Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

Libraries: the Dirty but Effective Word in Public Access to ICT

Back when Bill Gates was young, he had multiple opportunities to geek out – he had access to computers at home and at school – but he would sneak out of his house to go the library. Why? Because he loved the wealth of knowledge, curated and guided by libraries.

With that background, it’s easy to see why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a strong focus on libraries. And that many communities have a library and it’s seen as a knowledge repository already, makes it also easy to see why the Gates Foundation has added public access to ICT as a tenant of their library support. ICT-enabled libraries can provide guided access to the wealth of information that computers and the Internet can bring to young minds.

“Library” as a dirty word

Yet, let’s be honest – what comes to mind when you read the word “library” or “librarian”? Long nights spent in the library as a youth, with an ever-present librarian quick to squelch any study-break frivolity. Not as a 21st Century guide to personal life-long knowledge or greater community development. This is true around the world, as EIFL found:

“Most people in six African countries believe public libraries have the potential to contribute to community development in important areas such as health, employment and agriculture. However, libraries are small and under-resourced, and most people associate them with traditional book lending and reference services rather than innovation and technology.”

In fact, say the word “library” in international development or technology circles and instantly half the room is bored or tunes out.

Libraries are the most effective public access to ICT

Communities need access to the benefits and services only found online but the ICT infrastructure is often prohibitively expensive for individuals to buy for themselves. Mobile phones, while ubiquitous, do not provide for any meaningful depth of information acquisition – certainly not when compared to a computer. So we are looking at computer labs where the costs are best aggregated over entire communities.

As we all know, telecenters are not sustainable without donor funding, and local governments are loathe to add yet another infrastructure support demand onto their shrinking budgets.

Enter the library. Of all the public access to ICT models discussed at the Future of Public Access to Information Technology Salon, it was the library, or similar government-supported information infrastructure, that is the most viable, sustainable, and compelling model.

Governments already understand the need for libraries and their role in supporting them as a government-funded service. Adding ICT to the library model is a small marginal cost with great community development potential – even when the model doesn’t look like a library at all.

Library Parks – a new public access model

Enter the Parques Biblioteca or “Library Parks” of Medellin, Colombia. There, libraries are the anchor for multiple municipal knowledge and community building services (public park, library, information center, cultural center, and entrepreneurship incubator) to bring a concentrated development impact to the city’s poor areas.

ICT access is a central resource that supports these activities, but not the only one. In addition, there is an acknowledged role for the librarian as a knowledge guide with technology. Colombians, just like others around the world (including “digital natives”), may not have the greatest media literacy. The librarian is seen (and trained) to be a modern knowledge guide, conversant in books and bytes, to help users navigate the still wild online world.

Do libraries need better marketing?

But if libraries are to be more than book repositories, should we start calling them something else besides a “library”? Could there be a need to re-brand the library as a “community knowledge center” or “life-long learning center” to show they are for more than just students studying? Or maybe “media centers” or “knowledge factories” to show they are more than just a collection of books? And can librarians move beyond being “martyrs to knowledge” and be more the learning facilitators we also hope teachers to be in 21st Century schools?

Knowledge is power and therefore libraries should be the cool thing in international development and technology circles. The still-open question is how can we get from the dim mental image of the past to the dynamic reality of the future?

2 Responses

  1. Jane Meyers says:

    Wayan! I’m happy you chose to write about libraries/librarians, but you should know that our profession has grown far beyond what you remember as a child. I don’t know exactly how old you are, but school librarians have been called “Media Specialists” and school libraries “Media Centers” for about 4 decades!
    And my colleagues in the Special Libraries Association (my main professional association) wouldn’t recognize any of those stereotypes of old public librarians! In fact, there was a marketing/rebranding exercise a couple of years ago that suggested renaming the association the “Society of Strategic Knowledge Professionals,” but a plurality of members seemed to feel that their clients were able to recognize that libraries and librarians are the dynamic forces for social change that, well, we are J. (I actually kind of liked the name change, but our side lost.)
    I wish you could meet Stacy Langner, an MLIS “librarian” with a KM emphasis and strong M&E background who, if we succeed in our proposal to the Ministry of Education, will be the one to run our regional program from Zambia. While she knows her professional skills are extremely valuable, she usually doesn’t use the term “librarian” with the development set within which she works….they just don’t understand. I’ll copy her because I think she’d be amused to see your article.
    BTW, not to be too much of a “librarian,” concerned with consistent quality of metadata, but please note that one of your tags for this article was misspelled as “Librian.” I trust this was not a Freudian slip…

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    “People who talk about libraries dying out are the ones who remember the libraries of their childhood,” says American Library Association (ALA) President, Molly Raphael, from her home in Portland, Ore. “But the library of today is not the library of our childhood, and the library that children see today is not the library we’ll see in 20 years.”
    From: Libraries Aren’t Dying, They’re Evolving