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Libraries: The Sustainable Telecenter

Public Libraries can be a wonderful place for sustainable development.

This entry first appeared on the IREX Global Libraries blog.

IREX has been working with public access to information telecenters for more than 15 years. In that time we’ve encountered many difficulties. How do the telecenters continue operation after outside funding dries up? How do you embed the telecenter into the community? As our thinking on this topic has evolved over the years, we’ve begun focusing our efforts on the one existing public institution that is owned by the local community and can provide a variety of information services: the public library.

Several years back, we began implementing the Global Libraries programs in Ukraine and Romania and what we’ve discovered is that public libraries get at the sustainability question in a way that no other institution we’ve worked with has. It has taken some time for people to move past the notion of libraries as just museums for books, but what we’ve found is that libraries are, by an appreciable margin, often the best partner for community access to information projects.

Libraries are an inherently sustainable community civic institution. They have existing relationships with local governments and typically have public funding mechanisms. Libraries are naturally accessible as they offer information access to any community member, regardless of ability to pay or social status. They belong to networks located throughout a country, often even in the smallest villages. At their best, effective public libraries are essentially local in that they respond immediately to specific, identified community needs. And most importantly, for a variety of reasons, they are already on the ground – they don’t require building something new from scratch. Despite these factors, we’ve found that many in the development field are simply uninformed of how libraries can support their projects.

Some argue that there aren’t established public library systems in many countries that are the focus of development work. We aren’t suggesting that the solution is to build libraries where there are none, but libraries are more widespread than many realize. Take a look at the IFLA World Report. You can see, for example, that Algeria has 83 community libraries and 326 reading rooms, and that Cote d’Ivoire has more than 83 public libraries. And right now there are significant access to information through public libraries projects being implemented in countries as diverse as Chile, Botswana, and Vietnam.

Even in countries where there are fewer libraries – that doesn’t mean existing libraries aren’t valuable partners for development efforts. Take a look at what can be achieved on a smaller scale when libraries are given the opportunity to address socio-economic issues. These projects are in Cambodia, Zambia, and Kenya, among others.