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

By Wayan Vota on November 21, 2011

future telecenter
Is this the library the future of public access ICT after cybercafes and telecenters?

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 expense 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?


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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One Comment to “Libraries: the Dirty but Effective Word in Public Access to ICT”

  1. Dan Salcedo says:

    Don’t agree that “telecenters are not sustainable”

    Telecenters are a noble approach to democratizing the benefits to ICT. However most of them struggle for sustainability precisely because they target users of limited means. The key to their viability, however, is providing services to the relatively prosperous enterprises in that exist in all communities. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly feeling the necessity to establish an on-line presence and are willing and able to pay a small amount as well as purchase additional services such as computer/camera rental, training, and technical assistance. Once the fixed costs of a telecenter (rent, equipment, staff payroll, Internet access) are covered with e-commerce services to local SMEs, the marginal cost of offering Internet services to low income users (peasants, students, residents of slums, etc.) is modest.

    OpenEntry.com is the only e-commerce application specifically designed for SMEs networks in the developing world. It offers totally free e-commerce catalogs built on Google’s cloud computing environment (examples from 45 countries at OpenEntry.com/Catalog). Instructions are in 57 languages.

    OpenEntry won the Global IT Excellence Award for Digital Opportunity from WITSA.org and a UNDP evaluation (http://goo.gl/EWd4b) in Nepal, concluded:

    1. The largest impact of implementing this ‘pro-poor’ e-commerce approach was on income and employment.
    2. Firms using it reported jobs directly attributable to on-line promotion . . . 3918 women
    3. A relatively inexperienced group of young IT professionals could, with the proper tools, create employment for themselves while providing e-commerce services to local SMEs.