Infrastructure Watch: Buffett as the Next Carnegie

By James Fallows

Everyone moans about the collapsing U.S. infrastructure. Here is a suggestion of one public/private step toward its reconstruction. Over the years I've often quoted David H. Rothman of Alexandria, Va., a pioneer in the entire field of electronic reading devices. He was talking about his "Teleread" proposal many, many years products like the Kindle, Nook, or iPad had been conceived.

CarnegieLibrary.jpgSeveral times before -- for instance here and here -- Rothman has made guest-post arguments about the importance of using e-readers and digital archives as tools of equality, opportunity, and development in America. That is, he presents them as "public goods" and indispensable parts of the modern infrastructure of the 21st century, in much the way public libraries were in Europe and North America through the 19th and 20th centuries. Now he advances the argument, emphasizing the role that today's industrialists-becoming-philanthropists could play, comparable to Andrew Carnegie's in supporting the expansion of public libraries [above] more than a century ago.

I turn the stage over to David H. Rothman, with a precis of an argument he makes in extended form here:

A national digital library endowment: How America's billionaires could be modern Carnegies for real

Warren Buffett was on CBS Sunday Morning. The interviewer, Rebecca Jarvis, asked if he owned an iPad. No. iPhone? No.

"He prefers books," she said in an admiring way, "and reads avidly."

As if electronic books don't exist (even though Buffett actually knows they do, despite his traditional definition of "book")!  As if millions of Americans are not downloading e-books to iPhones, iPads and other devices! As if a young Buffett today wouldn't love to read scads of library e-books each year!

Ideally Buffett, Bill Gates and other billionaires will think analytically and strategically about America's digital library needs. I'd much rather that public funding alone sufficed and that enough money come now. But like it or not--I don't--this is the era of anti-government diatribes and Fiscal Cliffs and other manifestations of rampant dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

So perhaps Buffett, Gates and some other super-wealthy American can themselves finance a new national endowment to help fund two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems -- one public, one academic. The proposed endowment could at least mitigate damage from the vast geographical disparities in public library spending on books and other content (a mere $1.53 per capita in Mississippi in one recent year).

For the details, especially of interest to potential donors to the proposed endowment, go to LibraryCity.org and check out a longer version of the argument I am making here, including some analysis of the promising Digital Public Library of America project. Meanwhile here is a little more on the possibilities.

On bytes and paprika: Why digital counts

Our libraries need paper books, too, especially for the youngest children and others who may not take immediately to the current digital variety. But e-books and other digital items come with special advantages beyond their inherent efficiencies. Consider the public library system in Lorain, Ohio, as well as the fact that about 18 percent of our Gross Domestic Product goes for healthcare.

The Lorain library came out with a spiffy section on the home page promoting fitness books and DVDs for the New Year. Lorain is a heavily ethnic town with more than 70 nationalities. Now, what if Lorainites could not just locate generic books on healthful cooking but also trustworthy guides to lower-calorie, lower-fat or lower-sodium variants of popular Hungarian, Puerto Rican or African-American recipes, among others? And find out the good as well as the bad? Would you believe, the capsicum peppers used for paprika teem with more vitamin C per gram than is found in lemon juice?

Via links on the home page and elsewhere, Lorainites could speed to the actual e-books, articles and online videos--not just catalogs listing them. What more, a well-planned national digital library system could make it easier for local librarians to set up online forums and curated wikis for their patrons to swap recipe tips with their neighbors. Librarians and local patrons alike could link to specific pages within the national collection.

Those are only a few examples of the power of melding local and national. Just as local food-lovers swapped recipes with people nearby and far off, local entrepreneurs could benefit from library-facilitated connections--virtual and face to face--in keeping with public libraries' potential as drivers of economic development. All in all, the lost opportunities from not creating two well-stocked national digital library systems would dwarf the actual costs.

Again, if you're interested, please check out David's longer version of the proposal. This era has a lot things in common with the churn, excess, and uncertainties of the original Gilded Age. I hope that this period's ultimate-tip-of-the-pyramid beneficiaries are thinking as hard as, say, Carnegie or Rockefeller did about their long-term legacies.

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Update I am explicitly not opening the giant can of worms that is the ongoing current discussion of  patent, copyright, and trademark reform. But here is a reaction from one reader to Rothman's proposal:
There is something Congress could do that would dramatically increase the access to books that the CBO could score as having zero cost: they could reform copyright law and put anything published before 1983 in the public domain. 

I think that would create quite a nice starter collection for any electronic library or bookstore and a nice loss-leader for companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google, who would use the content to hook people into their stores and ecosystems.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/infrastructure-watch-buffett-as-the-next-carnegie/273263/