At a glance
- Economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to online information and services.
- The world’s 320,000 public libraries are uniquely positioned to offer access to information and technology, especially to people in rural and poor communities, because they are safe and trusted places with trained staff, existing infrastructure, and ongoing financial support.
- We have focused on improving access to and fostering innovation in public libraries, strengthening library leadership, and ensuring adequate resources and public support for libraries.
We have worked 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.
The library field remains fragmented, with libraries across different countries and systems disconnected from one another. This lack of connection is detrimental to all libraries, leaving untapped so much knowledge that should be shared and so many opportunities to not only collaborate but also to take collective action on policy and regulatory challenges. The time is now, and every library can contribute to better collaboration by prioritizing openness and transparency, proactively making connections, and sharing ideas. By collaborating more closely to build and sustain a global network of public library leaders and organizations, libraries can learn from one another, solve shared problems, and spark ideas and innovations that will help them meet immediate and pressing community needs and look together to the future.
Inspired and tenacious library leaders can have a profound effect on the libraries and the communities they serve. Today, successful library leadership means leaders must be willing to take risks to do a job that’s evolving. This also means prioritizing partnership development with government, the private sector, and civic and nongovernmental organizations. To achieve this, the field must give young professionals opportunities to lead, learn, and develop.
Libraries and their champions must continue to engage with their communities—to listen to what people need, make sure library services address those needs, talk to local leaders about community priorities, and show how library services contribute to improving lives and making communities stronger. This also requires libraries to proactively position and promote what they are doing in the community and reinforce why it matters. When libraries consistently adapt to meet local needs—and when they talk about it again and again and again—outdated public perceptions of the role and the value of public libraries will change.
The most successful public libraries around the world are proactively engaging with their communities to understand local needs and customize services to address community problems. What’s missing are the facts and data about how libraries directly improve people’s lives—including impact that advances the global Sustainable Development Goals. Without tangible proof to back up what library leaders intuitively know to be true, libraries will be forever fighting an uphill battle for recognition and resources. The knowledge and tools to measure library impact already exist. Leaders in the field must now commit to making outcome evaluation an integral part of library operations and using it to prove their worth.
Collaboration with partners outside the library field is essential to the future sustainability of public libraries because it cements and promotes their ongoing relevance and helps secure a diverse funding base. This requires advocacy directed at government leaders who drive funding decisions, capitalizing on existing connections, identifying and networking in new circles of influence, and building and nurturing long-term relationships in fields like technology, economics, and health. In seeking partnerships that can lead to new sources of funding, library leaders must be prepared with relevant data to make the case for support. All partnerships can strengthen how libraries contribute to their communities if library leaders seek alignment on shared community priorities and are able to walk away when the fit is not right.
Why focus on global libraries?
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 Global Libraries program started in an age where economic, educational, health, and social opportunities began to increasingly depend on access to information online, and where lack of internet access came to mean lack of opportunity. People in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have online access or the skills to navigate the digital world, making it harder to search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.
Equality of opportunity in the digital age requires that all individuals have access to online information and digital tools along with the skills to create content, assess and use information, and participate fully in a digital world.
Worldwide, public libraries are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity. Most countries have public libraries, and they are safe and trusted places with trained staff, existing infrastructure, and ongoing public financial support. As vital as they are, however, public libraries are often overlooked and underutilized. Libraries must have adequate and ongoing resources to keep up with ever-changing community needs. To reach their full potential as centers of learning, creativity, and community development, libraries need staff skilled in information technology, partners who provide services to users, and supportive networks that provide resources such as broadband connectivity.
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 resources such as computers and internet access 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—many of whom would otherwise be left behind.
The foundation’s first grants, made in 1997, funded free internet access in U.S. public libraries as a way to give everyone ready access to information and the opportunities that come with digital skills and connectivity. We then built on our experience to support similar efforts worldwide. As libraries have embraced their role as online information centers, the impact on individuals and communities has been significant. Examples of this impact can be found around the world:
- In the United States, about a third of those age 14 and older—roughly 77 million people—use a public library to access the internet each year. Public library users 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 rural Botswana, public libraries serve as small business owners’ offices, helping people make their businesses more sophisticated and competitive.
- In Romania, more than 41,000 farmers filed online applications for agricultural subsidies at public libraries in a single year, resulting in more than US$63 million in subsidies from the Ministry of Agriculture to individuals.