The Massachusetts Studies Network

Let's revisit the idea of starting a state-wide digital library

Here's an idea I suggested a while ago that I was inspired to bring up again in view of the gloomy horizon for public educational institutions and cultural non-profits in the age of the double-whammy: massive tax and budget cuts.  I've placed an op-ed I'm in the process of writing on MSN in order to invite comment and support for this effort.

 

MA to Endowments: It’s Time to Give Back

 


The staggering contrast between the revived growth of private educational endowments and the bleak budgets of our public schools invites reconsideration of a measure that Massachusetts lawmakers floated in 2008: imposing a fee on educational endowments that exceed $1 billion. Despite strong public support, the bill went to the death chamber known as “further study,” partly because it seemed too much like a thoughtless grab for cash. This fate could have been avoided if we had taken two simple steps, namely, setting the fee low enough to silence objections from the miserly elite and specifying that all of the revenue produced would be devoted to education.


So here’s a proposal that even the stingiest ivy leaguers would find hard to refuse: let’s charge a 0.1% fee to billion+ endowments to fund the creation of a central digital library that would service public and private schools, colleges, universities, libraries, and educational organizations across the Commonwealth. This tiny fee would not deliver the gazillions envisioned back when endowments were ballooning. However, the $40+ million that could be raised annually from the schools that have prospered most on public charity would be plenty to develop and maintain digital collections, courseware, e-books, and educational programs that could reach into every classroom, including those at wealthy universities.


Gaining access to the resources of a statewide digital library would more than offset the cost to institutions with massive endowments. But the benefits would also reach far beyond the classroom, enabling museums, research libraries, historical societies, and cultural organizations to display their treasures across the world. Providing a central platform for exhibitions and educational initiatives, the library could encourage cultural tourism by showcasing our state’s unique contributions to American literature, culture, and politics. After all, whatever other states have to offer, we have Adams, Copley, Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Whistler, Wharton, Du Bois, and other lights too numerous to name.

 

If promoting public understanding of great authors and artists seems too frivolous given our present budget crunch—a dubious proposition—the counter argument is that a digital library would allow instructors in fields ranging from algebra to zoology to distribute course materials online, thereby saving enormous sums that would otherwise be spent on traditional textbooks.


President Obama and Governor Patrick have urged us to come together to find creative solutions to our economic woes. Requiring the richest universities to give back a drop of what the public has given them clearly answers this call. Likewise, establishing a digital library that would be open to all is exactly the kind of public-spirited initiative we need to transcend the attacks on public employees that are now roiling across the country. We already know what happens when we shower mountains of money on bankers. Let’s see what happens when we give a fraction of that to librarians.

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