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Carnegie II? Well, Bill Gates Is Getting There

By David Rothman (

"Will Bill Gates Foundation Web SiteGates buy The Great Gatsby for the Net--or just fixate on software and PCs?" I asked a little over two years ago, and with good reason. 

The press was running headlines like Gates to Aid Libraries, in Footsteps of Carnegie. At the time he was worth a cool $35 billion, and yet he had committed a mere $200 million to public libraries, or just .0057 of his wealth if you excluded the accompanying $200 million in software donations from Microsoft. 

Along with others, I also noted the marketing advantages that the donations would bring Microsoft--by familiarizing people with brand M software.

Newsweek Web siteHas anything changed since 1997? Plenty has, and I see hope. Gates, now worth more than $75 billion, has committed $17 billion to charity in past few years; and there are signs that some of it may end up in a national digital library after all. A recent Newsweek story bears the headline: "Bill just wants to have fun. How kids, charity and a knockdown trial have changed the world's richest man."

A few caveats. Newsweek suggests that Gates will never be a full-time philanthropist, that software is his real passion. Furthermore, a visit to the Web site of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows that actual gifts to libraries are still a speck of his fortune. And while several collector's-editions of Gatsby are believed to be in the library of billg's $75-million mansion, the book is not online yet even though it would be entirely fitting to buy up the electronic rights to his favorite novel as an example to other philanthropists who just might be spurred to update the "free" Carnegie model. Gates is the planet's richest billionaire; the pre-eminent entrepreneur; the "Beel Gates" about whom students at a remote university in rural China asked a Newsweek writer because they hoped that Gates' work would improve their lives; a kind of Madonna of capitalism, as some have depicted him. Far from expecting Gates to pay for all of a TeleRead-style library, I would like him to incite a little competitiveness from Larry Ellison, Steve Case, and the rest. Call it library envy; see who can get the most library books on the Net to augment those financed by tax money. So far nirvana is hardly at hand.

That said, the positives are evident, too. For one things, Gates' e-book people have been seriously examining the issue of a well-stocked national digital library. They are among the few who can say outright what authors receive each year in royalties from U.S. publishers. And at an e-book conference in 1998, one of Gates' people showed some encouraging open-mindedness to the idea of a well-stocked national digital library in the TeleRead vein. TeleRead would put libraries online in a truly massive way but at the same time would respect copyright and provide for fair compensation to content-creators. Since Microsoft is an empire built on copyrights, TeleRead is probably closer to Bill Gates' current vision than the idea of, say, giving writers and publishers some lump sums and then requiring them to forfeit all future royalties on books included in the library. Gates' people caught on to the nuances immediately and, while not endorsing TeleRead, Microsoft e-book director Steve Stone mentioned it in a positive context at the conference. What's more, he and others at the company have energetically championed the cause of a common electronic format for e-books, one of the cornerstones of TeleRead. Microsoft is the foremost proponent of the much-needed Open eBook standard that will hasten the day when any e-book machine can display any library book created by any publisher. And while Microsoft itself would benefit from this standardization, so would many other companies. Open eBook is a monopolistic plot not.

So is Bill Gates in Carnegie II territory yet?

Well, Gates is at least getting there if not immediately. Andrew Carnegie didn't just give money for libraries; no, Carnegie also gave his time and committed himself to free libraries even when his ideas upset some commercial interests. To be Carnegie for real in a Net era, Bill Gates will have to follow the Carnegie example and participate actively in the cause of a well-stocked national digital library even if software is his raison d'etre. Just as important, he'll have to work to overcome some serious opposition to the idea of free e-books on the Net. Ironically, the biggest divide here isn't between the copyright hawks and the library faction--it's between Luddites and nonLuddites. Certain librarians still see e-books as threats to their careers but lack the honesty to fess up. In the eyes of the traditionalists, readers aren't for real unless they materialize at an actual physical library and can be counted for budgetary purposes. John Iliff, former co-moderator of the pub-lib list for librarians, wrote on the TeleRead site recently that some librarians are in a state of denial. They refuse to accept the inevitability of electronic books despite all the technological progress that has been made, and quite a few publishers feel the same way. Obviously that is not a problem these days in Bill Gates' case.

What remain to be seen is whether Gates himself will not just spend money and time on libraries, but will also push aggressively for well-stocked national digital libraries in the United States and abroad--even if this angers the Luddites within the library and publishing professions. One good way would be to put a William and Melinda Gates Collection of e-books on the Net as soon as possible. Far from pre-empting TeleRead, this would actually help pave the way for it. The Luddites within the library profession would have no choice but to recognize the inevitability of e-books, and a Gates collection could actually be part of a TeleRead-style national digital library. Gates could add a personal touch by including Gatsby and other favorites while at the same time allowing sufficient leeway to clueful librarians (they are hardly all Luddites). No one said that library e-books on the Internet--contemporary, copyrighted ones, not just valuable classics--would be an easy sell. Gates will face opposition just as Carnegie did from the lending library interests. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past. Good luck, billg. You're not Carnegie II yet, but have come a long way.

Rothman is national coordinator of TeleRead and a long-time advocate of electronic books and a well-stocked national digital library.