In an even more wired future, what will be the needs of public libraries in the U.S. and elsewhere? Just what is the role of libraries if “a person can access much of the information in the world from a device”? How to bring about the right kind of “lasting changes”?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries Initiative is asking some well-crafted questions of this kind in a survey I’d urge you to fill out.

No small conundrum for present and future libraries is, how to pay for content? The Internet teems with free facts, raw information, as well as public domain and Creative Commons-licensed books and ad-supported content. But all too often, without our public libraries truly going online, readers will still suffer the torturesome and tortuous constraints of copyright law in the States and other countries.

Here’s an example of the good that the Gates billions could do for libraries online and the rest of us while respecting copyright and still supporting physical libraries:

In June 1997, I suggested that Bill Gates turn The Great Gatsby and other masterpieces loose on the Internet by paying their owners fair compensation. It made sense. Gatsby was his favorite book—it remains mine and perhaps Gates still feels the same—and he even owned several rare editions. But how to share his enthusiasm in countries where the book is still under copyright? Published in 1925Gatsby will be locked up until January 1, 2021. The magic date is less than a decade away, meaning that the Gates would enjoy extra bargaining power with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descendants; but with so many dollars from media and entertainment companies flowing toward Capitol Hill, we just might see copyright terms extended in the future. Buying up Gatsby and other greats would be one way of coping with the realities of the here and now, in legal ways, whether or not billionaires like Bill Gates can afford to subsidize everything (no, even they can’t). And don’t let anyone argue: “Next thing you know, they’ll use Gatsby and other classics to sell shaving cream.” Gatsby-level literature will thrive with the extra exposure.

Time, then, for the Gates Foundation to think about all the potential here? For that matter, I’d love to see the foundation aggressively encourage others to do the same. Gluejar, run by accomplished technical people and content experts with whom Foundation Co-chairs Bill and Melinda Gates might well click, now exists to buy up rights with the needs of both libraries and book-lovers in mind.

Needless to say, at a more cosmic level, I would like to see Gates help finance the creation of two separate but tightly intertwined national digital library systems, one public and one academic—which could happen via the Digital Public Library of America initiative, which has already drawn some interest from the foundation. They could share a common technical services organization that helped address training, accessibility and digital divide issues, building on the good work of the Gates-funded Web Junction and maybe even incorporating that organization; and much and perhaps even most of the content would overlap. The DPLA is a great starting point, just so we understand there really should be two systems in the end, given the differing needs of users. For instance, I can envision the national public system serving local library systems and schools in establishing and supporting family literacy programs to help Americans enjoy and absorb library material regardless of the business models used. The same dual-system approach could work not just here but also in many other countries.

This and related issues should transcend ideology. In an “On the Right” column in 1993, my political opposite William F. Buckley Jr. even urged Gates to buy my TeleRead national digital library plan for $1 and “make a gift of it to the American people” (a more recent version of the plan is online via the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the LibraryCity site includes other updates of the much-evolved original). WFB recommended Andrew Carnegie as a role model for Gates. Actually Bill wrote two columns on behalf of the idea; and the DPLA, originated at Harvard and supported by a number of important policymakers in government and the library world, is a way for his hopes to become a reality. Instead of competing with the DPLA, Gates should combine forces. Not that the TeleRead vision ever was for sale for the DPLA’s use or others’, but I’ll cut the price to a penny. Fair enough?

In an era when “digital library system” can mean a lot more than books alone, however, let’s not allow Gatsby and other important works to be lost in the shuffle. This is no small detail. Over the years the Gates Foundation has been far more interested in helping to wire up schools and libraries and in developing library leaders than in helping to arrange for sustainable financing of library e-books and other content. We should be grateful to Bill and Melinda Gates for the many million spent on technology for the masses, as well as the billions for fighting AIDS and other scourges—a far, far cry from the time when just a minuscule speck of Gates’ wealth was going for charity. But, Bill, I’m not going to forget the content-related suggestions I made for you in the 1990s, including the Gatsby one. The issues and needs abide; and, if nothing else, remember how Gatsby ends.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Editor’s note: This article, which originally appeared on David Rothman’s, is Creative Commons-licensed content.

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  1. I’d suggest that this Gates money be spent in an innovative way that’d benefit authors, publishers and the public alike.

    Too much attention is being devoted to imposing the old ‘buy to loan’ model of physical books on the very different world of ebooks. With digital, copies are essentially free and even the smallest library can have an enormous collection, with several people checking out the same book at the same time. That creates the opening for a new ‘rent to read’ model.

    Let every interested library, no matter how small, offer the same large collection of ebooks. None are bought. All are rented, with the library paying a fee only when an ebook is checked out, a fee that’s likely to be less than the cost of moving a physical copy around a library system. Most of that rental fee would be passed on to the publisher and author, ensuring a steady income even on books released years earlier.

    The Gates Foundation could help by creating and offering to libraries all the software necessary to set up and run the system.

  2. @Michael Perry: Thanks for your suggestion. Librarians talk of patron driven acquisitions; here, you have in mind patron driven rentals (from already downloaded collections).

    I’m in favor of experimentation with a variety of business models. No matter which one is in use, however, we need to consider the financial surprises that bestsellers can bring, as well as the eagerness of most publishers to earn extra fees for simultaneous checkouts. Also keep in mind that the collections of books for rental could reside anywhere–not just on local libraries’ own servers; perhaps one place would be a national digital library system’s servers.

    Unrelated: I’ve published a follow-up to the original essay. It’s at


  3. I always feel like giving up when I hear the Public Library community bemoan publishers their “old, outdated business model.” I don’t see anything other then talk when it comes to the Public Library community abandoning their own archaic, outdated and honestly suicidal business model of paying for giant building to hold huge caches of physical media that hasn’t circulated or been used in years.

    Demand for ebooks is skyrocketing, and yet most libraries only allocate a small amount of their collection budget to them. Demand for consumer technology training is skyrocketing amongst our patrons, and yet the Public Library community buries its head in the sand…waiting and hoping that “the next generation of Public Library Leaders” will swoop in and save them. Heaven forbid a 25-year librarian learn how to handle what is really just a basic reference question becoming all too common from our patrons: “How do I get a Library book onto my phone?”

    All this talk about a national library is just fine. Unless perceptions WITHIN the public library community of the importance of electronic media, and how it should be used, shift dramatically and quickly, it would be just another underused resource. Or, even worse, it will be offered to citizens for free, sidestep the public library completely by leaving them out because of their complacency, and secure the death of the Public Library.

  4. @Fitz: I couldn’t agree more on the need to update the spending priorities of public libraries, especially given the huge and still-growing demand for E.

    But I can also see the librarians’ side. Large publishers have made it difficult for public libraries to own e-books for real—making E more risky financially for already-cash-strapped libraries.

    However, just as you say, the typical public library should be spending more than now on E (as long as the librarians don’t overdo it, considering both local demographics and the less than ideal terms that publishers inflict on them).

    The DPLA initiative could help public libraries organize their own national digital system and gain more clout. The public digital system could also benefit from a common technical services organization shared with academic libraries (along with plenty of content).

    We do need two national digital systems, one public, one academic, so the academics don’t dominate at the expense of the publics. So much needs to be done at all levels of the public library community, and I fear that many academics will just write off the publics.

    Content and infrastructure aren’t enough for the publics; they certainly need to focus on the resources actually being used. Lots and lots of outreach, tech support and training, please (of staffers and end users alike)!

    Set up the right kind of public library system online—well integrated with physical libraries and able to help them change with the times—and local and state libraries will be stronger than ever.

    Finally, let’s remember that public libraries are about a lot more than books. They are also community centers and homework centers and offer social-worker-style services (a Good Thing).


  5. Unless universal access is available to these devices for free, or very low cost, there will always be a need for individuals to have the public library in and through which to access information. Just because new technologies are widely available, there are and always will be large segments of society unable to afford them. In fact, with the ever widening gap between rich and poor, I see public libraries serving even greater numbers; just look at the dramatic spike in public library visits during the “Great Recession!” Additionally, public libraries have always served as centers of community life, and are an essential part of any truly vibrant community. Those suggesting that society no longer needs public libraries are those who can afford the new technologies which allow them to easily access information. Remember too please that whether we can afford these devices or not, many of us still prefer actual books, and the physical library space in which to enjoy them!

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