Gates Foundation to Invest $400 Million in Libraries

By Kniffel, Leonard | American Libraries, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Gates Foundation to Invest $400 Million in Libraries


Kniffel, Leonard, American Libraries


Plans are under way for the disbursement of $200 million in cash and $200 million in computer equipment and software to public libraries following the June 23 announcement by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda French Gates that they have established the Gates Library Foundation. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to bringing computers and digital information to public libraries in low-income communities throughout the United States and Canada.

The foundation will expand on the work of Microsoft's Libraries Online initiative (AL, Dec. 1996, p. 19-20), which was launched in December 1995 in partnership with ALA's Public Library Association. The pilot program has brought information technology and Internet access to some 200 libraries. The foundation, expected to reach 8,000 libraries directly, is being hailed as the greatest gift to American libraries since Andrew Carnegie gave $41.2 million for library construction between 1890 and 1917.

With the help of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ALA's Office for Research and Statistics calculated that the Carnegie money in today's terms would amount to roughly $505 million. The foundation's $400 million combined with the $15 million already spent on Libraries Online, puts Gates right up there with Carnegie. Unlike Carnegie, however, Bill Gates has no apparent ulterior motive, no sullied reputation to cleanse.

"Since I was a kid, libraries have played an important role in my life. In the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to visit many libraries and see firsthand how people are using personal computers and the Internet to do anything from look for a job to research a term paper," Bill Gates said in announcing the establishment of the foundation. "Witnessing the empowerment this technology has given people underscores my belief that computers can really make a difference in the lives of others."

In a videotaped message, Bill Gates told attendees at ALA's Annual Conference in San Francisco that the foundation's goal is "equal opportunity for all."

Patty Stonesifer, former senior vice-president of Microsoft's Interactive Multimedia Division and consultant to DreamWorks SKG, has been named as the foundation's president and chair. Joining her and the Gateses on the foundation board will be William Gray III, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund; Gilbert W. Anderson, retired president and CEO of Physio-Control and Seattle Public Library Foundation board member; and Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation. Christopher Hedrick, who has run Libraries Online at Microsoft, has joined the foundation staff as program director.

American Libraries caught up with Hedrick in San Francisco, where he was beginning "three or four months of listening to people in the profession and trying to understand the best way to build a program."

He said the foundation "had its genesis in two basic beliefs that Bill Gates has: that public libraries are fundamental institutions in American society and American democracy, and that all of us have a responsibility to do something about bridging the gap between those who have access to information technology in digital forms and those who do not."

ALA Executive Director Elizabeth Martinez commented on the day of the announcement that "this is an enormous gift to our nation's libraries. It means that potentially every child and adult will have access to global information online at public libraries across America."

Martinez called the Gates Library Foundation the "culmination of a dream." She explained that she had approached Gates in March 1996 with "The Big Idea" - a plan to fulfill ALA Goal 2000 through connecting every library in the nation, especially in poor communities, and training librarians to utilize electronic resources.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for libraries across the country that might not ever have had access to funds for technology to bring these things into their libraries," said PLA Executive Director Greta Southard. …

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