Press Room




Richard Akeroyd - 2001 Access to Learning Award Presentation

August 21, 2001
Remarks by Richard Akeroyd, former Director, International Library Initiatives
Good morning.

Thank you all for joining us today. And, thank you especially to our host, Bernard Margolis, and the Boston Public Library. What a pleasure to be in such a beautiful library with a long, rich history of serving its community.

I'd also like to thank the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions for allowing us to hold this event in conjunction with IFLA's annual conference, as well as for all of the federation's efforts on behalf of citizens around the world.

As many of you may know, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a much broader reach than just its work in libraries. The foundation invests in four primary areas: global health, education, libraries and access to technology, and the Pacific Northwest.

  • In the global health arena, the foundation has made a substantial commitment to help fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Most recently, the foundation announced that it will commit $100 million to the Global Fund for AIDS and Health to help stop the transmission of AIDS.
  • Much of our education work is focused on improving high schools in the United States. But the foundation has also established a few significant scholarship programs to help ensure that talented low-income students have access to higher education.
  • And though many of you may know of our library initiatives, you may not have heard about other efforts to expand public access to information. The foundation's Native American Access to Technology Program is providing computers and Internet access to tribes in the Four Corners area of the United States (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah). Through the Community Access to Technology program we are supporting groups that use innovative means to provide public access computing to different populations in our home state of Washington.
  • Also in our backyard, the foundation's Pacific Northwest giving supports a wide array of nonprofits committed to improving people's lives.

As many of you know, libraries have always held a special place for Bill Gates. As a child, he used to spend hours and hours in a Seattle public library, soaking up as much information as possible. I'm sure many of us here today can recall similar experiences.

Bill's love of libraries inspired him and his wife, Melinda, to help public libraries move beyond a traditional realm of service. In fact, Bill and Melinda began their large-scale philanthropic efforts by supporting libraries in the United States' poorest communities.

To date we have provided more than 8,000 U.S. library buildings with 34,000 computers. Our trainers have logged thousands of miles, installing computers and training the library staff. We have also reached more than 1,400 libraries in all 13 Canadian provinces and territories, and will soon initiate a program that will affect the more than 350 public libraries in Chile. And our work continues. Here at home, we still have more than 20 states to reach.

Libraries take all shapes and forms. They can be moveable terminals like Finland's Information Gas Stations, or architectural treasures with incredibly rich collections, like the one we're in today, or even renovated mobile home units, which we often see in rural communities. Whatever form, all share one thing: they provide individuals access to learning and to the world's vast knowledge resources.

And now, as computers and the Internet become fundamental learning tools, libraries offer an ideal venue to provide access to this technology. Access to digital information gives people the tools to improve their lives as well as their communities through such things as online education courses, dialogues with other cultures, and access to information about health issues, agriculture and social services.

With the Access to Learning Award, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation intends to annually recognize and reward those who are using innovative means to link people with the world of digital information. By shining a spotlight on exceptional efforts, we hope to encourage policy makers and private donors around the globe to support free and open public access to information. Of course, this award is not intended to replace current funding sources. Rather, we hope it acts as a catalyst for additional backing from governments and others.

Before I announce this year's award recipients, I would like to recognize last year's recipient … the Helsinki City Library of Finland, represented today by Maija Berndtson. The Helsinki City Library used a portion of its award to develop what's called an Information Gas Station. This portable computer unit can be transported to different parts of the city, serving as a library branch at festivals, parks and senior centers. Customers ask the Gas Station questions and then receive the answers either on the spot, by phone, by fax or even via text messages on cellular phones. We applaud the Helsinki City Library staff's innovation and their continuing commitment to using technology to improve library services for all citizens.

This year's recipients of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award were selected based on a set of criteria that includes increasing public access to technology, providing the public with training on how to use technology, and reaching out to communities that may not traditionally be served by libraries. We worked with distinguished members of the international library community to identify this year's recipients. These advisors were invaluable during the nomination process and final selection, and we thank them for their hard work and shared commitment to the achievement of our goals.

Today, we recognize a library and a nonprofit organization, both of which are making tremendous efforts to provide services to their communities. The two recipients have very different stories to tell, though both are inspirational. (If you saw the slides running before the presentation, you got a sneak preview.)

Our first award recipient is from Buenos Aires, the capital and largest city in Argentina. About 40 percent - or approximately 14.8 million - of Argentina's 37 million residents live in greater Buenos Aires, an area that includes the city and more than 20 suburbs. While 36 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line, more than 96 percent of its citizens over age 15 can read and write. Argentina has an extensive and modern telephone system and almost 50 Internet service providers. Despite these developments, libraries remain important resources for access to computer technology and the Internet.

However, many Argentine libraries have membership and service fees, making them inaccessible to people without financial means. But one public library in Buenos Aires is the exception to the rule: the Biblioteca del Congreso.

The Biblioteca del Congreso is a large facility, both similar to and unlike the "Library of Congress" with which we in the U.S. are familiar. Housed in three different buildings, one for youth, another for the general public, and yet another for the Congress and the public, the Biblioteca del Congreso truly functions as a public library. Despite recent economic challenges, it has a tremendous commitment to its patrons - in fact, the general public branch of the library is open 24 hours a day.

In addition to housing a collection of more than 2 million items, the Biblioteca also houses an impressive multimedia center. This center was the brainchild of library staff, currently serving under the direction of Carlos Martinez, the Director General of the library. In 1996, his staff requested funds to create a music and video collection after hearing a radio station broadcast about the United States' Library of Congress. Just before submitting their proposal, the staff added a request for computers.

Today, the popular multimedia room houses an extensive music collection but it's the computers that get the most use. The multimedia room currently offers free Internet access, with a waiting list of people who want to use the computers.

The Biblioteca del Congreso has already made a substantial investment in its multimedia room and is committed to expanding the number of computers and trained staff, as well as offering more technology training for the general public. Additionally, plans are in place to keep the center open 24 hours a day, like the rest of the library.

Today, we recognize these efforts and the outstanding commitment of the Biblioteca del Congreso to provide public access computers in a no-fee environment. I am pleased to present the Biblioteca del Congreso with the second annual Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award, which comes with a $250,000 grant. Carlos Martinez is here with us today. Carlos, would you please join me on stage so we can all congratulate you?

While Carlos is coming on stage, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce Senator Gerardo Palacious. Senator Palacious is President of the Bicameral Commission of the Biblioteca del Congreso. As such, he has played a major role in supporting library services for the people of Argentina. Senator, we applaud your support for libraries and appreciate your traveling so far to be with us for this program today!


Thank you, Carlos. Thank you Senator Palacious.

Our next award recipient is from Guatemala, a country of about 11 million people - 2 million of whom live in the capital of Guatemala City. Most of the country's population is rural, and 75 percent live below the poverty line. Spanish is Guatemala's official language, but largely the language of the educated. Among the Mayan people, 24 indigenous languages are spoken. Six years of schooling is compulsory, but only about 41 percent of Guatemalan children finish those first years. As a result, only about 55 percent of the country's citizens are literate, which is why the work of the nonprofit organization that I am going to tell you about is so critical.

In Guatemala, there are few public libraries in urban areas and even fewer in the remote countryside. In fact, in rural Guatemala, economic difficulties mean few books for students, and often teachers copy text onto the blackboards for students to read. As a result, students may experience difficulties later learning to read printed material. Enter a man named Rigoberto Zamora.

Rigoberto was raised in that rural countryside and yet had the opportunity to pursue higher education in a seminary. There he learned the power of knowledge and thus developed the dream of making this knowledge available for everyone. But how to do it? Funding for libraries in Guatemala is hard to come by because resources must first be dedicated to basic needs, such as food and housing.

So, Rigoberto set up a language school called Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala or Probigua, where people from Europe and the United States could come and learn Spanish. The school's tuition fees would help fund libraries that would be housed in schools, training centers and even renovated school buses. The students of the Spanish-language school would be asked to bring at least one book in Spanish to add to the library collections.

From the beginning of his project, Rigoberto has focused on establishing and maintaining libraries in Guatemala's rural areas. There, citizens may be excluded from the progress of their country solely because of their lack of access to information. Rigoberto should be proud of the fact that over the past nine years, a total of 19 Probigua public libraries have been founded in Guatemala's rural communities.

We at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were thoroughly impressed with this story. But we really took notice when we learned of Probigua's efforts to build computer centers. Probigua's first computer center is housed in a teacher-training program for indigenous girls in the city of Antigua. There, the girls learn computer and Internet skills in the hopes that they will take these skills back to their villages. Probigua plans to build a second computer center later this year.

To recognize Rigoberto's work and the services provided by Probigua, I am pleased to present Rigoberto Zamora, the founder of Probigua, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award, and a grant of $250,000.

Rigoberto, would you join me on stage so we can all congratulate you?


Thank you, Rigoberto.
And let's give both Carlos and Rigoberto a round of applause in recognition of the organizations they are representing: the Biblioteca del Congreso and Probigua.

As mentioned earlier, many people and organizations help the foundation with the nomination and selection process. Heading up this tremendous effort is our manager of international library programs, Carol Erickson. I would like to invite Carol on stage to say a few words. Carol...

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