What We Do

Global Libraries

Strategy Overview

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At a community technology center in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, a program called TechnoChicas provides computer skills training to girls.

our goal:

to improve the lives of “information-poor” people while positioning the world’s public libraries as critical community assets for learning, creativity, and community development.

After twenty years of strategic investment and support for public libraries, Global Libraries work will end in 2018. It has been an amazing journey that has involved more than 50 countries; thousands of library leaders and stakeholders; and strong government support at all levels. We are confident the legacy of our collective investments will help libraries continue to serve as engines of development for communities around the world.

We know the power of public libraries. For more than two decades, the Global Libraries initiative has had the privilege of working with the public library field as a funder, thought partner, collaborator, innovator, and convener. Our efforts have helped improve the lives of more than 280 million people. We are proud of the quality of the projects we have funded and the work of our grantees and staff. We steadfastly believe in the value of public libraries.

The Challenge

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.

Our focus has been to support partners to foster access and innovation in public libraries, strengthen library leadership, and ensure adequate resources and public support for 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. Global Libraries got its start 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 providing services for users, and supportive networks providing resources such as broadband connectivity.

The Opportunity

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 like computers and the internet 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.

A community information center in rural Kenya that offers computer training and Internet access.

The Bill & Melinda Gates 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 in bringing internet connectivity to U.S. public libraries to support similar efforts worldwide. As libraries 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:

Library users in the town of Huara, Chile, can access the Internet at the public library.

  • 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.

Our Strategy

A branch of the New Orleans Public Library in Louisiana.

Global Libraries has 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.

Our Learning

As part of winding-down the Global Libraries initiative, we’ve spent some time thinking about what we’ve learned in our two decades of engagement with and investment in public libraries. The following are what needs and opportunities we believe public libraries must accomplish in order to be embraced – and funded – as the critical community assets they are.

Five Public Library Needs and Opportunities:

Progress Depends on Collaboration

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. There is so much untapped knowledge that is essential to share, and opportunities not only to 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 working more closely together 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. Progress comes only from collaboration within and across the library field.

Change Demands New Leadership

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.

Support Grows with Clear Alignment with Community Needs

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.

Proof of Impact

High school students using computers at a public library in Constanta, Romania.

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.

Develop Partnership at all Levels

Pursuing partnerships outside the library field is essential to the future sustainability of public libraries to cement and promote their ongoing relevance and to secure a diverse funding base. This means continuing advocacy with government leaders who drive funding decisions, capitalizing on existing connections, identifying and networking in new circles of influence, and actively building and nurturing new long-term relationships in other fields like technology, economics, and health. For 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 approach new relationships committed to aligning on shared community priorities and are able to walk away when it’s not the right fit.

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