“Libraries hold a place of honor in the annals of American philanthropic history. A century ago, Andrew Carnegie made a lasting mark on more than 2,500 communities in at least nine countries with his financial support for public libraries. By the time Carnegie’s trusts made their last library grant in 1919, more than half of the public libraries in the United States owed their existence to his philanthropy.
“Fast-forward to 2012 and libraries are once again at the forefront of a new era of philanthropy. This time the library in question is digital. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a nascent effort to create a shared open library of electronic knowledge for all. Where local municipalities mattered most as partners in 1912, today, the key partners are existing libraries, publishers, readers, museums, and authors and artists. Where Carnegie’s communities needed to find common physical space, the leaders of the DPLA are trying to find common ‘virtual’ ground in terms of ownership and fair use rights. At the DPLA, if citizens have Internet connections, they have the equivalent of a library card—one that gives them unparalleled access to a huge library of books virtually, and at virtually no cost.
“In our digital age, this balance between public and private extends far beyond libraries. Digital data operate differently than analog artifacts. The Internet infrastructure and the digital information that travels over this infrastructure challenge the classical economic conception of what constitutes a public good. According to the standard approach, the basic idea of public goods is that they are non-rival (consumption by one person does not diminish the amount that others can consume) and non-excludable (no person can be denied, by fact or by law, access to the good). We rely largely on governments to produce, finance, and distribute analog goods that met these criteria (roads, armies, public schools), because they fail as market goods. We also create policy incentives for private philanthropy to provide such goods—be they alternative schools, museums, or neighborhood benefit organizations—as a means of encouraging participation, creating a diversity of options, and allowing the private development of shared public resources. The nature of the goods—shared resources that benefit many—shapes how we have structured our public policies about philanthropy.”
From Lucy Bernholz, Rob Reich & Chiara Cordelli’s report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, ReCoding Good: Part 7