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Opportunity Online Grants Help Public Libraries Improve Quality of Free Computer Access Used by Millions of Americans

Program will help generate more than $4 million in local funds for technology services

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Phone: +1.206.709.3400

SEATTLE -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today $8.1 million in grants to help public libraries in 11 states improve and sustain free, quality access to computers. These Opportunity Online grants specifically will help upgrade computer hardware in public libraries serving communities with high concentrations of poverty that are at risk of having outdated technology.

Millions of Americans use computers at their public libraries to improve their education, find economic opportunities, access e-government services, and contribute to their communities. Unfortunately, many libraries do not have adequate funding to maintain quality technology services and meet community demand.

This is the second of three rounds of Opportunity Online grants. More than 800 library branches in Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington state are eligible in this round. Libraries must provide local matching funds to receive the grants. The required local commitment nationwide is expected to total $4.1 million.

"In today's economy, it is critical that people have equal access to the information and knowledge that are available online," said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the U.S. Libraries initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Nearly all public libraries in the United States provide this access, but many struggle to keep pace with advancing technology and rapidly increasing community demand for these services. Communities must commit the local resources necessary to ensure all people have opportunities to benefit from technology." 

A recent national survey revealed that four out of five public libraries say they don't have enough computers to meet their community's needs. Sixty percent of libraries say that they have no plans to add public computers in the coming year due to limited funding and a lack of available space. Approximately one-third of public libraries experienced a decline in revenue from 2000 to 2005.

"I didn't have a computer at home, so I used the computers and high-speed Internet connection at the library to start a printing business,” said Adel Green, Jr., a patron of the Essex Public Library in Tappahannock, Va. "Without the library and the computers available here, I wouldn't have been able to build such a successful business and support my family." Green uses the library's computers to design a marketing catalog, research business plans, find wholesale suppliers and equipment, and correspond with customers.

Opportunity Online grants are designed to help public libraries like the Essex Public Library secure sustained local funding for computer replacements and upgrades. Because 80 percent of public library funding comes from local sources, the grants require participating libraries to secure a local match, preferably in the form of a local government commitment, to demonstrate they can sustain investments in technology into the future. Librarians participating in the program are required to attend a professional development conference to help them build the skills and confidence they need to raise awareness about the value of their libraries and increase local support.

Intermediary organizations will administer and manage the grants in each state. The round-two Opportunity Online grants were awarded to the following organizations: Bibliographical Center for Research (BCR), NELINET, PALINET, the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET), and the Library of Virginia. The foundation, in partnership with its intermediaries, has contacted all libraries eligible for the grants.

"Too many libraries struggle to offer the technology services that their communities need to thrive," said Kate Nevins, executive director of SOLINET. "Opportunity Online will motivate libraries to do the hard work of building the personal relationships and public financial support required to ensure free computer access for people who need it most."

The first Opportunity Online hardware grants were awarded in October 2007 to libraries in Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming. A third round is scheduled for 2009 for libraries in Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The remaining 18 states are not eligible for Opportunity Online hardware grants due to their participation in the foundation's Public Access Computing Hardware Upgrade Grant program in 2006.

To date, the foundation has invested $325 million in grants and other support to install and sustain computers in libraries and train thousands of library staff in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Opportunity Online hardware grants are expected to be the last grants given by the foundation to fund computer upgrades in U.S. public libraries with vulnerable technology, but the foundation continues to support libraries through investments in Internet connectivity, research, training, and advocacy.

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