Dear Silicon Valley: A letter from a librarian

July, 1997

Bill Gates and Larry Ellison each recently announced generous grants of money and computer equipment for our nation's schools and libraries. With hopes that this is the beginning of a trend, I would like to make some suggestions for those of you who will soon be formulating your own programs of giving:

Money is good.
Technology is nice.
The right technology is best.

There are some things you need to know about libraries before you begin. First, and foremost, is that libraries are poor. You will be giving a gift, not a starter kit. Enjoy the good karma.

Next, you have to transcend the market model. Libraries are beyond non-profit. The market concept that assumes an exchange between the provider and the consumer does not apply. Economically, a library is like a school, not a bookstore. It is a community-funded resource that may seem to benefit some individuals more than others, yet we all contribute to it because we know it really benefits us all. There is no quid pro quo in library model; libraries give it away for free.

The operating model for libraries is cooperation, not competition, and it is cooperation at an unprecedented level. When you use your library's online catalog to look up information about a book, that information was created and keyed once. Once, worldwide. Every other library downloads it into their own system. Libraries will openly share anything they develop, and they will favor tools that allow them to do so easily. And if you're thinking "enterprise-wide," for libraries the enterprise is every library in the country.

Because libraries are so different from other institutions the products developed for your corporate customers may not be appropriate. Instead of the individual with a desktop machine, libraries often have an unsupervised computer station that is used by thousands of complete novices. The ages of these users range from the low single-digits to those looking forward to a triple-digit birthday. Many are not English speaking and an unfortunate number are not literate. Their only skill may be the ability to arrive at the library.

Although the task is immeasurably large, libraries are primed and ready to be the public on-ramp to the information highway and they are looking forward to a new era of generous corporate contributions that will help them achieve that goal. But I want you to understand that you have something they need at least as much as your foundation dollars, and that is your ability to create the right technology for libraries.

I can envision an innovative foundation of expertise where librarians and high-tech corporations meet; where they apply their skills to create the tools that libraries can use to extend the boundaries of cyberspace to our whole population.

This will be a new kind of foundation for a new world, where knowledge is more valuable than anything money can buy.

Karen Coyle

©Karen Coyle, 1997
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