Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book festival wastes taxpayer money? Not! -- Sept. 29, 2011 column


About 200,000 people thronged the National Mall last weekend -- not for war protests or to demonstrate against Congress or the president. They came to celebrate books.

In this time of dwindling bookstores, surging e-book sales and ever more virtual commerce and remote companionship, the 11th annual National Book Festival brought together more than a hundred authors, swarms of readers and stacks of old-fashioned books in print.

The festival, started by Laura Bush as first lady, is free, and generations of families showed up for readings, book signings and children’s programs. Among the preeminent writers on several stages -- Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, historian David McCullough, biographer Edmund Morris, humorist Garrison Keillor, poet Rita Dove, children’s author Katherine Paterson, and memoirist Dave Eggers.

I listened to a few authors talk about their work, wandered through a tent where state libraries gave out flyers on intriguing state and regional book festivals and state maps. I browsed the book tent and bought two and then stood in a long line to get one signed. There’s something you can’t do with a Kindle, I gloated. (Later I watched a YouTube video on how an author could digitally “sign” an e-book. Complicated is an understatement.)

It was heartening to see so many people enjoying themselves with books, but something nagged at me. How much was this feel-good event costing taxpayers? Could it be perceived as, horrors, a waste of money? Would the long knives of congressional budget-cutters slice out its heart?

Stan Collender, who has worked for both the House and Senate budget committees and is the author of a book on the federal budget process, raised questions about the festival on his blog on the Capitol Gains and Games website.

“It might be possible to achieve better results at a lower cost if the government distributed vouchers all over the country and let people get books from local stores,” Collender wrote after the festival a couple of years ago.

“Some might consider the program to be a waste because it directly benefits only a relatively small number of people and is held in only one city. Others might believe it’s a waste because they don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to promote reading over, say, movie watching. Some might think it is waste because they don’t like the authors whose books are featured or because the language in their books offends them,” he wrote.

Whoa. Don’t tell the tea party.

Me, I’m a soft touch for books and reading. Not only do I think the festival is not a waste, I’m fully prepared to argue that it’s money well spent. OK, it’s not as important as National Institutes of Health researchers’ searching for a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s, but it’s definitely worthwhile. The government should encourage literacy. How else will we compete in a global economy?

I’d read about the festival’s deep-pocketed corporate sponsors, including Target, Wells Fargo, AT&T and the Washington Post. In 2010, David M. Rubenstein, cofounder of the Carlyle Group, a global private equity fund, announced a $5 million gift over five years. But was it enough?

I called Jennifer Gavin, acting director of communications for the Library of Congress and the project manager of the festival.

The festival is estimated cost $2.2 million this year, she told me, and there’s good news.

“We aren’t financing this with taxpayer dollars. It’s financed through private donations.” Gavin said.

None of the corporate sponsors get in the door for less than $30,000. This year, Rubenstein offered to spring for another $300,000 above his announced gift so that the festival could expand from one to two glorious days.

A few Library of Congress employees – about 20 -- devote about 15 percent of their time overall to the festival, Gavin said. Other than that, it’s paid for with donations. That’s a relief.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington thanked the corporate sponsors, supporters and more than 1,100 volunteers at this year’s festival. Because of them, he said, “We can look forward to this beloved celebration of reading and literacy for years to come.”

See you there next year?

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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