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The Gates Foundation and Global Libraries

by on July 1, 2014

Over the next three to five years, the Gates Foundation will be ending their support of Global Libraries. On May 7, Deborah Jacobs, Director of the Global Libraries Program, sent out a press release mentioning the reasoning behind this decision in a brief statement. The Gates Library Foundation began in 1997, and has invested approximately $1 billion in its mission to provide internet access in libraries worldwide. The original goal of the foundation was to supply computers and information to public libraries in the United States. The foundation believes they have been successful in this mission and that the vast majority of U.S. libraries are now information hubs with vital internet connections and necessary computers. The transition will evolve slowly over the next three to five years. What the ending of this massive amount of grant funding means ($12 million in grants to U.S. public libraries in 2011) remains to be seen regardless of the foundation’s optimism.

In 2000, the foundation began working with Global Libraries in order to assist transitioning and developing countries. The foundation has collaborated with over 13,000 public libraries in almost 20 countries. It is interesting to note that the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) declined to comment on this story for Library Journal. Is there resentment, or just acceptance from IFLA? The director of WebJunction believes that each library’s vision should come from within, and not from a grant funding foundation. Yet it is hard to argue that the $1 million given to the American Library Association (ALA) a few years ago for advocacy efforts cannot help ALA assist libraries create their vision. It is grand to state that we librarians can do this on our own, but in my experience, a little funding never hurt anything. Not to mention the positive press brought when funding does occur. Whose name is bigger than Bill Gates when it comes to technology and money?

It would be rewarding to have the libraries that were impacted by the Gates Foundation testify to what the support provided. Having a narrative of the positives could certainly coerce other potential library donors to support public library funding. The foundation claims it will exit the field with poise, and will carefully consider their impact upon exiting. Staff will be either reassigned, or eliminated, from the Global Libraries program in early to mid-2015. This is another area of impact, yet unrealized. It appears that the library world will have to wait and see what all of these changes will bring, unless other major donors step up to fill in the funding gaps. Monitoring the bandwidth at my public library, and other public libraries I have worked at, I find the foundation’s statement that libraries in the U.S. are set technology wise to be a bit naïve.


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