What We Do

Global Libraries

Strategy Overview

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At a community technology center in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, a program called TechnoChicas provides computer skills training to girls.

our goal:

to ensure that all people, especially those in disadvantaged communities around the world, have access to information through technology in public libraries.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Only 35 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet. People in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have Internet access or the skills to use online resources.

Economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on Internet access.

Public libraries are uniquely positioned to offer public Internet access and training to individuals who would otherwise not be connected to the digital world.

We work with partners to support public libraries, strengthen the overall library environment, contribute knowledge and leadership, and advocate for public libraries.

Our Global Libraries strategy, updated in 2012, is led by Deborah Jacobs, director, and is part of our Global Development Division.

In an age where economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to the Internet, lack of access means lack of opportunity. Only 35 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, and people in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have online access or the skills to navigate the digital world. Through the Internet, individuals search for employment, access government programs, learn new skills through online courses, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.

Opportunities available online have become so important to individual and community development that a 2011 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression declared Internet access to be a fundamental enabler of human rights. Several national governments, including those of Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, and Spain, have formally recognized Internet access as a human right that allows citizens to stay informed and use the information and online services needed in 21st-century life.

Equality of opportunity in the digital age requires that all individuals, especially those living in poverty, have access to online information along with the skills to navigate the Internet. Worldwide, public libraries are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity.

Most countries have public libraries. There are more than 315,000 libraries worldwide, 73 percent of them in developing and transitioning countries. In many communities, public libraries are the only place where any person, regardless of education or skill level, can have access to information and the Internet free of charge. Moreover, library staff often provide training and support for first-time Internet users as well as those looking to improve their skills.

As vital as they are, however, public libraries are often underutilized and need critical support to move forward into the digital age. Meeting the evolving information needs of individuals and communities through technology is no easy task. Technology becomes obsolete quickly, and resources are needed to keep up with ever-changing community needs.

The Opportunity

With their existing infrastructure, dedicated staff, and mission to connect individuals to information, libraries are uniquely suited to offering public Internet access and training to people who would otherwise be left behind in the digital world.

A community information center in rural Kenya that offers computer training and Internet access.

If libraries can reinvent themselves and embrace an expanded role as online information centers, the impact on individuals and communities will be significant. Public libraries are already teaching farmers and fishermen to use the Internet to promote their products and get current market prices. Families and individuals are using technology in libraries to access information on maternal health, early childhood development and nutrition, and HIV/AIDS. Library users are going online to learn about farming methods and ways to address climate change and deforestation.

In the United States, about a third of those age 14 and older—roughly 77 million people—use a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet each year. A recent study showed that library users tend to access more information about health, government, language, and culture than those who use the Internet at other public locations. Public library users also report more positive impact on their lives from Internet use in areas such as health, education, time savings, income, and personal finances.

Library users in the town of Huara, Chile, can access the Internet at the public library.

In Chile, a national digital literacy campaign trained hundreds of thousands of people in basic technology skills, largely via a network of more than 300 public libraries. In Mexico, public libraries provide the only Internet access for nearly two-thirds of rural communities. In rural Botswana, public libraries serve as small business owners’ offices, helping people make their businesses more sophisticated and competitive. In Ukraine, one community has used library Internet access to collect information about farming techniques, fundamentally changing the way they grow tomatoes and substantially increasing their crop quality and yield.

As these examples show, access to information and knowledge is a great equalizer. It enriches lives, informs choices, and prepares people for meaningful employment and contribution to their communities.

Our Strategy

A branch of the New Orleans Public Library in Louisiana.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s first grants, made in 1997, funded free Internet access in U.S. public libraries as a way to give all people ready access to information and the opportunities that come with digital skills and connectivity. As the foundation’s work has expanded globally, so has our library initiative. Since 2002, we have built on our experience in bringing Internet connectivity to U.S. public libraries to support similar efforts worldwide.

Our Global Libraries program works to support the transformation of libraries and expand their role as engines of development. We work in partnership with governments and other public and private funders to expand technology access in public libraries, foster innovation in libraries, train library leaders, and advocate for policy changes that benefit public libraries.

Areas of Focus

We focus our efforts in four areas that we believe will have the greatest impact.

Technology Access in Libraries

Our primary focus is on providing technology access in public libraries throughout entire countries—with a focus on developing and transitioning countries as well as a continued commitment to U.S. libraries. We provide multi-year support to countries with a high need for public access to information and a readiness to implement technology access in public libraries. Our grants fund efforts to understand local technology needs, purchase equipment for libraries, train library staff, and help libraries build public support for long-term funding.

High school students using computers at a public library in Constanta, Romania.

In addition to the United States, our work to date has supported efforts in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Botswana, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Moldova, Vietnam, and Indonesia. We have also worked with smaller programs in Nepal, Bhutan, India, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Research and Innovation

We fund projects and research on public access to information and the Internet, trends that affect how libraries serve their communities, and ways to foster innovation in libraries. These efforts help public library leaders and staff understand and quickly integrate innovative ideas, tools, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Projects include a five-year global study on the impact of public access to the Internet and computers and a study by the Pew Research Center on U.S. public library use, with particular focus on e-books and digital content.

Training and Leadership

We support efforts to identify strong library leaders and equip them to create high-impact libraries. Through leadership training, they can learn ways to foster a culture of innovation and risk taking, collaborate with others in the library field, create and test new service models, and engage community members and other stakeholders in the design and delivery of library services. One of the efforts we support is the International Network of Emerging Library Innovators, a network of library leaders around the world who have a shared vision of what libraries can be in the 21st century.

Policy and Advocacy

To be successful, libraries must understand and communicate the benefits they provide to individuals and communities. Our policy and advocacy work enables library leaders and others in the library field to measure the impact of public access in libraries, strengthen their advocacy skills, and support policy changes that benefit libraries. Projects we support include the creation of a common measurement system for collecting data about how libraries contribute to key development issues such as health, education, and economic opportunity.

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