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WALL STREET, CALIFORNIA

Gates to Donate $200 Million to Libraries

Computers: Microsoft pledges an equal amount in software to the public facilities.

June 24, 1997|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Software billionaire Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, on Monday launched a multimillion-dollar drive to dramatically expand the reach of computer technology in public libraries in the United States and Canada.

The newly formed Gates Library Foundation will donate $200 million over five years to help libraries develop computer resources for their patrons. In addition, Microsoft Corp., the company Gates founded, has pledged to contribute an additional $200 million worth of software to the effort.

"The scale of the commitment from a technology leader indicates that libraries are the place for public access to sophisticated information technology, to the world's networks, to information resources and to learning about technology," said Craig Buthod, acting city librarian for the Seattle Public Library, one of the original beneficiaries of the Libraries Online project, the forerunner of the new foundation. "No private individual has made an investment like this in the public libraries since Andrew Carnegie."

Indeed, the $200 million committed personally by the Gates family is far larger than the $41.5 million that steel magnate Carnegie gave to American public libraries at the turn of the century, according to the book "Carnegie Libraries Across America" by Theodore Jones. Carnegie's investment is worth about $800 million in today's dollars--about twice the value of the resources pledged by Gates and Microsoft combined.

Of course, with a net worth of $18 billion, Gates can well afford such a generous contribution. And while the Microsoft products--including operating systems like Windows 95, word-processing programs like Word and CD-ROM titles like Encarta--have a street value of $200 million, the cost to the company of providing the software is far lower.

The Gates Library Foundation, to be based in Redmond, Wash., near Microsoft's corporate headquarters, expands on an 18-month-old project called Libraries Online, which so far has funneled $5.5 million in cash and $10.5 million in software to scores of libraries in urban and rural communities alike. The Los Angeles Public Library received $500,000 in computer software and technical assistance as part of the project.

"We realized we could do this with thousands and thousands of libraries and ensure that children and adults have an access point to technology whether they have a computer or not," said Patty Stonesifer, a former Microsoft senior vice president who will serve as chairwoman and president of the new foundation.

While there is widespread agreement among librarians that computers and the Internet can be important tools for learning and research, public libraries have scarcely had the money to buy the necessary equipment. Skeptics point out that although programs like Libraries Online help to fill the gap, they also serve to promote the computer industry and Microsoft's products.

Librarians certainly appreciate the support. Since the Phoenix Public Library opened a Libraries Online-funded computer lab with six PCs in April, the number of visitors has jumped 43%, said City Librarian Toni Garvey.

"It has changed tremendously the library service and access to technology in that community," Garvey said of the south Phoenix community where the PC lab was installed. "Looking at the response it's gotten from the community, it's an absolute necessity to expand this to every branch of the Phoenix Public Library."

Chris Hedrick, who has been with Libraries Online since its inception and will become director of the Gates Library Foundation, said the project has made a dramatic impact in some of the communities it has served. For example, an initial investment in a single library in Brooklyn, N.Y., was followed by a commitment to spend $4 million to put computers in all 59 branches of the Brooklyn Public Library. In the rural county of Pend Oreillein northeast Washington, the introduction of PCs in the library spurred the creation of two Internet service providers in a community of 10,000 people, he said.

Shares of Microsoft closed at $128.06, down $1.81 on Nasdaq.

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