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Books and billionaires [Commentary]

Andrew Carnegie was a social Darwinian. He wanted to give the fittest the tools to rise to the top. Public libraries — as spreaders of skills, knowledge and culture — advanced his goal.

Often hailed as Carnegie II, Bill Gates is if nothing else a champion of standardized testing and other forms of meritocracy. So here's a not-so-modest proposal for one of planet Earth's richest people, now worth around $78.5 billion.

Update Carnegie's vision. Work toward a national digital library endowment, which, as I'll show, could boost K-12 test scores.

The endowment could help buy e-books and other items and finance the hiring and professional development of school and juvenile librarians and family literacy workers in the very poorest areas. It could also narrow the library-related digital divide — $38 tablets already exist, and better econo-models for e-books are ahead.

Our status quo is a disgrace. America's public libraries in fiscal year 2010 spent just $4.22 per capita on print and electronic content. The Mississippi figure was $1.42. Should young people in unlucky locations — including students with the brains and drive to become creators of massive wealth, like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos — suffer so grievously due to geography? Total content spending was only around $1.3 billion, about a 60th of just Mr. Gates' personal fortune.

The super rich, thus, could be godsends even if the endowment couldn't single-handedly end all library funding woes. Let's not neglect brick-and-mortar libraries, essential as study havens and community centers and in countless other ways. But e-books could be spread around more efficiently than the paper variety. Furthermore, physical shelving costs are nonexistent, and library patrons can check out e-books on their own. No fines, either. That should delight low-income people — those most appreciative of library books and other items, according to a recent Pew survey.

Currently, U.S. public libraries spend only around 12 percent of their operating budgets on actual books and other content. So, for this and other reasons, a faster shift to the digital should please a numbers-cruncher like Mr. Gates and millions of library fans as well. In too many cities, patrons must wait weeks and weeks for the most popular digital titles.

Even readers favoring paper books could still come out ahead through the endowment. Libraries would enjoy new resources for the digital shift and not have to redirect as much money as they would otherwise. What's more, the endowment could help libraries give away paper books to low-income parents who preferred the older medium for reading to their toddlers. P-books could be gateways to e-books.

"But," Mr. Gates might still wonder, "how much can the endowment help raise K-12 test scores by encouraging the reading of books by children and their role models — their mothers and fathers?"

A lot, in fact. U.K. researchers have linked recreational reading and cognitive development. The University of London academics are said to have found that the benefits from heavy reading were "four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree." Even math scores go up when children love books.

Alice Sullivan, coauthor of the British study, says that "new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers, and it is important that government policies support and encourage children's reading, particularly in their teenage years."

Enough "why" here? Now, the "how." A national digital library endowment should be a public agency for responsiveness and transparency and rely on tax money, too, at least when times improve.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should not run it. Even Mr. Gates' "bandwidth" is only so broad, and he cares most about global health and global economic development. His 2012 foundation report shows tens of millions going to libraries out of more than $3 billion in grants.

Along with Mr. Gates and his friend Warren Buffett, other billionaires could be valued advisers, honored in well-publicized ceremonies.

Library and business professionals would run the endowment and help establish separate but intertwined public and academic digital library systems. Two systems? Well, needs of K-12 students and typical parents differ starkly from, say, those of Harvard Ph.D.s working in computational genomics. The twin systems should share some board members and a common technical services and infrastructure organization.

If Mr. Gates isn't receptive, others can step in, but ideally he'll see possibilities. The American Library Association has just won a $1 million library advocacy grant from his foundation. Perhaps ALA can nudge Mr. Gates in a friendly way to set a personal example and push for the national endowment — and if library-friendly public officials can also encourage him, then so much the better.

David H. Rothman is a former poverty-beat reporter for the Journal newspaper in Lorain, Ohio and runs LibraryCity.org, a digital library advocacy site. E-mail him at dr@librarycity.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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