Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Libraries Empower Women, Strengthen Healthcare, and Bridge the Education Gap

August 27, 2012

When you think of a library, what comes to mind? Row after row of books? The Dewey Decimal System? Kids but no adults? Those stereotypes are outdated.  Around the world, libraries are on the front lines of innovative development. 

More than 230,000 public libraries exist in developing and transitioning countries right now. But why is that important? Because public libraries are a trusted information resource at the heart of communities.  And it’s no longer possible to talk about development without talking about information. As that community hub, libraries are being applied in unique ways to improve lives and communities.

Libraries were the first program of the Gates Foundation, and Beyond Access is one of the ways that work has evolved. Building on the learning of the past 15 years, Beyond Access, is working to ensure libraries are no longer left out of development efforts. 

Consider just a few examples of the ways in which public libraries are already making a difference:

  • Libraries empower women. Librarians in the small Ukrainian town of Zaporizhia noticed that many girls in the community were falling prey to drug abuse and unhealthy life choices, so they decided to launch a program to provide girls with technology training, career advice and an overall support network.  As a result of the program, girls in the community now spend more time at the library using computers and the Internet than they do getting in trouble on the streets.
  • Libraries are partnering to expand awareness and treatment of health issues: When HIV/AIDS infections were on the rise in a Nepalese village, local NGOs established a partnership with the Laxmi Narayan Community Library and Resource Center to provide counseling to more than 1,200 community members. HIV-positive individuals were previously forced to travel hours for treatment, but the new partnership enabled them to obtain their anti-retroviral drugs at the nearby library.
  • Libraries help bridge the education gap: With approximately 45,000 visits each year and more than 400 books borrowed monthly, the Béréba Public Library in the Western African nation of Burkina Faso is one busy place! Together with the Friends of the African Village Library, Béréba has become a hub for educational activities in a country where less than 50 percent of school-aged children actually enrolled.  Whether it’s hosting an annual summer reading camp or providing night reading opportunities via 240 solar lanterns, this library is an innovative and invaluable locally-operated resource.

Libraries just make sense.

Fast Company’s Co.Exist recently covered this transformation and the Beyond Access initiative. Because they are already in place, trusted by the communities they serve and are locally staffed, these existing institutions are an ideal development partner and Beyond Access is just getting started in helping libraries get a place at the table in development efforts from health to agriculture to open government.

If you’re interested in learning more about the role of libraries in transitioning countries, join the conversation. Follow Beyond Access on Facebook, on Twitter @Beyond_Access and join the organization and library innovators from around the world for the Local Alternatives for Global Development: Rediscovering Libraries conference in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 3. Registration is now open.

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