In early May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took much of the world by surprise by announcing that the massive charitable organization would stop offering grants and support to libraries around the world in the next few years. Libraries have long been a pillar of the foundation’s strategy, and while the funding will be missed, librarians are already looking ahead at how to preserve the work that’s been done and find ways for other organizations to step into the space the foundation will leave behind.
“The foundation has decided to conclude our work in Global Libraries over the next three to five years,” wrote Deborah Jacobs, director of the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative and LJ’s 1994 Librarian of the Year, in a May 7 blog post. “This transition will happen slowly with no programmatic changes to our budgets this year or next year, and we are planning a smooth transition for our staff, grantees and the field.”
What is driving the decision? Many of the goals that led the foundation to focus on libraries in the first place, such as getting computer resources into libraries around the country and making sure patrons can use them to access the Internet, have been largely accomplished. Speaking to LJ about the foundation’s decisions to decouple from libraries, Jacobs drew a comparison between the foundation’s investments and the thousands of libraries funded by grants from Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century, saying that while new investments may end, the resources the foundation helped to build will remain useful to the industry for years to come.
“The initial connection work was very important, but that computer and technology work is largely done,” said Global Libraries deputy director Jessica Dorr, noting that the organization has largely shifted to making grants to train librarians to take up leadership and advocacy roles. “That shift is critical, because it shows that libraries saw the importance of their work in a different way, and that’s the spirit that lives on.”
Jacobs also pointed out that no Gates Foundation funding is meant to exist in perpetuity, and that the foundation itself is meant to wind down all funding after it’s founders pass away rather than continuing on indefinitely. Until then, though, the resources once designated for global libraries will, in coming years, be devoted instead to other foundation priorities like international development, education, and public health efforts.
Librarians who spoke to LJ expressed an understanding that an exit would be in the cards for the foundation sooner or later, and were glad to know that the departure would be a slow one with a focus on maintaining the resources the foundation has helped build over years of investment in libraries around the world.
“I was a little surprised and a little disappointed, but it didn’t seem totally shocking to me,” said Ann Joslin, Idaho State Librarian and president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). She compared the foundation’s departure from the library ecosystem to its work in areas like public health, predicting that once advances have been made in the fight against malaria in some years, the foundation will look to reinvest the money they’re spending to support that research.
Some librarians saw the foundation’s departure as an opportunity for librarians to step up. “In my view, the engagement that the Gates Foundation has had in the library field globally leaves us with the capacity and the confidence to go forward and do what comes next,” Chrystie Hill, community director at WebJunction and a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker, told LJ. Indeed, much of the foundation’s work in recent years has centered around training librarians to be advocates for the industry and developing tools like the Impact Survey to help libraries quantify the ways in which they serve their community. Now, she said, it’s time for librarians to take those resources and run with them, without looking for support from the Gates Foundation or other external organizations. “The vision for the future of libraries,” Hill said, “should come from the field, not from a foundation.”
Representatives from other organizations in the field were notably quiet on the Gates Foundation departure, such as the International Federation of Library Associations, which declined to comment on the situation for this story.
“Nothing will end if we keep the vision of what libraries are and can be alive,” Jacobs told LJ, saying that even after the foundation rolls back its funding for libraries, thousands of librarians around the world who have received training and support from the organization will still be around, using the lessons they’ve learned to advocate for the industry. “Librarians have to make a decision that they’re not going to wait for someone else to do things for them. The tools are out there, we have to pick them up.”
Of course, even while looking on the bright side, this won’t be an easy pill for the field to swallow. According to its annual giving snapshot, in 2011, the Gates Foundation awarded just over $12 million in grants to libraries in the U.S. and nearly $39 million to libraries abroad around the world. While individual donations to U.S. libraries are mostly a thing of the past, Gates Foundation grants recently took a more satellite view of the industry, funding efforts like COSLA’s development of its strategic plan, the first of its kind in the organization’s 40 year history, the nearly $1 million grant the foundation awarded the Digital Public Library of America last year to support librarian training programs, and $1 million to the American Library Association for advocacy efforts. According to Hill, perhaps even more important than the direct money the foundation provided was the exposure and weight that it brought to library issues, which in turn brought more funders along for the ride.
“The Gates Foundation and Global Libraries acted as giving catalysts,” said Hill. “Now, the legacies of those programs have to be the catalyst and get other funders to lean in.”
Joslin was sanguine about the chances for finding new funders. “The public library ecosystem is certainly at a place where we’re higher visibility than we’ve been in a while,” she said. “We’re getting more recognition for our services, and more recognition that those services are important to local communities, so I’m hopeful.”
Jacobs noted that maintaining the knowledge base and training curricula the foundation has funded remain accessible for future generations of librarians and preserving advocacy tools such as the Impact Survey and EDGE Initiative will be a focus during the coming transition.
As the foundation begins its transition away from library funding, they’ll spend the coming months examining how best to preserve the work they’ve done and exit the field gracefully. Current grantees will continue receiving the funding and support that the foundation has pledged, and some new grants will still be issued. Changes to staffing levels at the Global Libraries program won’t be considered until early to mid-2015, when the steps involved in this complicated transition have become somewhat more clear