Communities need both spaces and services
Libraries have always promoted aspiration, learning, and development. That’s why communities want them, and that’s why they’ve invested in them throughout human history. Public libraries are safe spaces — and making all people welcome has always been part of their mandate. (If you live in DC get yourself over to the MLK library downtown and check out their adaptive services to get just a taste of what I mean.) And they are especially experienced with reaching out to vulnerable populations.
This is what makes them natural partners for development initiatives. So many projects deal with information issues (Yes I link to that post a lot. Just read it again). Depending on the sector, in development lingo we have different names for this: agricultural extension; communication for social change; information, education, and communication…
As Meaghan points out, information is the issue of our time — yet most people in developing countries don’t have access to the internet. Increasing numbers do have mobile phones — but we’ll always need physical spaces to learn, work, create, engage, and connect. That’s right, folks, you can’t have a community meeting on your smartphone. Nor can you even write. Jeez.
People in Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, and the Philippines know this: almost all public library users (94%) have a mobile phone — yet they still go to the library to use computers and the internet. Finland and Denmark — two countries with the highest usage of public library computers — also have some of the highest levels of access to the internet at home (84% and 94%, respectively).
Support and services are a super important part of communications infrastructure. Access to information is not enough — many people still struggle with basic literacy, many need new skills, and many need help to decipher technology and figure out how to make it work for them. (Sometimes we forget this.)
The photo above is from a computer training class for youth at the Masiphumelele Library in South Africa. The library partnered with the City of Cape Town and a local nonprofit to deliver computer and job-readiness courses for youth, along with mentoring and career guidance. Fewer that 10% of South African youth have access to higher education — and townships like Masiphumelele face staggering unemployment. The library also hosts “girl groups” to provide specialized support to young women. When South African researchers did an in-depth study of teens they found that mobile phones and mobile internet complement, rather than replace, access to technology in public libraries.
This is just one example of the types of services provided by modern public libraries. And 73% of all of them — that’s about 230,000 — are in developing countries. These libraries have tremendous untapped potential for driving social and economic development.