Sunday, November 21, 2004

The DNA of Cultural Improvement

Following up on my post about the NEA's Reading at Risk report, I ran across this fantastic idea by John Halbo:

The NEA could buy: cultural DNA. The NEA could plausibly do, on a larger scale, what it has done with the Paris Review. Pay to have culture set free.

Basically, he suggests that the NEA should aquire from the Library of Congress all the cultural material that has come out into the public domain and purchase from the rightful copyright owners the rights to a lot of other cheap material that is financially unsuccessful but culturally important and provide it free on line. John Halbo got the idea from the Paris Review's DNA of Literature project, a huge collection of interviews with more than 300 20th century authors that has just been posted.

The BBC Archives are doing something along this line and I think it's a fabulous idea. It would provide a way for the NEA to do something practical that would at the very least take steps to curb some of the more egregious problems pointed out in the Reading at Risk report.

The only problem I see, is that the NEA library is woefully understaffed and underfunded. I've visited the NEA Library and interviewed the sole librarian there. They have no electronic database in place yet and no manpower to put one there. Their budget has not increased one cent in at least five years.

To follow his suggestion would require the NEA to quadruple (if not multiply by a factor of ten) it's library holdings and staff. That does not come cheep, especially in an era when library staff and budgets are being cut. Staffing alone would cost half a million, and add into that a new library building and electronic database, IT support and the whole library infrastructure and your talking about a price tag in the tens of millions. Pocket change when compared to the Defense Budget but outlandish when looked at as a flat budget increase for, of all things, the NEA.

An idea like this would have been feasible under President Gore or President Kerry but since Congress just approved the purchase of a new yacht for Bush, I think we all know that this administration's goals are not in the realm of making cultural DNA available to all. Still, it's an idea to keep under our hat and bring out when Blue America succeeds and we finally have the breathing room to enact progressive changes, without having to worry about appeasing skittish soccer moms and other assorted mouthbreathers in Red America.

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