Willie Sutton

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 my 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.


  1. Oh, I don’t know. Billionaires and schools, much less anything as nebulous as libraries, don’t seem to mix well. Succeeding in one narrow corporate endeavor (i.e. Bill Gates at Microsoft) doesn’t seem to translate well into understanding the complexities of children, learning, reading, libraries, and schools.

    Common Core is a good illustration. Its model isn’t all that different from how Microsoft creates new versions of Windows or Office. Large numbers of specialists labor in near secrecy to create a new product that everyone is supposed to adopt without question. The result is a bloated product that works poorly and that many people grow to hate. It didn’t win support by working. It gets adopted because people aren’t given any choice.

    Of course, you might say that the continuing use of Windows XP in defiance of later versions of Windows proves the opposite. But it only enhances the point I am make. Parents and kids have never been happy with any dictated set of ‘common’ standards. They not only keep using the school equivalent of Windows XP, they go with Apple, adopt a dozen versions of Linux, and even run aging DOS machines.

    Someone once defined a philanthropist as “someone who gives away what he ought to give back.” I suspect that money would be spent a lot more wisely and do a lot more good if it had stayed widely distributed and not become concentrated in the bank accounts of a few with a bit too much interest in meddling in our lives.

  2. Hi, Michael. I’m hardly the biggest fan of the Procrustean bed-style approaches of Microsoft and so many other mega-organizations. Also, I’ll never confuse Bill Gates with Mother Teresa even though he has done plenty of good through his philanthropic work.

    But without a national digital library endowment funded by billionaires like Gates, just where is the money coming from? No matter what business models libraries use, including one you’ve proposed, local taxpayers will pay only so much. Same for Kickstarter fans. And Congress for now won’t be that generous. So let’s do a Sutton and go where the money is, while giving due recognition to Gates or any other billionaires who help out.