What I Learned from Jeff Bezos: aka–How to Bring Millions of Books to Billions of People

Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive Founder and Digital Librarian

Building libraries for the digital generation sounds like a good task for Uber, Google, or Amazon, but this isn’t a market disruption. We aren’t using venture capital, takeover, and consolidation to effect change. Libraries are social good organizations and we don’t want to disrupt them. We want to empower and strengthen them. Now that’s the challenge of a lifetime.

Back in 1999, I sold my startup, Alexa Internet, to Amazon and got to work for Jeff Bezos. Amazon needed a cost-effective way to process the massive data that was coming in and we took Alexa’s computer infrastructure and applied it to a much bigger business. When I came into Amazon suggesting change, at first the busy staff resisted; but Amazon’s top management forged a new path forward. We needed buy-in at the top, and we got it. Today Alexa’s approach is one of the innovations underlying the Amazon Cloud, which provides web hosting for thousands of organizations.

Amazon Cloud was fueled by venture capital, enabled by new technologies, and embraced fully by upper management. That’s how Bezos turned an online book store into the infrastructure woven into all our lives.

Our libraries need these same three catalysts: but this time it has to be social venture capital, scalable technology, and stakeholders fully committed to change. But the costs, the lack of technical infrastructure, and potential risks made progress slow.

Today, MacArthur has the capital. Internet Archive has the technology. 100&Change has helped us to focus our project and build momentum. There’s growing support among library leaders to digitize and lend millions of books: the American Library Association, Public Library Association and Digital Public Library of America are helping us forge this path.

I’ve been fortunate to help usher in change at Amazon. Together with library leaders and social entrepreneurs, like MacArthur, we can make sure that everyone — especially our most vulnerable citizens — has equal access to the knowledge in books.

This post was first published on the MacArthur Foundation website.

We support creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. ⚖🌿☮🌎

We support creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. ⚖🌿☮🌎