IN MAY, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would be ending its Global Libraries program over the next three to five years. This decision marks the beginning of the end of a tremendous philanthropic investment that helped spur significant innovation in U.S. libraries and speed the growth of public libraries in developing countries.
I’ll admit it, the news took my breath away. It arrived in my in-box in the form of a letter from the director of global libraries Deborah Jacobs that gracefully framed the basic time line of the withdrawal and pledged engagement in the process ahead in terms of shaping the best outcome possible for the organizations to be affected. I was surprised and so much more. My smaller but not insignificant reaction was concern for the future of the Best Small Library in America project, which has been funded by the foundation since the award’s first recipient in 2005 (if your memories don’t go back that far, it was the Haines Borough Public Library in Alaska). Not far behind followed a deep disappointment that our field would forfeit not only a source of funding but also the thought leadership brought by Jacobs (the 1994 LJ Librarian of the Year) and her team. I was also worried that libraries could suffer from the loss of high-profile support from this international change agent.
By having Global Libraries in its portfolio, so to speak, the foundation had been signaling that public libraries are part of the solution to what ails our society and communities worldwide, making libraries themselves a priority. That was inspiring. Would the end of that prioritization be a setback?
In 1997, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approached the library universe with an audacious proposal—to help wire the nation’s communities via its public libraries. The program, first called the Gates Library Foundation, saw computers installed in libraries large and small across the country and in Canada. It was not without complications nor critics of a potential self-interested driver, since Microsoft could only benefit from more people using computers. Nonetheless, this initiative dovetailed with the intensification of the digital revolution, and it anticipated the potential for libraries to be in the forefront. It gave libraries momentum and capacity at a critical moment and worked to speed the identification of libraries as tech hubs—just as the digital divide began to yawn. In short, mission met mission. No doubt the Gates Library Foundation program was only one source of technology and training that got us to the next level, but libraries have not been the same since.
That alone was a significant contribution, but the foundation pursued deeper efforts as it turned from direct technology support toward assisting with extending the capacity of libraries in the United States and beyond. Throughout, it has focused on the need to foster greater sustainability. Since then the program has fueled library development in some 20 countries and through that work has given us a much heightened connection to peers beyond our borders. It responded to disaster when it restored libraries destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It has initiated a new understanding of what libraries deliver through vast research into the impact of Internet access via public libraries on the well-being of the people they serve. It articulated anew the concept of “impact” itself and began to help frame a way to measure it that any library could use. In 2012, the foundation distributed more than $37 million through the Global Libraries program worldwide.
Losing the foundation’s continued support is a blow, but it is impossible not to appreciate just how much it has already given. In a way, libraries and the foundation will still be partners, as each addresses communitywide needs such as health care and education.
Do I wish the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would keep making libraries a priority? Yes. I also wish there were many more like it ready to step into the gap. Because they are so connected to communities, libraries are an excellent avenue to make a dramatic difference through philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie saw it, and the Gates Foundation saw it, too. Ultimately, whether or not we are stymied by the loss of a single strand of funding is our responsibility as library leaders to solve. I’m sure people worried as well when Carnegie stopped raising new libraries. We should take what Gates has provided and make it even more meaningful by building on it. Sustainability is up to us.