A nickel a gallon for roads, bridges and mass transit. Why not a nickel a book for research libraries?

By imposing a five-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline sold, the federal government expects to generate $5.5 billion annually for road repairs. The motorists will pay for better highways. Predictably, the trucking industry is unhappy, but all users, heavy and light, will benefit, and hundreds of thousands of repair-related jobs will be filled. Relaxed size and weight restrictions on trucks eased passage of the bill. Nickel- a-gallon is now the law of the land.

Why muse over the possibility of a nickel a book for research libraries? There is no federal library system to speak of. Such a tax would, some will certainly argue, pose a threat to freedom of the press (although the telephone excise tax seems not to impair freedom of speech). Others will ask: What is a book? Are pamphlets exempt? Will magazines be next? Isn't the tax regressive? Why raise the issue at all?

Our research libraries are in need of repair. Retrofitting for the new library technology is an even greater need. New equipment is necessary for the new information systems. Roofs, pipes, wiring, shelving, walls and climate control require attention in most old libraries, of course. Construction and reconstruction jobs are waiting to be done: jobs would be generated.

But even if all our libraries were in perfect repair, a major unmet--and often unnoticed--capital need would remain. Scholarly periodicals will soon be published electronically. Scholarly output will be stored in computer banks, not printed journals. People will use the journal and the article by going to a terminal, not a shelf. Front-end capital costs of electronic journal depositories for scholarly output will be great. So will costs of placing terminals and display screens within reach of readers and researchers across the nation.

Publishers, already uneasy at the prospect of electronic journals, cannot be expected to hail the possibility of a nickel-a-book excise tax any more than the truckers welcomed the nickel-a-gallon on gasoline. The vast majority of book buyers, however, would follow the drivers in accepting the levy without protest. Revenues produced by this tax, if spent wisely on the improvement of research libraries, would guarantee that readers will have better books to buy in the decades ahead.

A federal initiative toward the improvement of research libraries would be a welcome signal that Uncle Sam expects the nation to tip its hat, instead of tapping its head, in the direction of those who dedicate themselves to scholarly research.