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Libraries for Social Good

October 15, 2013

I attended the Social Good Summit held in New York in September, where the discussions centered on how technology and social media can be used to improve people’s lives, and most importantly, on how we can take action to make our world a better place by 2030. Speakers and panelists steered the crowd into reflection, shared ideas, and stimulated our minds through brief and dynamic presentations and living-room style panel chats. I was inspired and walked out of the event feeling even more optimistic about the use of technology as tools to do social good and bring about positive change in the world.

My interest in the Social Good Summit, however, went beyond the stimulating topics; I was there to further explore the connections among technology, development, and public libraries. 

Esther Agbarakwe, Digital Story-Teller & Communication Advisor, who was on the panel that Melinda Gates led, made that connection crystal clear when she said, “The tools are there; they can be made available, but people need to build capacity on how to use technology to connect with others, to access relevant information, to share ideas.” And that’s exactly what libraries do, especially in low-resource environments, where they play a critical role in society and have deep impact on people.

Statistics show, for example, that half a million people accessed the Internet for the first time at a public library in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. The same number of people used the public access computers at the library to support employment-related activities such as searching for job opportunities, applying for jobs, or looking up information to start a small business. Here are three examples of libraries that help people in their communities:

  • Working in Guatemala and Honduras, the Riecken Community Libraries support economic development and lifelong learning. For example, in a Business Center in one of the libraries, women artisans and weavers have access to information about their trade, learn computer skills to promote and sell their products online, and have a space where they can self-organize. This model could be easily replicated in other libraries through strong partnerships.
  • READ Global partners with communities in rural villages in Bhutan, Nepal, and India to build Community Library and Resource Centers. READ works with the community to establish the center, provide training for the people who will manage the center, and design services that support the development needs the community has said they want the most. Because women in rural villages are held back by the lack of education and economic development opportunities, READ Centers focus their efforts and activities to empower women and provide a space for safe dialog. By partnering with organizations from the private and public sector, libraries are self-sustained and business opportunities are also made available for community members, especially women, to generate income.
  • In Ghana, the Ghana Library Authority combined technology, public health, and library services, to create the Technology for Maternal Health Program.  The program uses the Internet, mobile phones, and radio to build networks between pregnant women and health workers and to help reduce maternal mortality in the Northern Region of the country. In partnership with the Tamale Library and the Ho Regional Library, health information and educational services are provided at the libraries or provided at the villages through the libraries’ mobile services. More information about other libraries around the world powering development can be found at the Beyond Access initiative website.

Today, there are more than 315,000 libraries worldwide, 73 percent of them in developing and transition countries, and they have the opportunity to become critical community assets.  Libraries can contribute to an increase in the economic and social well-being of the people they serve by effectively delivering relevant information through technology, training people to use online resources, and providing services that meet the users’ evolving information needs.  So if you ask me what I see libraries doing to make our world a better place, I would say they are doing a lot for social good.

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