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Opportunity Online Grants Will Help Public Libraries Improve Quality of Computer Access - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Program to help generate $3.7 million in local funding for public technology access in 11 states

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

SEATTLE -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today $6.5 million in grants to help public libraries in 11 states increase and sustain free, quality public access to computers for their patrons. These Opportunity Online hardware grants will help libraries upgrade and add public computer workstations for patrons in communities with high concentrations of poverty and where a library’s public computers are at risk of becoming outdated with limited capacity for users.

Despite the fact that most libraries are typically the only provider of free Internet access in their communities (73 percent), many do not have adequate funding to maintain quality computer and Internet services, and to meet growing community demand for these technology tools.

“In today’s economy, more than ever, public access to technology in libraries is a critical resource for people who are working to improve their lives and regain financial stability,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “But this valuable public benefit that opens the door to opportunity for millions of people is at risk. Communities must commit the funds libraries need to ensure they can keep pace with local demand for high-quality computer and broadband access.”

Nearly 800 library branches in Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin are eligible for the grants announced today. This is the last of three rounds of Opportunity Online hardware grants offered by the foundation.

“A rising unemployment rate in our county has stimulated even more demand for the technology resources at our library,” said Nick Slone, a librarian at Garnet A. Wilson Public Library in Waverly, OH, which is eligible for the grants. “Many people in our community without Internet access elsewhere now come to the library regularly—even daily—to take courses and search for jobs online. If it weren’t for the library, these people would simply not be able to use the Internet as a tool to find new opportunities in this tough economy.”

Since 80 percent of library funding comes from local sources, libraries eligible for the Opportunity Online hardware grant program are required to match the Gates Foundation funds with local dollars to show they can sustain investments in technology access in the future. The Gates Foundation expects that its investment will leverage $3.7 million in local funding to support technology access in libraries. 

The need for increased support for library services is dire in many states. Since late 2008, libraries throughout the country have seen dramatic increases in visitors in the down economy. At the same time, many libraries are facing unprecedented local budget cuts, and 41 percent of states reported declining state funding for libraries for fiscal year 2009.

Library staff participating in the grant program are required to attend Turning the Page: Building Your Library Community, a professional development conference offered by the Public Library Association that helps strengthen the skills and confidence library professionals need to increase awareness of the library’s value and motivate local support.
Intermediary organizations will administer and manage the Opportunity Online hardware grant program in each state. The intermediaries for this round are: Bibliographical Center for Research, the Hawaii State Public Library System, Illinois State Library, Indiana State Library, Minnesota State Library Services, Missouri State Library, Nebraska Library Commission, NELINET, State Library of Ohio, South Dakota State Library, and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning.

"Public libraries have been leaders in helping bridge the 'digital divide' in our state, and throughout the country," said Jesse White, Illinois secretary of state and state Librarian. "Libraries enable millions of people to find important information online, search and apply for jobs, and benefit from technology tools they would never be able to access elsewhere. The Opportunity Online grants will help Illinois libraries build the support and momentum to sustain high-quality technology services for all our community members for years to come."

The first two rounds of Opportunity Online hardware grants were awarded in 2007 and 2008 to libraries in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. The remaining 18 U.S. states are not eligible for the Opportunity Online hardware grants because they participated in the foundation’s Public Access Computing Hardware Upgrade Grant program in 2006.

To date, the foundation has invested $350 million in grants and support to install and sustain computers in libraries and train thousands of library staff in all 50 states and U.S. territories. This will be the last round of grants given by the foundation to fund computer upgrades for U.S. libraries with vulnerable technology, but the foundation continues to support libraries through investments in programs, research, advocacy training, and public awareness efforts that will help libraries sustain high-quality online access for patrons in partnership with their communities.

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