Sunday, April 30, 2006

Friends with Money

Last night I went to see Friends with Money and (you're not going to believe this) Bill & Melinda were there. They came in late, milled about trying to find a seat, and then had to sit in the front row. Strangers were whispering to each other: Oh. My. God. I'm at Friends with Money - with the richest man in the world. Isn't it funny?

I love spectacle.

Just the day before, Mr. Gates lost three billion on paper. (I wonder if that made it a little easier for him to relate to the characters in the film:) ) The loss was in part due to Microsoft's announcement on Thursday that they intend to pour a bunch of money into R&D, including some social software ventures. Apparently they're getting further into this community-based software development stuff. The microsoft community for flight simulator another interesting example.

As for me and my friends (without money) this all had us pondering a few questions: is it unethical to try and figure out how to turn customers into evangelists in order to turn a long-term profit, and at the expense of current investors? Is profit the only difference between, say, evangelist customers and engaged patrons? What if we said it like this: is it unethical to try and turn tech-savvy eenagers into library users in order to develop our own long-term sustainability, and at the expense of our traditional patrons? And is it just some kind of happy happenstance (or sad coincidence, depending on how you look at it) that the world's wealthiest is also largely responsible for the fact that US libraries are still open at all? What would we have done without that $250M? And where do we go from here?


Julie said...

so I'm guessing Chrystie does not live in Ohio?

walt said...

" the world's wealthiest is also largely responsible for the fact that US libraries are still open at all?"

I love the Gates Library Project as much as the next person, but are you actually claiming that all or most U.S. libraries (actually, you didn't even limit it to public libraries) would be closed by now were it not for Gates contributions?

That's a remarkable claim, one that would seem in need of some research to back it up...

Chrystie said...

Hey Julie, I live in Seattle. A small bunch of OCLC employees are out here, all of us working on the WebJunction project. Nice to meet you!

Hey Walt, you have caught me in an overstatement - I did mean to say public, and especially small and rural, libraries. I do believe that the US libraries program is largely responsible for keeping these libraries open - first because of the actual financial investment and second because they did pretty much succeed in their goal: if you're at the library, you can get on the Internet (though large urban publics are not exempt from the Gates' investment). Without Gates' interest and vision for public libraries, esp small and rural, I am not sure we would have been able to adapt as quickly (perhaps at all) to the forces of change around us. I believe that if we don't change, we don't stay open.

That said, I did say "largely" responsible, which is different from "wholly". I do leave some room in there for the things we have done for ourselves - to change and to ensure our own sustainability.

The reason for my overstatement is not to be pessimistic, nor to dismiss the work that libraries already do along these lines, but rather to make the point or to advocate strongly) for our continuing to get down to business (no pun intended, of course).

walt said...

Chrystie, Thanks for the clarification. I don't doubt that there are a significant number of smaller and rural libraries for which the Gates project has been vital in maintaining a high enough public profile to stay open. Your other points are certainly well taken.

Brendan Levy said...

I think the this back and forth raises an interesting point. The libraries in the United States have benefitted greatly from the gifts of a wealthy and powerful few - Carnegie comes to mind. Libraries themselves are the ancestors of institutions often funded by monarchies. Interesting to think about how this fits and conflicts with the ideal of a public library.

Andy Havens said...

I love WebJunction, and I deeply appreciate and respect what the Gates Foundation has done for libraries. But to put it into perspective (in three important ways), it's important to undertand how much $250 million actually is.

If you look here, for the IES report on Public Libraries, and check out the first PDF, page 70 (called 82/200), you'll find that total reported spending on public libraries in 2003 was around $8.74 billion.

$250 million is around 2.9% of $8.74 billion. Now, for one organization to make that kind of impact on a national scale is, to be sure, astounding. But 3% isn't "make or break" in most industries, and *shouldn't* be for a national program supported (in many cases) at more than one level of government. By this measure, $250 million isn't a lot of money.

Straight up, however... it's a lot of money. A lot of a lot. Because it's "on top of" money. It's money that can be used to do something that wasn't being done with all those federal, state, local and other-grant dollars. As a single, lump sum... it is, As Chrystie says, important.

But the most important way to look at this $250 million... is that it was *enough*. It was the *right* amount of money, or, at least, a *very good use* of that money. Could it have been more? Sure. We would have liked that. Could we have done similar things with lots less (half? a quarter?) Maybe... but it would have been lots harder.

The point is that it was enough money, applied with particular focus and attention, and with a very controlled agenda. That is what determines whether $100 or $10,000 or $10 million is "good" or "a lot" or "a little" for any campaign; was it effective?

And equally as important as the money from Gates -- while the money was surely a great and fantastic help -- is that idea of focus. And that's something that businesses and business people are generally better at than institutions. Maybe it takes a Carnegie or a Gates to get stuff done sometimes, not just for the dollars donated, but for the ability to proceed in a business-like manner.

Because, think about it... Could the country's libraries have come up with 3% of its total budget... somehow... to do the same things that WebJunction did? Is that an astronomically impossible sum? No...

But $250 million sure does help focus the mind, doesn't it?

Chrystie said...

Hi Brendan, Hi Andy, thanks for your comments.

I agree with Andy's point about focus being as important as the actual investment. And maybe he has, like Walt, caught me in a bit of an overstatement. :) But if you look at the total spending for all public libraries, and the $250M that came from the US Libraries program, the 3% figure doesn't acurately represent the difference that this investment made for libraries in small and rural areas. Again, these are the libraries that I believe Gates is largely responsible for keeping open. (Totally should have said that up front...)

One other point of clarification - WebJunction was not officially part of the US libraries program. It grew out of that program (conceptually) as it came to a close, but our project is very much an additional investment by the Foundation to bring additional awareness (beyond computers and training and software) about how library staff can help themselves become sustainable in their own communities by simply helping each other.

All of that was to say, and it seems that you and I agree on this, that "what next?" is really the question we should be asking ourselves. One part of the answer is connecting more with each other (online and otherwise) in order to save resources and not "reinvent". The other is learning together how we can, as you say, focus on our own sustainbility - perhaps in a "business like" manner, but I would say "community-minded" manner first!