To address one issue, yes, it would be wonderful if tax money alone could sustain libraries. But don't expect miracles, especially at the federal level. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan even wants to abolish the Institute of Museum and Library Services. And thanks to the City Council in my well-off hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, local funding for content is a disgraceful $2.60 per capital. This in Amazon's supposedly "Most Well-Read" city!

While there are zillions of other worthy recipients of funding, the American Library Association ideally will think big and pass a resolution at its convention later this month—supporting the national endowment. Think ahead. An endowment would be a win for many library projects.

The endowment could start as a nonprofit to allow experimentation and evolve into a government agency for maximum responsiveness and transparency.

Meanwhile here’s a reply to a sadly out-of-touch commenter on my Chronicle article.