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William H. Gates Sr. - Public Library Association 10th National Conference

February 25, 2004
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair

Thank you. Thank you very much. SHHHH!! (I’ve always wanted to do that.)

Thank you, Luis, for that wonderful introduction and for the certificate. It’s an honor to be here today.

I do have a confession to make. Nearly 50 years ago, I lost a library book before I even read it. I think the title was:  “How to raise a normal child.” It’s now way overdue. I’m either going to have to get you to forgive the fine or ask my son to pay it.
 
Speaking of my son, I imagine you’re thinking: “Hey, we invited Bill Gates the software guy, not Bill Gates the lawyer.” I want you to know I don’t feel slighted by that. I also want you to know that Bill loves libraries, and he deeply wanted to be here today. I’m the proof. You see, he still has some respect and affection for his dad, and he never asks me to stand in for him unless it’s an event that he was very eager to attend and deeply regrets that he can’t. So I bring you his regards—and on behalf of Bill, Melinda, and our entire foundation, I’d like to welcome you to our hometown of Seattle.

I’m glad to be here today to mark your 60th anniversary and to celebrate a milestone in the history of public libraries: Thanks to your efforts to widen the avenues of learning for all Americans, today there is at least one computer with Internet access in virtually every public library in America. Thank you and congratulations!

Now that we at the Gates Foundation have completed the major part of our library investment—connecting libraries to the Internet—I want to ask you today to be our partners in a new initiative to ensure that libraries connected today will still be connected a month from now, a year from now, a generation from now. 

I also want to express my personal thanks to you for what libraries have meant to me, to my family, and to so many others. As a boy growing up in this area, I spent many happy hours with my sister at the local library—just three short blocks from our house. The library was definitely part of the scene—a central activity of my world.  I started life as an enthusiastic reader, and I never stopped.

Years later, I had the pleasure of bringing my own children to the public library—though almost as soon as Bill was old enough to walk, he went by himself. Every summer he would attack the titles on the summer reading list. This may be hard to imagine, but he saw it as competition, and he always ended up at the top of the list, tied for the lead with three girls. He is still an avid reader. I am very proud of him. He is only 48 years old, but he reads at the 52-year-old level. Libraries helped unleash his dreams and ambitions, so if you don’t like the result, you have only yourselves to blame.

The Gates family owes a lot to libraries, and so does the American family. The way I see it, there are two central obligations of citizens in a democracy: fulfilling your talents and choosing your leaders. Neither can happen without knowledge; knowledge cannot come without information; and information—for many of our citizens—cannot come without libraries. Libraries allow citizens to borrow what they can’t afford to buy. 

Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed books constantly, once said: “Reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.” Voracious reading helped prepare Abraham Lincoln to be president. But reading—and respect for reading—also played a role in the minds of the voters who elected him president. In a democracy, every vote counts, so the education of every person matters. 

Bill and Melinda believe deeply in the equal worth of every human being, and they have tried to make their giving a force for advancing equality. So it was entirely fitting that libraries were the focus of Bill’s first effort in philanthropy. 

Back in the mid-1990s, before there was any name for the digital divide, Bill and his colleagues at Microsoft understood that the country was splitting into a society of information haves and have-nots. So they began looking for a way to promote equal access to information technology. As you probably know, Bill is a highly strategic thinker. When he approaches a problem, he’s always seeking leverage: how can he do the greatest good for the largest number? That meant posing some questions: Who are the information have-nots? What are the barriers that separate them from information technology? What are the best ways to reach them for the least cost and the highest impact in an environment conducive to learning?

After exploring every option, and consulting many experts, they concluded that the best way to give everyone access to the Internet was the same way we had given everyone access to books—the public library. So in 1997, Bill set the goal of the U.S. Library program: “if you can get to a library, you can get to the Internet.” 

Over the past seven years, together with you and partners like Gateway and Microsoft, we’ve installed more than 47,000 computers in almost 11,000 libraries in small towns and big cities in every state in the country. We also held more than 12,000 computer-training sessions with librarians. You made it possible for millions of people—from every age and circumstance of life—to be guided in the use of the computer and the Internet at no cost to themselves and little cost to the public.

I also want to pay tribute to our rapid deployment force of more than a hundred high-tech troops—the young women and men who moved out at a moment’s notice to get the computers installed, set up networks, test connections, offer training courses, and respond to calls for tech support. They were on the road to visit you two weeks out of every three, year in year out, until we were done.

What do we have to show for it? Today, more than 14 million Americans—roughly 10 percent of all Internet users—now access the Internet through computers in public libraries. People from minority groups, people with lower incomes, and people with less education are many times more likely to rely on public library computers for Internet access—using library computers to get a degree, find a job, gather medical information or stay in touch with family. 

One woman in West Virginia, where Melinda visited last month, told us she had been out of school for 25 years when she decided she needed a college degree. uring her first day back at school at age 42, she realized she was the only person in class who didn’t know how to use a computer. She went and learned at the local library.

Another library patron we heard from lost her job at age 52, and the first place she went was the public library.  She researched jobs, improved her computer skills, and networked with friends. Eventually, an email from a friend tipped her off on a job opening, and the computer skills she learned in the library helped her get the job.

Luckily for these two people and for millions more—today, if you can get to a library, you can get to the Internet. We accomplished that mission, and we are proud of that.  But we are not satisfied.  This report, released today by the Gates Foundation and other library advocates, makes a compelling argument for the value of public access computing. But the report warns that it will be hard to sustain public access computing without more consistent funding. 

It’s helpful here to recall the example of Andrew Carnegie. He came to this country poor and never went to college. He owed much of his learning to the generosity of a wealthy man who opened his library to working boys every Saturday afternoon. arnegie, who as you all know later donated staggering sums for the building of libraries, once said: “There was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good as the founding of a public library in a community that is willing to support it.”

There was the catch. He knew that his giving would not offer lasting benefit unless the public supported it, so his grants required a commitment from the community. Our circumstances are similar.  We have completed our goal—connecting libraries to the Internet. Now we need the wider community to step up and help sustain public access computing.  

That won’t be easy in today’s budget climate. When we launched this effort, closing the digital divide was a national priority in a time of budget surpluses.  Today, it is a lesser priority at a time of budget deficits. The recent recession and loss of tax revenues have confronted libraries across the country with drastic budget cuts. If we do not work together to establish reliable funding, public libraries in many parts of the country could lose this lifeline that connects so many people to the world of education, employment, health—and their families. 

Today, if you want to find a job, start a business, or get a degree, it’s hard to do it without the Internet—and for many Americans, it’s hard to get on the Internet without getting to a library. That’s why—if we want to keep our American commitment to equality—we’ve got to keep the library doors open, the computers running, and the Internet connected. 

Melinda was in West Virginia last month to meet with the Governor and the legislature to talk about this challenge. As part of our effort, she announced the first round of our “Staying Connected” grants. These are 2:1 matching grants to states to help them maintain Internet access in their communities.  We have made $5.8 million in grants to 18 states so far.

This approach is the result of an intensive review of our efforts coupled with ongoing consultations with partners and experts in the field. This week, during the PLA conference, we will be meeting with select library leaders to refine these ideas and help put them into practice. Our goal is to build broader partnerships with state agencies, library associations, businesses and nonprofits to advance a three-part agenda: improving the technology; offering the right training; and keeping libraries open.

First: We need to constantly improve the technology in libraries and make sure technical support is within reach.`he computers installed at the beginning of the Library program are now five years old—an eternity in computer years—and may be too slow to run newer programs. We must constantly renew our commitment to accessible technology and continuously replace the old with the new. If instead we let the equipment get old—then the computers in our public libraries may become more a reflection of society’s inequities than a remedy for them. 

We are building a stronger, wider partnership to improve technology, and we’re asking for your help.

Second: We need to give librarians the right training. Librarians are the indispensable partners in bringing the Internet to everyone. But 40 percent of all libraries don’t offer any formal technology training for their staff.  Part of our answer is Webjunction.org. It’s a Web site we’ve helped launch that offers librarians clear instructions on setting up computers, maintaining networks—even talking to city council members about funding. I hope you get a chance to make use of this site.

The library is one of the only places in America where low-income families can come in, pay nothing, and learn computer skills. Providing technical training for our librarians is central to preserving that vital service. 

We are building a stronger, wider partnership to ensure good training, and we’re asking for your help.

Third: and most important of all, we have to keep libraries open. With the addition of free Internet access, libraries have become an even more important part of the community. Yet budget cuts are cutting off access to libraries. Here in Seattle, every city library has closed down for three weeks in the past two years because of budget constraints. Rural communities and small towns have been hit much harder.  Some libraries have closed altogether. Even those that have closed only on Saturdays still create hardship. What does that do for working people who have only that day to prepare a resume or bring their children to read?

We are building a stronger, wider partnership to keep libraries open, and we’re asking for your help. Please join us by becoming a vocal advocate for your library. Get to know your state and local officials, and show them the impact your library has.

In the midst of their budget debates, our government officials need to know that there is no place where the public gets more for its money than at the public library. Where else can the purchase of one book give a hundred people a chance to read that book? Where else can the purchase of six computers offer 600 people of all ages a chance to use a computer?   

During the Great Depression, use of libraries soared. People came to the library to learn how to fix cars; how to serve more economical meals; how to grow a vegetable garden. In tough economic times, library use jumps—even now. In March 2001, at the start of the recession, library circulation was eight percent higher than projected. After September 11th, circulation jumped 11 percent. I once stopped and talked to a young man in a Brooklyn library who was using one of the computers we donated; he told me he was working on his resume. What better use is there for our public dollars than to give a man access to the tools he needs to write and send a resume? 

You don't close hospitals during an epidemic. You don’t cut unemployment benefits during a recession. And you shouldn’t cut libraries during hard times. 

That famous American librarian, Benjamin Franklin, was asked just after the close of the Constitutional Convention: “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” He famously answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Today, he might say: ‘a rising, thriving republic, if we can keep it connected.’ 

Today, somewhere in America, a grade-school teacher is assigning her class a paper on a famous American—perhaps Martin Luther King, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or George Washington. It’s the kind of assignment that can change a child’s life. Of the students who take this assignment home, some will have educated parents, homes with hundreds of books, a set of encyclopedias, a computer, the Internet, and money to buy what they don’t already have. Other students, with the same assignment, the same hopes and the same dreams, will have uneducated parents, homes with no books, no encyclopedias, no computer and no Internet. What they do have … is you … and your books … and a universe of information through a computer and a cable. They need these resources.  And we need to make sure they will always have them. I am honored to be here today—on behalf of Bill and Melinda—to renew our commitment to this cause. Thank you. 

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