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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 LibraryCity.org, is Creative Commons-licensed content.

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