Reading & Literacy Opinion

We Need a National Digital-Library Endowment

By Jim Duncan & David H. Rothman — May 12, 2015 6 min read
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As a boy, Warren Buffett is said to have read book after book on money.

Thankfully, he did not live in Los Angeles and rely on the library at Roy Romer Middle School. Students there couldn’t check out a Buffett biography, or any other title, when a Los Angeles Times reporter dropped by last year. The reason? The library at the time was locked up because of staff cuts.

Wait. It gets worse. Romer Middle School has lots of company throughout the United States in its school library horrors. One hundred and seventy-six certified librarians worked in the Philadelphia city schools in 1991. Today, the count is just 11 in the 218-school district.

But Mr. Buffett and other members of the super-rich could at least help, through a national digital-library endowment, funded by interested billionaires. The endowment could help pay for librarians, e-books, other content, and related technology for school and public libraries. It could especially target high-poverty areas and promote the hiring and professional development of minority librarians—while also nurturing the love of literature for the new America.

Too many school library collections are skimpy and outdated, and don’t reflect the diversity of our country today or the latest developments in science and technology; and public libraries can spend only about $4 per capita on books and other content. The median number of digital books in a U.S. school library is just 189, compared with 11,300 print titles, according to School Library Journal. Yes, President Barack Obama has launched a K-12 book initiative offering 10,000 digital titles donated by publishers, but that’s a national K-12 library—and remember, the books are for disadvantaged children and will not directly benefit their low-income parents and other adults. Although public-domain titles will also be available, they are no replacements for contemporary books. Why are we ill-serving digital natives, especially when the Common Core State Standards make libraries even more crucial?

Love or hate the testing associated with the common core. But who can dispute such goals as encouraging “critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life”? And school librarians could work with teachers to teach good research skills, using a rich array of electronic resources that typical classroom instructors lack time on their own to keep up with. The librarians could help tie together different curricula. So an English paper could be about the science a student is learning at the same time, an example given by the American Association of School Librarians.


Yes, qualified school librarians can significantly boost student achievement. Check out studies, especially a January 2012 one from the Library Research Service. It allows for the fact that affluent school districts with well-read parents can more easily afford to hire enough librarians.

School libraries are just one area where K-12 education could benefit from money from a new endowment and the creation of two national digital-library systems. One system should concentrate on public and school library needs and the other on academia, even though the two systems should be universally accessible and share resources such as content and infrastructure and people. Along the way, the endowment should promote recreational reading, the very activity to which the young Warren Buffett so passionately devoted himself. That means increasing the number of books in both school and public libraries. Just how many in-depth and up-to-date works on the stock market can you find in a typical school library? And would that library let a future Buffett call up the right databases?

Here’s another reason for educators not to forget public libraries: They can help draw parents into the world of books, so that mothers and fathers can be better role models for young readers, and sources of more stimulating conversation for their offspring. Parents’ reading tastes are not necessarily the same as their children’s; hence the need for school and public libraries alike to help K-12 students.

Simply put, we need to create “book floods"—as some experts have described them—in both schools and communities at large. And we should nudge students and parents alike to read. The average 15- to 19-year-old spends only about six minutes a day reading, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of adults read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in 2012, compared with 56 percent in 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts says. A national digital endowment could encourage such innovative responses as cellphone book clubs for all ages, a concept described at length on the LibraryCity.org site.

Too many school library collections are skimpy and outdated, and don’t reflect the diversity of our country today or the latest developments in science and technology."

The endowment’s funders would get more than their money’s worth: Reading elevates cognitive skills, enlarges vocabulary, and serves as scaffolding for other forms of knowledge. “The availability of books,” said the summary of a massive global study for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, “is a key factor in reading literacy. The higher-scoring countries typically provide their students with greater access to books in the home, in nearby community libraries and bookstores, and in school.” Those findings are from the 1990s. But subsequent research, particularly a study of the past scores of 6,000 people, for the Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, has also shown the need for book floods.

Alas, millions of U.S. children suffer book droughts instead, and a headline in the March 9, 2015, Washington Post says it all: “Unequal shelves in D.C. school libraries benefit wealthier students.”

But why a digital endowment to promote reading and knowledge? Children are building their lives around the new technology. Furthermore, we could save billions and expand book choices with digital options, and the public and school library worlds are already headed in this direction. LightSail Education polled 475 educators recently. As summed up in School Library Journal, the results showed that “94 percent expect that e-books will increase in their schools and districts, with 52 percent predicting that e-books will surge to account for more than 40 percent of all books in their school or district.”

How to pay not just for the books, but also for e-reading-optimized technology and for the people to help students absorb them? Or for related activities? If nothing else, we need to encourage hardware and software companies to create the most student-friendly products. Why did Amazon remove read-aloud from its E Ink Kindles despite the needs of millions of kids with disabilities? And why no all-bold-text option? Or special fonts for people with dyslexia?

Just as importantly, we need to promote proper use of the technology. Different devices, for example, will work out best for different uses by different people. Don’t rely on a cellphone to show complex illustrations from a biology textbook, for example. No, a nine-inch tablet would be far better. And for a recreational reader complaining of glare from a tablet, the right choice could be an E Ink device with either no lighting or a front-lit screen.

A related issue is e-book literacy. Students spend years mastering the reading of paper-bound books. E-books are not the same. If you want to see earlier mentions of a minor character in a long Dickens novel, for example, the solution isn’t to flip e-pages. Rather, it is to call up a searcher displaying all occurrences of a keyword, with surrounding text to put the mentions in context.

Even with attention to such details, a digital-library endowment would not be a complete K-12 solution. But potential benefits abound, and the full proposal on LibraryCity.org tells why we could aim for a $15 billion to $20 billion endowment in five years. Four-hundred people in America are, together, worth some $2 trillion; just a few could make the dream a reality. Let’s hope that policymakers and philanthropists will act.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Not a National Digital-Library Endowment?


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