TeleRead Update #8 | Return to TeleRead Home Page

Will Bill Gates Buy The Great Gatsby for the Net--
Or Just Fixate on Software and PCs?

Update: Surprise of surprise, Bill Gates' people have not replied so far to my outrageous proposal below--suggesting that the $35-billion man actually buy real books for libraries and the Net. If you've got feelings about this and have a spare moment, just drop him a note. Ironically Gate announced his $200-million gift for computers for libraries at the about same time that HarperCollins canceled scads of books. The $200 million is a whopping .0057 of his wealth.-July 5, 1997.

"Gates to Aid Libraries, in Footsteps of Carnegie," the Web edition of the New York Times tells me. I myself see more good than harm in Bill Gates' charity here. Over the next five years the Gates Library Foundation will donate $200 million toward computers and Net connections for thousands of libraries, especially the needier ones. And Microsoft will chip in another $200 million in software donations. We're still talking crumbs in the grand scheme of things--Gates alone is worth $35 billion--but the $200 million is many times his previous level of library spending. And he told the Washington Post that "as long as Microsoft is doing well, there's more where that came from."

Just the same, Gates' plan, at least as represented on his Web site and in the press, is no substitute for TeleRead. As I understand it, he still hasn't publicly committed himself to putting real books online for free in a massive, organized way. Nor has he pledged to work toward a truly well-stocked national digital library in the genuine tradition of Andrew Carnegie. Laying out some basics, the foundation's Web site does not offer much solace for the book-minded: "All computers provided as part of this program...will provide educational multimedia CD-ROMs, basic office applications for word processing and spreadsheets, and a connection to the Internet. These tools can bring a high level of capabilities and access to information to even the most remote library."

But computers and "information" aren't necessarily the same as "knowledge." Gates would do well to read the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in which Todd Oppenheimer, a Newsweek writer, raises some pesky questions about national priorities here. Why is it that some schools are laying off librarians to make way for multimedia specialists? And if used improperly, couldn't computers reduce children's creativity and their ability to understand The Real World away from the screen?

What's more, as if anticipating the Gates gift, Oppenheimer correctly warns against schools' letting the agendas of rich corporate donors prevail over educational goals and the welfare of society at large. Mightn't we ask the same questions of libraries? Our society is already biased against the humanities and in favor of money and technology; is it possible that the Gates gift will only worsen the problem?

Granted, Oppenheimer is hardly omniscient. Why can't Washington encourage the development of affordable computers with extra-sharp screens for reading old-fashioned text online? It's a possibility that he never raises.

Regardless, the Atlantic article couldn't be more timely as a reminder of the risks of Gates' project.

Just as important, bear in mind Gates's intellectual property philosophy as revealed in The Road Ahead. To quote from the new paperback edition, he writes: "Publishers of intellectual property of all kinds are likely to want to restrict...electronic lending, so that users will be allowed to lend a copy out perhaps only ten times a year--or maybe not at all. Lending policies should be set by copyright owners, and the industry will need to develop copy management systems that respond to the new market." Uh, that's not the most library-friendly approach. Do we really want copyright owners to have complete control over lending policies?

What's more, however well intentioned might be the Gates donations, isn't it possible that he'll enjoy substantial benefits along the way--and not just in PR and tax breaks? Many Americans will grow accustomed to Microsoft products at the library, then demand the same for home and office. Remember, Bill Gates plans to make billions off "content" ranging from educational CD-ROMs to digitized Cezanne and the Bettmann Archives. Microsoft sells its share of useful products, including Microsoft FrontPage, with which I'm composing this page; but what about the offerings of rival companies? Despite Gates' invitation to other firms to follow his example, it would be naive to ignore the marketing bonanza that the library program will create for Microsoft.

No, Bill Gates' donation is not deviltry. But to liken him to Andrew Carnegie would be foolish; libraries didn't exactly help the latter sell steel. If Gates really cares as much about the commonweal as Carnegie did in old age, he'll show more vision and look beyond the usual hardware and software. Take Gates' fondness for The Great Gatsby, which, coincidentally, happens to be my own favorite novel. Will he pay F. Scott Fitzgerald's family to put it online for free? And what about getting Toni Morrison or Saul Bellow on the Net without a pay-per-read plan as a tax on curiosity? Or the writings of young novelists? Or letting professional librarians in many cities work together and assemble a massive collection of electronic books and other items without a bias in favor of Microsoft? Or making certain that even copyrighted items are usable from home--without queues in front of scarce computers--just as old-fashioned books are? That would be in the spirit of both TeleRead and Carnegie.

A few years back, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in a syndicated column: "Andrew Carnegie, if he were alive, would probably buy TeleRead from Mr. Rothman for $1, develop the whole idea at his own expense, and then make a gift of it to the American people." Not that I'd charge Bill Gates even $1. Come on, Bill, if you truly love libraries, what are you waiting for?

--David H. Rothman, rothman@clark.net, rothman@teleread.org, June 24, 1997 (updated June 28, 1997)

Tip to Librarians: Heed the warnings of Mitch Ratliff, a columnist for ZDNet. Accept donations from business people, but try to get help on your terms. To be hypothetical, don't let Gates force you to use MSNBC as a Web startup page in your library. Be just as careful about donations from Gates' rival Larry Ellison. If need be, just say "No." Like me, Ratliff is pointing people in the direction of the Atlantic Monthly article warning against commercialization at the expense of education. If you miss out on the article at the newsstand, check the Atlantic's Web site, where it should appear in the next month or so.

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