“Anybody who can get to a library can get to the internet.”
Imagine that you’re richest man in the world. Now imagine all the vain and frivolous ways you could spend your money. Do any of them involve riding around rural Alabama on a bookmobile?
“There are two important things about spending this day with librarians,” said Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1998 during a whirlwind tour of Alabama one year into his library philanthropy. “One is for me to learn from them how the process is going and what we can do to help out more and to see the physical environment.” The other “is to celebrate the great work they’ve done in making this happen. Our grant is an impetus, it’s a catalyst, but these librarians hold their communities together and get them enthused about this, about having it be very high-visibility.”
With only one state connectivity project underway, the enormity of Gates’s gift was not clear to anyone at the time. But it was apparent that when the wealthiest man in the world, at age 43, announced that he intended to begin showering America’s libraries with computers and high-speed internet connections, stars were indeed falling on Alabama.
I followed Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, around Alabama’s so-called Black Belt as the couple made their way through the countryside in a bookmobile dubbed “Take Me to Your Reader.”
When I interviewed him during that trip, what I remember most is how intense he was and the way he rocked in his chair—the way really smart little kids do when they cannot express a thought fast enough.
I asked Gates what he thought about the future of the book. “We’re very, very clear that the role these computers play in no way diminishes what libraries should be doing with books, in terms of growing their collections and keeping them up-to-date.” Presciently, he noted that “fifteen years from now, you might be able to read [books] off of a screen, but that doesn’t really change anything. The authors are still doing the same thing and want to be compensated for the work they are doing, and people still want a place to go and find those things and ask questions about them, the same way that the newspaper still has reporters who fill the same central role. Even if some day you read it off the screen, the same would be true as of written material.”
The foundation’s library program started with a pilot project in 1996, continued in 1997 with the establishment of the Gates Library Foundation (as it was then called), which invested nearly $180 million in library computerization over five years. At that point, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began a series of sustainability grants and expanded its global reach.
In a second interview with American Libraries in 2003, Gates, then Microsoft chairman, said the five-year run of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s library computerization project is the stuff that makes him love his job, and it’s people and their stories that keep him going.
This latter-day Andrew Carnegie explained by telephone from Microsoft headquarters in Washington State why he did it and what he hopes it will mean to communities far into the future. I told him that the feedback from my follow-up trip to Alabama had been very positive and asked how the outcome looked to him.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “You know, in a lot of philanthropy, things don’t go very well. And yet everything we see suggests that for this one the librarians really pitched in and drove this thing to make a big impact, in terms of how people view the library and really reaching out to a lot more people.”
I asked him if he felt there were barriers that had to be overcome.
“When we first got into it, we thought there might be a lot of issues: Would the librarians be enthusiastic? Would we be able to train them? Would the constituents show up? Would the constituents use it for things that are basically constructive?” It was telling, he said, that Microsoft executive Patty Stonesifer was so impressed by the library program that when she retired from the company she wanted nothing more than to become president of the foundation.
“There were some amazing things about these rural libraries and the connectivity. We started out where there was the most need, that is, where there were households that didn’t have PCs. Therefore, for the kids to get to this tool whenever they wanted to, the library was the only institution that was going to provide that. We also ended up being in states where the connectivity problems were particularly tough, primarily in the rural areas. That took a lot of creativity. It took state-level involvement.
“A lot of the states stepped up very quickly to help with the connectivity costs. I remember Louisiana was particularly good in being one of the first, and then some of the others came along. The energy of the kids that we got into the training effort was really quite phenomenal. They had to travel to all sorts of unusual places for training. And then the librarians really were the ones who made it come together, being enthused about the training and providing space in their libraries and getting the word out. And then, of course, the librarians have had the ongoing challenge of the connectivity costs. We funded training and the initial hardware grants, and Microsoft provided some of the software that people used, but the connectivity piece is ongoing. The federal e-rate discount program helped some, but what’s always going to be a challenge is that the local constituency will have to see the additional cost of this connectivity as something that they really want to make sure gets funded for these libraries.
“Most of the concerns we had turned out to not be an issue—the way people use the machines, the involvement of the librarians. There’s been the controversy that you would expect over whether filtering software gets put on the machines or not, and we stayed out of that. We don’t require any filtering software, nor do we have any issues about whatever choices librarians make about the various filtering options that are out there,” Gates said.
The American Library Association had been under fire from the religious right for supporting unfiltered internet access for children in public libraries. I asked Gates what he thought of the criticism that bringing the internet into the library brings pornography to children.
“Fortunately, in the last three or four years, the interest in some kind of filtering by parents has been high enough that many companies, including Microsoft, AOL, and others, have gotten more sophisticated about making filtering capabilities available. Now, those solutions are never perfect. That is, they’ll sometimes—and it’ll often get publicity—filter out a page like a breast cancer page that maybe should be available, and they’ll sometimes filter in something that shouldn’t be available. They’re not perfect, but they’re awfully good. These computers can keep logs of what’s been blocked out. Most of the software now allows the librarian, who’s got an admin privilege to look at a page and allow it to pass through, to know what’s being filtered or even if a patron is there and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m getting this block.’ The librarian can walk up, and with most software packages, give the admin password and see what it is and then decide whether to let it pass through or not. In a few cases, you’d have to call the librarian over to make that work. So I feel good that, unlike five years ago, if people do choose to use the software, there’s some relatively inexpensive and relatively high-quality stuff that strikes a pretty good balance on these issues.
“To be frank, if you really wanted ultimate precision, you’d almost want different filtering for different ages. And that gets fairly complicated. I actually think librarians put more energy into this than some of the schools have. At least in the case of the library, you have people walking by that screen on a fairly regular basis. And I don’t think if I was a kid I’d go to the library and . . . Anyway, I think it’s kind of a public thing, and the librarian has the right to walk by and see what you’re doing at any point, so the data we have suggests that of all the computer access going on, the amount of any of this kind of activity is very, very small. With or without the filtering, you know, it’s not the venue where this is going on.”
I asked Gates what link he saw between the foundation’s library activities and its health-care initiatives.
“As we looked at what patrons were doing with the library computers, a few things really jumped out. Certainly staying in touch with relatives that are far away and looking for jobs are two big things that we expected. Another that jumped out was that when a friend or family member would have a health issue, they’d be going online to seek information about the disease and what new things might be available in terms of treatment. That was a major activity, and one they’re very gratified to be able to get lots of information on.
“I think these computers have been a great tool to empower people to learn about these things. Certainly our foundation puts up a lot of material and links to various sites. I’m an avid user of the internet to stay up on research work and what’s going on in the various conferences. Access to information is just night and day versus five years ago. Because these health issues really appeal to people’s humanitarian instincts, hopefully information access will lead to more involvement.”
Gates had been quoted as saying that before he died he planned to give away 95% of his wealth. I asked what motivated him and what he saw as the future of libraries.
“Well, hopefully I have a lot of time to think about how this money should go back to society in the best way possible,” he laughed. “I’m very grateful for the whole library effort because the library was something I had a strong personal benefit from, strong involvement with, and when you have a success like this where the librarians jump in and make it come together, it really motivates you to do more giving and even try some new and different things in giving.
“The biggest area for the foundation is health care in developing countries. There, the need is quite urgent, particularly around some of the epidemics and, yet, we’re very hopeful that, if the advances in science are applied to the needs of the world at large, we can come up with vaccines and treatments. So I think that health giving will be the biggest part of the foundation’s activity for quite some time, until we make some really big advances in the way we think about health for our children here in this country and the way parents in other countries think about their kids.
“In terms of libraries, we’re talking with the various states. We are moving into a new phase. The whole training staff that we had, that did such a good job, is now been delegated out to the various training centers we created. We hope that it sustains itself. We’re doing some grants at the state level for sustaining it in the places where that will be the toughest.
“In terms of what’s beyond, we don’t really have a clear plan there, but health and education are pretty urgent needs. Certainly for our activity in the United States, I think the education-focused work, including scholarships and the focus on high schools, will be our biggest thing for some time to come. Melinda and I get very hands-on and involved in these things, and once we pick something, we like to see it through. The library effort is really the only thing where the foundation started something and, at least in terms of the initial goals, we feel like they were achieved and we almost feel nostalgic about the great things that went on.”
Gates had said in 1998 that the goal of the project was that “anybody who can get to a library can get to the internet.” I asked him if the goal had been achieved.
“Yes, to the 95% level, that goal has been achieved,” he responded. “We came up with programs even for very small libraries. And you might have expected, okay, only half of the libraries would be interested, but the degree of interest was super-high. Less than 5% of the libraries weren’t excited about participating in the training. You often see this with adults, who feel that kids understand computers better than they do; you see this a lot with teachers, who stay away from computers as much as they can because they’re uncomfortable with them.
Here—partly because librarians are so committed to their patrons, partly because the training was done in a way that drew them in—it got them to think about what people would be interested in. I think part of the principle of being a librarian is you want people to have access to information, so the program really appealed to how librarians thought of their role. The participation was phenomenal, way beyond what we would have expected.
“I didn’t realize that librarians are often working without much acknowledgment of the important role they play. The program was valuable in terms of adding this new tool to the library, but also giving the librarians a chance to remind people of the central role that the library has in the community and the fact that staying up-to-date requires a sustained commitment from people in the community for the library to play that role.
But Gates said the computerization project in rural communities had not been well reported on by the media. “I’m kind of disappointed in the way it got covered. There was a New York Times article that acted like we had as a goal moving people out of rural areas. It was unfortunate that the New York Times article took that angle. The fact that people who stay in rural areas can stay in touch with people and get at information sources they wouldn’t otherwise have, that’s just a fantastic thing. The whole role of the library in these rural communities is amazing. It’s an organization point for a lot of community activities, and it’s super-neat. The internet connection has actually helped reinforce that.”
Gates said he was also disappointed that the project “hasn’t gotten more visibility—not that there haven’t been articles that have overstressed the filtering issue or any of the controversial issues. I wish that there was an even broader awareness [of the library computerization program], because that’s very important for the sustainability that is going to be determined community by community.”
When the American Library Association awarded Honorary Membership to the Gateses in 1998, there was muttering in some sectors of the organization about Bill Gates’s motivation for the massive computerization effort. I asked him how he responded to skeptics who say the foundation’s library program was a marketing ploy to make permanent Microsoft customers out of public libraries and their patrons.
“That was a criticism that we expected,” he said. There’s probably somebody who got exposed to the software in the library and chose to buy a personal computer. But it was not the reason that the program was done. I think computer literacy for society is a very positive thing, particularly not having it be something only for the wealthiest in society or just the people in big cities. The fact that overall exposure to computers and software might have a benefit to the industry, I think that’s a fairly small thing and it wasn’t the key motivation. But I can’t deny that someone might have been excited about software after using it in the library and ended up buying a computer.
“I think a lot of that criticism has gone away as people have seen that the foundation embraces a broad set of have-versus-have-not issues, both in the United States and on a global basis. When you’re going to do philanthropy, you don’t do it expecting to get all positive exposure. You better have a model in your own mind and a trust in your own mind that what you’re doing has a very positive effect,” he added.
I reminded Gates that back in 1998 he had said that if he had to choose between computers and books, he would choose books. Do you still feel that way? I asked, and how do you instill that love of reading and libraries in your own children?
“I spent the weekend doing a reading-training thing with my 4-year-old, Rory, and my 7-year-old just finished reading this book, Holes, which is actually, for her, a pretty big book, and it was a long book and she was worried when she started, it had so many pages. But anyway, she finally got it done. And we didn’t let her watch the movie until after she’d read the book, and so she celebrated by also watching the movie. But then we got her started on a new book.
“There are some neat things happening in reading, whether it’s teaching phonics through software in some neat ways, or these accelerated-reading activities: after kids read a book they can show that they have proficiency with what was in the book, and it gives them positive feedback.
“Part of the thing about being so busy in my job and foundation work is that I love to read, but I don’t get as much time as I’d like. My latest vacation, I got to read 10 books. I really enjoyed it and had a lot of fun, a real treat.
“My kids will love reading books, and there’s a lot of data about how the more you read, it’s a predictor of success. You get curiosity that allows you to be a very good citizen and participate in lifelong learning.
“The fact is, there’s no computers-versus-books dichotomy. That’s been very well established by some of the data that’s come out in the libraries program. In the years that the program has moved forward, more people have come to the library. The people who came for the computers use the books. The people who came for the books use the computers. So it’s not this one-versus-the-other type thing. I feel very good about that. I didn’t feel there would be much risk of that, but the University of Washington, which we funded to do a lot of in-depth follow-up, says the data is very much on the high, positive end of what I would have hoped for.
“Every time I get a chance to see what’s going on and meet the librarians, meet the patrons, it’s been just an incredible thing. The statistics are pretty good, but it’s the anecdotes that just draw you in. By using a computer in the library, there’s somebody who found a job or stayed in touch with a relative or learned something they didn’t think they’d ever learn. It’s all the stuff that makes me love my job in terms of creating software and love the fact that I’ve had a chance to help out in this way through the foundation.”
I revisited those Alabama libraries—Montgomery, Selma, and Demopolis—in 2003 to assess the impact and sustainability of the nearly $180 million the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested in libraries since the project was launched. The goal of “anybody who can get to a library can get to the internet” had been achieved, Alabama State Librarian Rebecca Mitchell told me. “It’s taken us into the next century.” Every county in Alabama has access to the internet in its public libraries, she said, and that would not be so without the Gates gift. “The digital divide has been seriously bridged,” she added, with at least one library in every one of the state’s 67 counties offering access and most with multiple access points, “so every citizen has access to the Web.”
“Our door count tripled,” said Lindsy Gardner, director of the Demopolis Public Library. “It made a huge impact and still does.” The library offers the only free internet access in the area, and that “gave the library a cutting-edge image” and “shone a light on libraries that we have tried to keep shining.”
For the past five years, said Becky Nichols, director and children’s librarian at the Selma–Dallas County Public Library, the computers have been so busy so much of the time that the staff can’t keep an accurate user count. Computers have resulted in increasing traffic patterns for programs and books as well, she added.
Although Montgomery City-County Public Library Director Juanita Owes was cautious about pronouncing the digital divide officially closed, she believed that “the community at poverty level knows the library is here for them.”
Ostensibly named for the rich quality of its earth, the Black Belt has also come to stand for the largely African-American population that lives there. As the director of a public library that was off-limits to her as a black child growing up in the segregated South, Owes was especially aware of the weighty responsibility for equitable access.
And what about those skeptics who said the whole effort was a marketing plan?
“If it was a marketing plan, it was a good one,” quipped Owes, “and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t agree.”
“I don’t ever look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Nichols. “I’m too busy being grateful.” She thought the cynicism was a sign of the times, “a sign that we don’t trust anyone and can’t see something good and decent for what it was meant to be: generosity of spirit.”
“If we had not had the support from the Gates Foundation, considering economic conditions in Alabama,” said Mitchell, “we would still have the great digital divide.”
Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries, copublished in April by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing.
1. Screenshot from Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.
2. Bill and Melinda Gates visiting a library in Mobile Alabama during their 1998 tour of the libraries in the state.
3. Bill Gates visits with student at Lee High School in Houston, Texas.
4. Bill and Melinda Gates visit infants with life-threatening malaria and observe promising malaria vaccine research at the Manhiça Health Research Center in Mozambique.
5. Tom Brokaw and Bill Gates by Paul Meidinger