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Tuesday, November 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gates Gives Library $20 Million -- Donation Is Largest To Seattle Public System

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The Seattle Public Library, still buzzing from an overwhelming show of support from voters last month, is receiving another generous boost - a $20 million donation from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

The gift is believed to be the largest donation ever to a public library in this country, said City Librarian Deborah Jacobs. It certainly eclipses anything the Seattle library system has ever seen.

"It's remarkable," Jacobs said. "Awe-inspiring."

Library officials announced the donation from Bill and Melinda Gates today at a press conference attended by both of them.

"It's really more a celebration of the bond measure than anything else," Bill Gates said. "It says a lot about this city and how we believe in creating equal opportunity."

The money will go toward the ambitious $238 million overhaul of the Downtown Library and neighborhood branches that voters approved in November.

Bill Gates already has a history of supporting public libraries, collections of books searching for ways to stay vibrant in the age of digital information he helped create.

Along with his wife, the Microsoft chairman set up the Gates Library Foundation, a $200 million effort to help libraries across North America improve access to computer resources and the Internet.

This gift, Jacobs said, is coming directly from the family. And unlike the foundation's related efforts - criticized by some as a kind-hearted way to promote Microsoft's computer products - the Gates family gift to the Seattle libraries is more about bricks, mortar and books than binary codes.

The money will support the $238 million "Libraries for All" project that will replace downtown's aging central library, open branches in Northgate, Chinatown/International District and Delridge, and renovate, expand or rebuild the other 22 neighborhood branches.

Voters in November did the heavy lifting. Nearly three-quarters supported the $196.4 million bond that will pay for most of the work. The 25-year bond will add about $30 a year in property tax for every $100,000 of assessed value on a home.

The library was also counting on raising $40 million from companies and private donors. With the Gates family gift, the library now plans to raise an added $20 million in private money, bringing the overall goal to $60 million.

About $15 million of Gates family money will be used to improve neighborhood libraries, $4 million will go toward the book collection and $1 million will be spent on literacy and other special programs.

Jacobs said she never expected such a large contribution when she and a member of the library board approached the family for support. Jacobs also credited Seattle Mayor Paul Schell for helping secure the gift.

"Clearly Bill and Melinda Gates were on the list of people we wanted to talk to," Jacobs said. "I think they were pretty impressed with what we are doing with the library."

Jacobs stepped into the post of city librarian just over a year ago. In that time she has shepherded through what is considered the largest and most expansive library bond in the country. A similar measure had failed in 1994.

Now she can chalk up the biggest private gift to a library.

Even the famous turn-of-the-century industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie never gave that much to one library system, Jacobs said.

"They are smart and savvy investors," she said of the Gates family. "This is something Seattle citizens have really supported and it makes sense to enrich that."

The Gateses' gift shattered the record set in March by Paul Allen, a fellow Microsoft billionaire. Allen - the son of a librarian - pledged $2.5 million to strengthen the library's main and branch collections.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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