West Virginia Library System Highlighted as a National Model in Helping Bridge the Digital Divide
Melinda Gates of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation visits West Virginia and awards $424,000 to help ensure continued access to technology and the Internet in public libraries
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, today commended West Virginia leaders, including Governor Wise and Sen. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), for their commitment to public access computers in libraries and announced a $424,000 Staying Connected grant to the West Virginia Library Commission. The grant, along with $212,000 in matching funds from the state, will fund continued Internet connectivity, technology training for library staff members, hardware upgrades and technical support for the state’s libraries.
Melinda Gates announced the Staying Connected grant today during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Jay Rockefeller; Secretary Kay Goodwin of the Department of Education and the Arts, the state agency that oversees the West Virginia Library Commission; and librarians and West Virginians benefiting from library computers. Gates also joined Gov. Bob Wise and other state policymakers for a luncheon in Charleston to discuss support for libraries. Earlier in the day, Gates met with librarians and patrons during a visit to the Sissonville Public Library, a branch of the Kanawha County Public Library.
“West Virginia’s public libraries are vibrant community centers, where patrons can tap into a world of educational and health information or communicate with far-away friends and relatives,” Gates said. “With 100 percent of the state’s public libraries offering free access to the Internet, West Virginia’s library system is a national model. I applaud the state’s leaders and residents for supporting their libraries and encourage them to maintain this access in the years to come.”
West Virginia has many partnerships and innovative funding programs to help sustain public access computing in public libraries. A partnership with Verizon has provided expanded training and distance-learning opportunities and upgraded Internet connections in libraries across the state. The state also earmarks $9 million in lottery funding for grants-in-aid to libraries. In addition, every public library in the state participates in the federal e-rate program, which provides $2.25 billion annually in telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries across the country. The e-rate program was created in 1996 by legislation co-authored by Sen. Rockefeller.
“Public libraries have always played an important role in equalizing access to information for everyone, regardless where they live or how much money they make,” said Sen. Rockefeller. “If you want to find a job, start a business or get a degree, it’s hard to do without the Internet. And for many West Virginians, it’s hard to access the Internet without the public library.”
Computers and the Internet have become essential learning and economic tools, but there are many Americans who do not have ready access at home, school or work. Public libraries play a vital role in bridging this digital divide. While fewer than half of West Virginia households have access to computers or the Internet at home, it is one of just 17 states in the country with free Internet access in every public library.
“We are proud that West Virginia has been recognized for our commitment to giving the people of this state the best in Internet access in our libraries,” said Gov. Bob Wise. “We hope to continue to develop partnerships with private corporations, foundations and community leaders to help libraries continue this important service.”
West Virginia is one of 18 states receiving a total of $5.8 million in Staying Connected challenge grants to support efforts to sustain and improve public access computing in public libraries. The Staying Connected grants are challenge grants, meaning that the foundation matched funds raised by each state at a two-to-one ratio.
The Staying Connected grant to West Virginia follows a more than $1.9 million investment that the foundation made in 1999 to provide 746 computers for 168 library buildings in the state. The foundation also provided for the installation of the computers and training of 1,334 library staff. Including the Staying Connected grant, the foundation’s total support for West Virginia libraries is more than $2.4 million. Nationally, the foundation’s U.S. Library Program has invested $250 million and has installed more than 47,000 computers in almost 11,000 libraries in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In addition to the Staying Connected grants, the foundation has a partnership with Libraries for the Future to strengthen librarians’ capacities for community outreach and recently helped launch WebJunction, a Web-based service that gives librarians and others an online platform to share knowledge and experience in providing technology to patrons. The foundation also supports libraries internationally, through grants and its annual Access to Learning Award.