Why India’s billionaires should support a national library endowment

national library

A proposal for India’s super-richnational library



By David H Rothman


Here is a not-so-modest proposal for India’s super rich—especially Mukesh Ambani, the country’s wealthiest man, a petro magnate who is worth some $22 billion and lives in a 27-floor Mumbai skyscraper home that cost a cool billion (yes, billion, not million).

Support a national library endowment.

In other words, help the masses better themselves and also reduce the chances of a deadly Jacobin backlash in the distant future against the super rich.

Digital-era libraries can be powerful engines for prosperity and increased social mobility, not just heritage-preservers. Their health information can help save lives. What’s more, the proposed endowment could honor the spirit of India’s own SR Ranganathan, author of the Five Laws of Library Science and one of history’s most revered librarians.

LibraryEndowment.org, a US-based site that I helped create, spells out specifics which an endowment in India could localize in line with similar goals of a new group called the Indian Public Library Movement (IPLM.org).

LibraryEndowement.org refines Andrew Carnegie’s vision of his financing public libraries, then letting communities take over the costs from there. Funding for libraries depends all too often on political whims. An endowment will not replace all tax money or other revenue sources, but by way of investments, it can provide a steady revenue stream to expand library services and help deal with the exigencies of the day. The endowment nonprofit could support such library-related initiatives as:

#More libraries for rural areas, providing not only books but also authoritative medical information along with agricultural and nutrition advice. Librarians should work closely with other professionals such as public health nurses and social workers.

#The education, hiring and professional development of digitally savvy librarians, especially those who come from poorer families and thus can serve as the best role models for citizens most in need of libraries. Female librarians could be particularly effective in raising the aspirations of women.

#Encouragement of cell phone reading and efforts to upgrade people from the more primitive models to smartphones with screens large enough for reading. More than 220 million Indians already own smart phones. What’s more, suppose that the endowment can work with others to lower the cost of ebook-friendly tablets and dedicated ebook readers. The group Wordreader could be an invaluable source of advice.

#Promotion of books, libraries and reading on television and radio as well as in social media, complete with the use of pitches by Bollywood stars and other celebrities.

#Two separate but intertwined national digital library systems—one public, one academic—that go far beyond the Digital Library of India. The needs of the two kinds of library users will differ, a major consideration at budget time. Public library users as a group will prefer a pop psychology title over an arcane tome on Freudian theory. The two systems could share a universal digital catalogue for interested users, including public library users who did want access to academic works.

#Nurturing of local entrepreneurs. For example, they could use reference-desk help and high-speed Internet connections to identify markets for their goods and services. Yes, upgrading of Internet infrastructure could be part of the vision.

Without doubt the money is there for a big enough library endowment to make a difference even in a nation of 1.349 billion. As noted in Views Online, the 84 known billionaires in India are together worth 248billion USD. The average Indian billionaire is worth $1.4 billion, 40 percent more than his Chinese counterpart. Wealth over the years will multiply in India. The endowment could reach $20-billion or more in the next decade or two if the $248 billion grew to a trillion. Meanwhile it is not too early to start.

Granted, India’s literacy rate has inched up over the years to 75 percent from the 12 percent it was 70 years ago at the time of independence. But that is still nine percent below the global average of 84 percent, and for now, at least, India has the most illiterates. Alas, India can now spend only about Rs 0.07 per capita on public libraries, compared to the still-insufficient $36 in the U.S.

Reincarnated for the digital era, SR Ranganathan would understand these needs.The first Law of Library Science is, Books are for use. Ranganathan hated to see books just accumulate on dusty shelves or be chained to tables without their actually being read. Surely today he would feel the same about ebooks, web content and technology—he would want as many books, other items and services as possible to be available for the masses. The current challenges are formidable. While as many as 100,000 libraries may exist in India, according to P Jayarajan, chair of the IPLM’s advisory committee, some 72 percent of the country’s people live in rural areas. Only a minority will enjoy convenient access to books in India’s 6,40,000 villages. Jayarajan has proposed “one good library for a cluster of ten villages,” besides having “many libraries in towns and cities,” where, today, even educated people don’t use libraries as often as they should.

Coming close to the endowment ideas I envisioned it in 2013 in a digitally oriented version, Jayarajan writes of the possibility of a “Centrally managed India Public Library Fund” with donations from governments, corporations and other sources. I am delighted to see a kindred spirit! But why not focus especially on billionaires—that’s where the real money is? We’re talking about a speck of a speck of the collective fortunes of the super rich.

Of course, if India’s billionaires instead allowed for most of their wealth going for libraries and other needs eventually, in line with the suggestion at GivingPledge.org, a movement created by US billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who’s to complain? But I am realistic. As best I can determine, just a fraction of India’s richest citizens have signed (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Azim Premji, Dubai-based Sunny and Sherly Varkey, and Pnc and Sobha Menon). This needs to change in all countries. Billionaires and scions must understand their personal obligations to society. Furthermore, while India’s corporate social responsibility law requires businesses above a certain size to donate two percent of net profits to charities, not all companies are living up to their obligations.

The good news is that IPLM already exists and can advocate the creation of an endowment, or the use of existing organizations as an equivalent. But will those 84 billionaires oblige? One start might be for India Legal readers and their friends to take part in a polite Twitter campaign directed at @MukeshAAmbani and his fellow billionaires—while emailing other publications and broadcasters and asking them to spread the word. “If American business tycoon can be the US President, are there any possibilities for me to become next India’s PM?” Ambani tweeted recently, perhaps serious, perhaps not. His support of the endowment would help show voters, and posterity, that he was more than just the owner of a billion-dollar house.

David H Rothman (davidrothman@pobox.com) is a former poverty-beat reporter. He is editor-publisher of TeleRead.org, the world’s oldest website devoted to ebook-related news and views.