With 230,000 libraries in developing countries, these institutions can be the difference between users simply accessing information or being able to use it
by: Stuart Hamilton
Development in the 21st century demands access to information – farmers need to connect to new markets, entrepreneurs need to find capital to start businesses, health workers need access to research to provide up to date care to patients. What these groups have in common is a need for information and public libraries can provide the answer.
There are over 320,000 public libraries worldwide, 230,000 of which are in developing countries. The potential of these institutions to support development goals is being underused. Public libraries, if properly supported, offer their users access to resources which can help improve their economic and social wellbeing.
Why public libraries? First of all, they already exist. It's that simple. Public libraries, whatever the level of their funding, are physical spaces that are incorporated into government frameworks and strategies. They have dedicated, ongoing budgets for staff and information resources and a positive feeling across communities that their potential could be unlocked with greater government attention. Publicly supported libraries offer sustainability that narrow, project-focused approaches do not.
Public libraries increasingly offer public access to the internet and all of the information resources it can provide. This is fundamental to understanding the potential they offer in terms of empowering people to meet their information needs. Despite massive growth in global internet penetration, we cannot pretend that the digital divide is a thing of the past. Worldwide only 35% of the global population are online, and public access will play a huge role in giving the remainder of the population access to the internet. A major forthcoming study on the benefits of public access makes this point effectively.
Public libraries also offer expertise. Dedicated staff provide advice which can be the difference between users simply accessing information or being able to use it. Staff are able to help farmers and fisherman use the Internet to better promote their products, or students improve their exam results. Public libraries can offer something for everyone in the community – the children and youth, women and girls, the vulnerable and marginalised, the entrepreneur and established businessman, the inventor or the health worker.
Policymakers, funders and development agencies need to start looking at the potential of libraries as partners in development activities, and libraries themselves must be doing more to draw attention to the services they can offer. My organisation, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, is the global organistion representing libraries and is an agenda-setting agency in this regard. Recently, we have been trying to raise awareness through the Beyond Access initiative. Last October, Beyond Access hosted a major conference in Washington DC that featured Dr Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAid, and Ricardo Lagos, the former president of Chile. Chile benefited greatly from a major library funding programme in the last decade that connected all of its 368 public libraries to the internet and Lagos became a convert to the potential of libraries.
The Beyond Access conference bought three-person teams of librarians, development workers and government representatives from 19 countries to Washington to show a audience of 300 development organisation representatives, funders and policymakers the innovative projects libraries are undertaking worldwide. Library projects in Nepal, Bhutan, Serbia, Kenya and Uganda received awards for their work in the areas of civic participation, economic opportunity, community information and development, and public technology and innovation.
Projects like these need to be communicated to the donor community, as well as policymakers and workers in the business sector. Libraries have the ability to partner across multiple sectors and we can already see success stories in places like Ghana, where businesses are helping libraries provide public access to the internet, or in Serbia, where Belgrade City Library provides training in basic financial tools. Librarians themselves need to be more proactive in terms of raising the visibility of the work they do in the community – they are traditionally a little too shy when it comes to extolling the benefits of their work, preferring instead to keep their heads down and get on with things – but we also need the development community to be open to the idea of using public libraries as partners in projects to improve life in developing countries. The Electronic Information for Libraries Public library innovation project has many examples that show just what public libraries can bring to the table.
Let's finish with a high-level, big fuss example. The Open Government Partnership is rightly highlighting the benefits that open government data can bring to individuals and communities. But of the 47 governments who have so far signed up to the OGP only three have action plans that address the demand side of open government – who is going to tell citizens that there is data available, and who is going to give those without home computers access to it? Libraries can: in Romania, for example, over 400 public libraries helped 17,000 farmers access government portals to obtain agricultural subsidies that brought back over $20m (£13.3m) into their communities. Partnering with existing public library networks is an excellent way of delivering development-based initiatives at the local level. IFLA is convinced that at a time of tight budgets, public libraries offer a more efficient, smarter way of powering development.