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5 Lessons Learned From Investing in Libraries for National Development

By Guest Writer on June 30, 2021

public access library

Beyond Access was the first major global attempt to connect the international development and public library worlds. Taking the form of a series of projects in a dozen countries meant to help catalyze library development around national goals, the program operated from 2011 to 2018.

Starting from a point at which libraries in most low – and middle-income countries were neglected, disused and staffed by librarians with outdated skills, it effectively launched public libraries into national dialogue in some countries and failed to do so in others. This article explores the conditions and actions that led to effective projects and what lessons for future library development efforts might be gleaned from the program’s work.

  • In Myanmar and Georgia, the program attracted new investment into public libraries aligned with central government digital strategies.
  • In Bangladesh and the Philippines, the program integrated public libraries into education efforts where they had been previously ignored.

With more than a quarter million public libraries in low – and middle-income countries, there remains vast potential for library systems to reinforce their relevancy in the 21st century, attract new resources, and provide vital services. Library leaders around the world can build on the experience of Beyond Access to help inform initiatives to revive libraries around modern needs.

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5 Lessons Learned from Beyond Access

Reviewing the outcomes of the Beyond Access projects, key lessons that may be gleaned fall under two main themes. First, Beyond Access’s results suggest some directions for future investment in public library reform in low – and middle-income countries.

Even in 2020 as this article is written, many countries remain saddled with outdated library infrastructure, indistinct from the situations described in the literature review section, despite the passage of a decade or more. With each passing year, unreformed library systems risk falling into greater irrelevance as their resources dwindle and other institutions capitalize on the gaps unseized by libraries.

Beyond Access demonstrated that with the right focus and approach, there are ways to pull library systems out of this death spiral and reclaim their relevance to society. The exact path looks different in each situation, but Beyond Access’s experience points to a series of useful themes.

As the purpose of Neglected to Indispensable: Lessons from beyond Access for Global Public Library Reform and Development is to filter out lessons for future library development efforts, it will focus on the outcome of four of these projects – those in Myanmar, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Georgia – while touching on some key moments from the other ones.

1. Libraries Must Serve Prominent National Goals

In most cases, public libraries are already largely out of the national conversation and are not in a position to help set the national agenda. Counting on the appeal of libraries for their intrinsic cultural value is no longer a viable advocacy strategy, and nor in most cases are selling points like supporting a ‘reading habit’ or providing access to books. Beyond Access demonstrated that to begin re-demonstrating relevance and utility, libraries must latch on to existing priorities, seeking to draw exposure and resources from high-profile programs, funding and political capital.

This means designing and adapting library programs that will fit into existing measurement systems through which policy-makers are already assessing development initiatives, and making a concerted effort to gather stories that can be useful in illustrating how libraries uniquely contribute.

– Myanmar Public Library Impact

For example, Beyond Access was able to help the library seize on such an opportunity in Myanmar, which was just entering the internet age as the program began. On paper, Myanmar boasted a vibrant public and community library tradition. The government itself operated over 400 public libraries at the state, regional and district level, while also featuring more than 5000 community libraries registered under the Ministry of Information.

As no universal service fund was yet in place in Myanmar, telecoms were required to commit to expend some resources on public connectivity and training programs. IREX and its local partner nonprofit Myanmar Book and Preservation Foundation (MBAPF) advocated intensively for a new approach that used the existing infrastructure of libraries to introduce people to online services. The telecom Ooredoo was most receptive to the idea, and signed on to provide tablets and internet to more than 50 libraries as a pilot project. The library system was appealing to both Ooredoo and the Ministry of Information as a vehicle for people to learn about and experience the internet for the first time.

Having established this foothold at a time when no other institution had effectively claimed the internet on-ramp space, libraries became a magnet for information-for-development initiatives. Beyond Access partner MBAPF won grants from the Internet Society-Asia, Microsoft and Ooredoo to conduct the Tech Age Girls program. Having established the capacity to conduct technology training programs, libraries were an obvious venue for widespread information literacy training in response to a series of highly publicized online rumor events, and Facebook began funding such an initiative in 2019.

– Philippines Public Library Impact

In the Philippines, libraries had been left out of the national Digital Strategy in 2011, an exercise to define a strategy for leveraging technology for development. The Philippines had a long history of community-based internet initiatives and was active in the telecenter community, but these initiatives had largely excluded the Philippines 1100-plus public libraries.

The Digital Strategy communicated a strong national commitment to public use of technology, establishing “a renewed vision for ICT and its use in transforming Philippine Society into a competitive force in the digital economy by the year 2016” (CICT, 2011, ii). It goes on to establish a set of priorities, first among which is “the development of e-Government … facilitating greater efficiencies and effectiveness in the delivery of basic social services and minimizing opportunities for corruption” (CICT, 2011, iii).

The strategy made resources available for projects achieving these goals, so Beyond Access focused on framing libraries’ value and services around public technology and e-government. In one early success, the “Quezon City Public Library partnered with the National Bureau of Investigation so that people can learn how to register and complete clearances online. This is now the most popular service at the library. Other libraries throughout the country are helping people access applications for birth certificates, arrange passport applications, and verify their contributions to social services” (IREX 2015b, 2).

– Bangladesh Public Library Impact

In Bangladesh, the national government had achieved the Millennium Development Goal of universal school enrollment, but the rapid expansion of schooling led to a decline in quality of education. A 2016 Save the Children study found that 45% of primary school children could not read by the completion of grade 2. American donor agency USAID along with Save the Children prioritized early grade reading for a major 5-year investment in the country. Though Bangladesh had networks of public and community libraries, neither were originally included in the program. IREX designed an intervention in cooperation with Save the Children Bangladesh and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to mobilize 20 libraries near participating schools to support the literacy program.

The libraries focused on fulfilling the need for leisure reading. The program’s baseline study found that “more than 40% of children don’t have books other than religious texts at home” so the program responded by helping libraries stock “colorful, enjoyable, child-friendly books and providing access to interactive reading games on tablets” (Katz 2016). A monitoring system that tracked and measured the reading skills of children using the library versus those who didn’t helped provide legitimacy to the approach and ammunition for advocacy materials.

– Georgia Public Library Impact

In Georgia, a well-funded national access to information project was managed by the Public Services Development Agency under the Ministry of Justice, as part of its brief to increase public access to government services as committed to by the government in its accession to the Open Government Partnership. Among prospective Beyond Access countries, Georgia’s government was perhaps the most open to cooperation and its government the most proactive. Library modernization fit neatly into the stated priorities of the government.

An agency official had attended the Beyond Access conference in Washington, DC in 2012. Her engagement ensured the cooperation of the Georgian government and its commitment of cost-sharing resources out of a project meant to extend government services to rural areas. With her help, the Beyond Access project in Georgia was designed to fit within this government program.

myanmar digital skills gap youth

2. The Prominent Role of Technology in Public Libraries

Beyond Access’s experiences reinforced that technology is the hook through which outdated libraries in much of the world can become relevant again. The literature review section attested to the widespread lack of relevant resources at public libraries, and this was largely the case where Beyond Access began working.

– Few Computers Initially in Libraries

The Asia Foundation’s library landscape survey in Myanmar found little association between libraries and computers. Only 11% of community members surveyed thought that computers belonged in libraries, and 99% of survey respondents “answered no when asked if free internet access would make their libraries more useful” (2014, 3–4). In Bangladesh, a baseline assessment found computers in no libraries other than the central public library in Dhaka. In the Philippines and Georgia, national libraries had not established any cooperation with the many digital development initiatives administered and promoted by national governments.

These gaps provided a clear opening for Beyond Access to address. Librarians themselves, governments and then users could mentally bridge the gap between the present condition of libraries and one empowered with public access technology. Beyond Access sought to serve as a connector between library systems and national technology programs.

– Libraries as Literacy Centers

In Bangladesh, IREX took an alternative approach, seeking to integrate libraries as an asset for international development programs, with the idea that over the long-term, it would lead to a new funding stream and platform for exposure for library systems. An initial survey of global USAID-funded literacy programs over the past decade showed almost no mention of libraries, while tens of millions of dollars were invested in schools.

IREX reached out to a series of large literacy-program implementing partners and Save the Children Bangladesh responded with the most interest. As the organization administering a national-level early-grade reading program in the country, its staff were open to mobilizing community and public libraries in the country to supplement in-school reading instruction.

– Libraries as Digital Access Centers

IREX and Save the Children provided tablets to participating libraries, seeing them as a durable and shareable technology that required much less need for training than a traditional computer. Tablets served both as a draw to get children into the library with a resource rarely available elsewhere in the community, and as a rapidly updatable literacy tool, taking advantage of the growing Bangla-language reading app environment.

A program review explained the rational that “tablets provide novelty, excitement, and interactivity that pulls children into the library and encourages the use of both digital and print materials” (IREX 2019, 8). A series of site visits in 2016 found that “many local children visit the library every day that it’s open and children often gather in groups around books, reading games, and tablets” (Katz 2016).

– Libraries as Civic Engagement Centers

In Georgia, the county foresaw that the Beyond Access project would “improve the level of civic engagement and capacity of local librarians through e-governance and modern technologies on the regional level” (OGGF 2014, 15). In Uruguay, Beyond Access connected the National Library with ANTEL – the country’s telecommunications agency – for inclusion in a stage of its public technology access program. The project included 10 libraries for training, technology, and internet access, turning them into “digital inclusion spaces” (Escobar 2014).

The takeaway from these experiences is that when libraries are able to make a case to serve as the community hub for technology, the funding and resources are available. Making the case – and a concrete plan for technology adoption and dissemination – is the challenge. But there is no better institution than the public library in society to take the lead.

3. Training Must be Integral and Extensive

As we saw in the literature review, in much of the world librarians are not prepared to offer the kinds of services that can make libraries relevant again. Observers note their outdated skills and lack of a customer-service orientation. Training is an essential part of library reform programs, but one-off trainings are insufficient to change long-embedded perspectives, habits and customs. Often librarians have had little access to professional development beyond the basic skills of cataloging.

– Training Is Always Hard

Beyond Access found that training was the hardest part of the library development equation. As libraries have lost relevancy, they have lost appeal for talented new graduates in many countries. Library systems in each country where Beyond Access worked had capable staff but low expectations and lack of access to new skills had led to inertia for many librarians. Project training had to be tailored to each country and the project’s theme, then tested, revised, then scheduled and administered for large groups.

Modern learner-centered methodologies like group work, games, and discussions were frequently unfamiliar. Librarians with training experience were often scarce, so training-of-trainers had to incorporate basic pedagogical techniques and ample practice. Administrative barriers required time to negotiate, from allowing librarians to travel to training locations, to time off from regular work, to selecting the right participants.

In Bangladesh, when training invitations were initially issued, library directors and board members decided to participate themselves rather than sending the front-line librarians who interact with the public. As a result, much of the initial training content went unused by its participants, while those now expected to conduct new activities lacked the introduction to program materials and devices. Subsequent training invitations more strictly defined that the expected participants were librarians themselves.

– Training is Not a One-Off Event

All of these factors combined meant the training time from project startup to the point when services were being delivered on the ground was long and could not be rushed. The training development and dissemination process was lengthy, but more critical was the follow-up to training. Faced with such new concepts as technology training, reading games or offering new government services, librarians were not able to immediately return to their libraries and implement new services.

Turning the project concepts into on-the-ground services took intensive, personalized follow-up with librarians, taking the time to work through local obstacles and barriers. MBAPF – Beyond Access’s Myanmar implementing partner – conducted regular regional ‘peer learning meetings’ to bring together previously-trained librarians and give them a chance to share their experiences.

This professional networking worked as both an incentive to frequently isolated librarians and a venue through which to learn from others. In Georgia, Beyond Access staff mentored new trainers from the Georgian Library Association, giving them the chance to first observe training and then gradually take on more facilitation responsibilities in subsequent trainings.

Training techniques that the program employed to bring new concepts to librarians with minimal experience of prior professional development included:

  • personas – borrowing a method from design thinking, training modules were built around profiles of typical community members. Most librarians were not accustomed either to designing services in response to user need, or to considering the different types of potential library users that might be present in their communities. In some trainings, pre-designed personas were including from which the training participants would work. In others, an early training activity asked participants to design their own personas based on their knowledge of the community.
  • activity cards – Beyond Access provided concise, discrete one – to two-page descriptions of new library services and activities that translated training concepts into very specific step-by-step instructions for introducing the service. For example, a training on workforce development services at the library might include an activity card on assembling a job corner in your library.

4. Reviving Library Systems Takes Time

As Beyond Access was a development program funded by a donor, the inclination was to overpromise on results. As a grantee, IREX was not immune to this tendency and to some extent was excessively optimistic about the speed with which library systems would begin showing change.

In the Philippines, an early promise by the national ICT agency to provide equipment to hundreds of libraries failed to materialize when government budget priorities changed. An initial project that had been planned around the assumption of those devices delivered had to be scrapped. The local partner organization, however, continued its conversations with libraries throughout the country and began building the program town by town, instead of one centralized nationally. The program then brought together the most engaged and innovative librarians and started creating a movement that eventually spilled over into more of the library system.

Having established a solid group of active librarians provided a platform on which to start a new initiative based on another national priority several years later, leveraging technology to create local language books, which complemented the national mother-tongue based learning school program. This project reached even more corners of the country, engaging dozens of libraries and partner schools in using easy software to creating thousands of leisure-reading books.

– Proof of Concepts Are Needed

This outcome suggests the value of investing the time in generating a ‘proof of concept’. While Beyond Access required co-funding to launch in any country, it was often challenging to generate significant commitments until initial projects had already gotten underway. Libraries’ general reputation as outdated and irrelevant presented a barrier to interest among funders, so the early steps of supporting libraries with technology, training, and specific goals on which to work paid off after time as demonstrations.

Once there was a model which could be presented as evidence that libraries could make perhaps unexpected development contributions under the right conditions, potential co-funders could see they would get credit for something that genuinely worked and generated goodwill.

Relying on sources of funding beyond the program’s grant did slow timelines. In Georgia, with funding for library renovation and training coming from national government programs, delays in releasing funds continually pushed back activities and results. Eventually, the funds were delivered as promised and later, partner Georgian Library Association applied for and received a grant from the President’s fund that equipped more than 100 additional libraries with computers, and funded training for another 110 libraries (President of Georgia 2017). In all of these cases, patience was key – keeping the program moving while the gears of government slowly inched toward fulfilling their promises.

– Progress Sometimes Moves Back Then Forward

Not every project opportunity blossomed in a straight line. Increased government and donor interest in nonformal education in Myanmar convinced IREX to invest program funding in exploring opportunities for libraries to serve as venues for a large, national program seeking to reach out-of-school youth. The program conducted a survey and hosted a government roundtable on the topic.

But funding delays and changes in policy direction dissipated interest in the topic and the push from the library side was lost as other priorities superseded. At the same time, there are signals when the program isn’t working. In Nigeria, a promise of funding from the national universal service fund never materialized. In Peru, the National Library couldn’t keep up with program commitments, and eventually that project had to be dropped.

5. Build on Existing Program Management

While its focus was on reviving library systems, it is also worth sharing some of the lessons Beyond Access derived from testing a new approach to international development program management.

If there is one overarching observation that can be extracted from the Beyond Access experience when contrasted with other library development initiatives of the past, it is in the value of building on existing institutions and structures rather than building something from scratch.

The library world is replete with examples of book donation and library construction initiatives that foisted outside resources and ideas on library systems. IREX managers made a conscious decision that Beyond Access would seek to equip local library systems with the tools to respond to their own changing societies. This approach was reflected in a number of program facets:

  • Local implementing partners were the face of the program rather than an international organization. IREX staff was based regionally and visited program countries regularly for monitoring, planning and key training sessions, but the program operated on a daily basis as a local initiative.
  • Government was a central partner in every project. As a state institution, it was critical to not only integrate projects with the government department responsible for libraries, but to expand cooperation with libraries beyond to agencies that had never considered cooperation with libraries before. In many cases, these other government agencies funded library projects for the first time. Projects were started by aligning with government priorities and recalibrated alongside government partners as they progressed. Occasionally new themes emerged during the duration of the project – something that was only possible because of relationships already established.
  • Identify and empower library leaders. Though it is a profession that has largely stagnated in many countries, there remain numerous library staff that seek to raise the profile and capacity of their institutions. Beyond Access was designed to give opportunities to these leaders at all levels and create a platform for them to transform the image of libraries, while documenting the impact that could be attributed to them. By promoting the achievements of key librarians, Beyond Access helped resuscitate the librarian profession as an appealing and impactful one. At the same time, it provided a new challenge for librarians who sought to break out of the traditional mold of library work.

Further Research Needed on Public Library Capacity

To date, there has been little independent research on the effect of public library development programs in low – and middle-income countries. Zell and Thierry published an important evaluation of book donation programs (2015) that asked for a rethinking of this traditional approach toward ‘helping’ libraries in Africa. But there remain precious few, if any, independent assessments of programs.

Participants in the Gates Foundation Global Libraries country-level programs, as noted in the literature review section, have published a series of studies exploring the impact evaluation and advocacy aspects of those programs. While valuable, these articles assessed library development programs on their own terms, rather than starting from the demands and expectations of the agencies required to continue funding libraries into the future. This article is similarly an account of someone who helped manage the program about which he is writing.

To date, library development efforts have attracted little interest from outside researchers. This is unfortunate, as such efforts represent institutional reform on a broad scale that has the potential to effect whole societies. But just as public perceptions tend to see public libraries as outdated and irrelevant, most social scientists from outside the library realm – Klinenberg excepted – have regarded libraries as unimportant to social change. Research on the ways reformed, modern libraries in the 21st century are impacting their communities is needed, especially as technology overtakes more and more social domains.

As state-supported disinformation expands, information literacy becomes an even more important skill for populations. Public libraries are the best positioned institution in many societies to address this need. Indeed, Beyond Access’s partner in Myanmar is currently conducting a program on this topic using the library infrastructure. IREX is testing similar efforts in Ukraine, with promising early results. Research on whether properly trained librarians can effectively transfer such skills to societies would contribute to the body of knowledge about another important value of public libraries on a trending global priority.

Ari Katz was Asia Director of the Beyond Access program at IREX from 2014-2019.

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2 Comments to “5 Lessons Learned From Investing in Libraries for National Development”

  1. Indeed. I saw the transformational change in my own country Romania. The 5 year Biblionet program was very succesful and continues to be these days in the hands of local partners (community people/organizers and government). The library has become a learning community center where people learn from books, each other, and from the Internet and most importantly people regained interest to come by the library. Especially helpful in remote and vulnerable communities where they provide a space for learning skills and connection. See here https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en/blog/biblionet-global-libraries-romania

  2. Don Osborn says:

    Appreciate the mention of Bangla-language reading apps under #2, & local language books in the Philippines under #4. Language represents a cross-cutting issue in promoting libraries in any context – what is included & supported broadens impact & sends a message, esp. in multilingual societies.

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