Norlina, N.C., is a town of about 1,100 people getting by on an estimated median household income of $23,000.
A converted military hospital train car once housed the Norlina library. For more than six decades, people could go to the library to find good books or, in recent years, log on to the internet. But no more: The library shut down in January.
Sadly, the big problem was not a leaky roof or other expenses at the final location on Hyco Street. “I have sat up there, and not a soul comes,” Town Commissioner Bill Harris told the Warren Record in Warrenton, N.C.
With National Library Week just ended, here’s a question to ponder: Could a privately funded national library endowment help rural areas and small towns like Norlina — and the rest of the United States — in an era when the average 15-to-19-year-old devotes just eight minutes per day to recreational reading on weekends and holidays? Almost half the adults in Detroit were functionally illiterate as of 2011, and four years later, 93 percent of the city’s eighth-graders were found to be reading below “proficient” grade level.
A well-funded national endowment could not only help upgrade libraries but also encourage Americans of all ages to make better and more frequent use of them. Spending on literacy campaigns and other activities could grow as the endowment’s portfolio did. Donors could come from the ranks of the super-rich, with others encouraged to give directly to their local libraries.
Today, library endowments in the United States total only several billion dollars, according to a Wilmington Trust study. That’s a fraction of public libraries’ operating budgets. Of course, poorer communities may limp along with either minuscule local endowments or none at all — hence, the desirability of a national approach, too. We’re really talking class here: By comparison, Harvard University has amassed a $36 billion endowment. The creation of a national library endowment could encourage results-minded big donors to look beyond the needs of the elite.
Even a well-funded library endowment would not be a panacea, nor should it be. Among other things, it should offer matching grants to encourage local governments and donors, with allowances for poorer communities.
We shouldn’t count on public money alone to finance libraries. The Trump administration even wants to kill off the valuable Institute of Museum and Library Services. What’s more, the $230 million now spent on IMLS is a speck of local libraries’ actual operating costs. A continuing stream of cash from a national library endowment’s investments could help libraries better survive the whims of non-reading politicians and tax-hating voters who may regret their choices later on.
The endowment could aid public, K-12 and academic libraries, as well as help pay for intertwined but separate digital systems serving the very different needs of the general public and the research community. It also could help pay for the educations, professional development and hiring of librarians from varied socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds — especially for cash-strapped localities. Countless school librarians in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere have lost their library jobs despite studies documenting their usefulness. K-12 librarians among other things encourage recreational reading, correlated with greater academic achievement. They can turn lives around.
Such a fund could also pay to remind Americans that libraries are out there. Libraries spend far too little on marketing themselves. A 2012 study showed that most Americans didn’t know they could borrow e-books.
Marketing campaigns could talk up libraries and reading and feature figures not just from the sports and entertainment worlds, such as Oprah Winfrey, but also Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Cuban and other widely admired business figures whose reading made them more successful. Clarence Otis Jr., a janitor’s son and former chief executive of Darden Restaurants, had “read nearly every novel and biography” at his neighborhood library branch by the ninth grade, according to Dennis P. Kimbro’s “The Wealth Choice: Success Secrets of Black Millionaires.” Libraries need the resources to spread around such evidence of the power of books as sources of inspiration, not just knowledge, for the success-oriented.
They also need funds to embed promotional spots in traditional and new media that not only talk up libraries and reading in general, but refer people to books in a targeted way. A promo in a TV program or Facebook group devoted to sports, for example, could point viewers to paper and electronic library copies of a famous athlete’s biography. The endowment could also help pay for many other kinds of targeted outreach, especially to the young.
Content is another important area meriting endowment money. Our public libraries can spend only about $4 per person on books and other reading materials, or around $1.3 billion a year (about a fifth goes for digital items). Shouldn’t we try harder to make the right paper and digital books available to match the needs and interests of K-12 students and others? That $1.3 billion is less than half the five-year cost of Air Force One. The endowment could be a godsend for struggling rural areas and small towns where the difference between few books and easier access to many free e-books would be huge.
The endowment could help narrow the digital divide — a matter of knowledge, not just money for gadgets and wires. The endowment could help pay for instruction in e-book literacy and the creation of cellphone book clubs and other informative organizations using food, dances, free movies and other means to draw in participants. Whether the issue is glare reduction or smart use of e-books’ search features in place of digital page-flipping, many people just don’t know the fundamentals. Naomi Baron’s “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World” documents the unhappiness of readers with the technology as it is commonly used now, as well as the related comprehension issues. The solution, in our opinion, isn’t to reject e-books, but to teach genuine e-book literacy and promote refinement of the technology.
So where might the money come for the endowment? The richest 10 Americans were together worth about half a trillion as of fall 2016; the top 400, about $2.4 trillion. Even just a fraction of those 400 billionaires could build the ever-growing endowment to $20 billion in five years without missing the money. That would let the endowment spend about $1 billion a year (see our site LibraryEndowment.org for details on exactly what the money could fund). Unfortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major source of library philanthropy, is phasing out its Global Libraries Initiative. May the foundation instead kickstart an endowment, and if not, may others fill the vacuum.
Christou is a former public, academic and K-12 librarian with an MLS from Simmons College. She was a vice president at Reed Business Information when it owned Library Journal, School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly. Rothman is the editor-publisher of TeleRead.org, the world’s oldest site offering e-book news and views.