Oh, the Gates Foundation is Funding Libraries Again?

Evanston Public Library agreed to become one of the first sites for Library Edge's pilot program: a project for evaluating and improving public libraries. Edge collects data from library computers and analyzes performance against a series of established benchmarks. Combined with site-specific staff training, this Gates Foundation-funded project helps libraries enhance public technology access. Initially, Edge will assess and score between 10 and 25 libraries in seven states to fine-tune its approach. It intends to launch a national campaign in early 2014 after the dry-run.

The reaction from one Philly librarian: "Oh great. They'll probably rat me out for spending 40% of my workday reading Buzzfeed."

But more to the present discussion's point: Since when was Gates supporting US libraries again? It gave stateside libraries $400 million between '95 and '97, another $40 million in '98 and what looks like at least $25 million in '99. After Y2K, however, local libraries lost favor at the foundation to those abroad. Program director Deborah Jacobs signed on with Gates around 2006 and leads a $328 million effort to support libraries as tech access strongholds in places like Botswana, Lithuana, Latvia, Vietnam and South Africa.

Subsequently, US libraries heard little from the foundation during the 2000s, beyond a few sporadic policy research grants. Fortunately for stateside libraries, however, those same research grants seem like preparation for another round of grant-making home games. Along with Library Edge, Gates also recently gave to Webjunction for a library awareness initiative.

The more you read about Gates' investments in high schools, universities and libraries, the more you notice how seldom it favors institutions on their own merit. Some larger rationale is invariably at work. For instance, Gates wants higher education access for more people, so need-based scholarships pop up like mushrooms (see Gates Foundation: Grants for Higher Education). Gates decides the world needs more tech access, and suddenly, public libraries can’t keep the foundation’s mitts off the terminals.

A critic would say Gates treats schools and libraries like pawns; these institutions seem like they mean little to the enormous foundation other than an underexplored demographic of Microsoft product consumers.

A supporter would ask: "Where’s the actual criticism? Gates knows what it wants to do and they do it in a consistent, regimented, and loud fashion. Shouldn't all foundations telegraph their intentions this way?”