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 improve the lives of 1 billion “information-poor” people by 2030 while positioning the world’s 320,000 public libraries as critical community assets and providers of information through relevant technologies.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to online information and services. But 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 online access or the ability to access information efficiently and use it to their benefit.

The world’s 320,000 public libraries are uniquely positioned to offer access to information and technology because they are safe and trusted places with trained staff, existing infrastructure, and public financial support.

We work with partners to foster innovation in public libraries, strengthen library leadership, and ensure adequate resources and public support for libraries.

Our Global Libraries strategy 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, people search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, 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 Costa Rica, 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 rural and poor communities, have access to online information along with the skills to use and interpret the information they find on the Internet. Worldwide, public libraries are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity.

Most countries have public libraries. There are more than 320,000 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 their 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.

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

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.

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 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.

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 in this area 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. They also include a grant to Worldreader, a literacy organization that is piloting the use of mobile devices and Kindles in public and community libraries in Kenya. The devices are preloaded with a wide variety of content in local languages, including reference books, textbooks, fiction, nonfiction, storybooks, and other information.

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.

For example, one effort we support is the International Network of Emerging Library Innovators (INELI), a network of library leaders around the world who have skills and experience in developing innovative services for users.

Delivery

We support efforts to create library programs and services that can be replicated on a broad scale and customized for different settings. Our primary focus is supporting technology access in public libraries on a national scale, particularly in developing countries and emerging economies. We also have a longstanding commitment to U.S. libraries. Each of these interventions focuses on long-term support from governments to ensure financial and service sustainability.

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

We provide multi-year grants to government institutions or intermediary organizations in 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 information and technology needs, purchase equipment for libraries, train library staff, and help libraries build public support for long-term funding. Since 2002, we have supported nearly 13,000 libraries around the world that have provided training to more than 20,000 staff and over 1.5 million users.

In addition to our work in the United States, we have supported large-scale efforts in Chile, Mexico, Botswana, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Moldova, Jamaica, South Africa, and Turkey. We have also worked on a smaller scale, through intermediaries, in Nepal, Bhutan, India, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Impact, Advocacy, and Policy

We work to ensure adequate resources and public policy support for libraries, and we help public libraries, library staff, and the library field measure the impact of public access in libraries and strengthen their advocacy skills.

Our efforts in this area 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. We also funded a 17-country study in the European Union to measure users’ perceptions about the benefits of information technology in public libraries. In addition, with the assistance of the Global Libraries Advocacy Work Group, an international network of library advocacy specialists, we have developed a training curriculum to help build the advocacy skills and confidence of public library staff so they can ensure adequate funding and resources to meet the information needs of their communities.

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