Jeff Bezos Should Put His Billions Into Libraries

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Susan Crawford is a columnist for Backchannel and a professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of The Responsive City and Captive Audience.


Imagine that you are Jeff Bezos. For four hours two weeks ago, you were the richest person in the world. And though Wall Street knocked you down a notch, pretty much everyone thinks it’s inevitable that you’re going to be number one again. You’re starting to be aware of the smell of the tar pits and you’re casting about for a way to put all that loot to some good. You’re eying the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge and thinking that if you donate half your fortune it should make a difference. You’re comfortable with making older but meaningful institutions great again.

So far, you’ve concentrated on things that might benefit our distant successors—space travel, cancer treatments, AI, and a clock that will keep running for 10,000 years. But you want to do something more immediate. You say you want your philanthropic activity “to be helping people in the here and now—short term—at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” You are open to suggestions–so much so that you even recently tweeted a “request for ideas.”

Jeff Bezos 


Request for ideas…


Though you don’t mention it, I suspect you’re thinking of stepping into an area that traditionally government might have addressed—but now, in an era in which the wealthy are doing better and better, benefits seem to go toward the top while the “urgent needs” of just plain people are left to the grace of a harsh marketplace. Like it or not, citizens are increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers with billions of dollars,

I have a suggestion for you, Jeff Bezos. How would you like to become the Andrew Carnegie of our time?

Yes, I am talking about libraries. Those places where books sit on shelves, not delivered by FedEx. And so much more. Carnegie made them the center of his philanthropy, and almost became synonymous with them. More importantly, he changed countless lives with his investments in libraries. I have heard that you’re looking for big ideas, and this is one.