Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, meaning “self-reliant organization,” improves the lives of people in remote areas of Bangladesh by empowering them through information sharing and education. In 2002, Shidhulai began establishing libraries and mobile Internet units in boats along the Bangladesh river system. Solar energy and light-weight generators power computers and other technical equipment.

The Bereba library in southwest Burkina Faso has become a hub for inclusive educational activities. It hosts regular HIV/AIDS film screenings and annual summer reading camps for rural children. Equipped with a solar panel that allows patrons to read at night, the library has recently distributed 280 solar lanterns in seven nearby villages to use as reading lanterns.

Five Parques Bibliotecas (library parks) within some of the most marginalized parts of Medellin, Colombia, are changing lives. The Parques Bibliotecas have catalyzed the community, providing information access, a prided community space, and architectural icons for the city.

The inside view of Parque Biblioteca Belen.

The inside view of Parque Biblioteca Belen.

An active classroom in the Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha mobile Internet boat.

Students learn to use laptops at Biblioteca Carlos Castro Saavedra--Tren de Papel (in Colombia).

Gathering around a computer at the ALIN Network Nguruman Maarifa Center

The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) has a network of 12 maarifas, or publicly accessible knowledge centers, that reach 1.5 million people in remote regions pf Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Maarifas work with local agricultural experts and government extension workers to provide information on sustainable family farming and methods for mitigating environmental degradation.

Gathering around a computer at the ALIN Network Nguruman Maarifa Center

The Segenat Children & Youth Library is an ideal space for group study. The library in Mekelle, Ethiopia, offers an IT/Media lab, a reading nook, a youth reading center, an active reference desk, an online public access catalog, an arboretum, and several educational programs. The Segenat library has also become a hub for authors and illustrators interested
in producing children’s literature in local languages. All activities ultimately aim to build a sense of solidarity among library stakeholders, facilitating idea exchange and scaling “best practices” in librarianship and children’s literacy and learning.

Gathering around a computer at the ALIN Network Nguruman Maarifa Center

A high-tech library in Thailand offers computer pods and print reference material.

Gathering around a computer at the ALIN Network Nguruman Maarifa Center

A local library in Uganda hosts women’s literacy classes.

Gathering around a computer at the ALIN Network Nguruman Maarifa Center

An adult literacy class at Biblioteca Publica del Zulia Maracaibo, Venezuela. In response to marginalization of the poor, disabled, and elderly, Zulia Public Library has developed a range of print and ICT support services to provide citizens with the tools to address national problems from their own perspectives. Older adults, those with disabilities, and other marginalized groups are at the heart of the library’s agenda: to ensure access to information for all. Zulia’s extended bus services and Braille-adapted equipment were developed to reduce library access barriers faced by these populations.



The Case For Keeping Libraries Alive

It’s not about checking out more books. An initiative is focusing on libraries around the world as centers of social and economic change, as well as centers to help the most disadvantaged citizens.

It’s an increasingly common refrain in developed countries: libraries are no longer necessary because we can access all the books and information we could possibly need on the Internet. We’ve seen that libraries have all sorts of alternate uses in places where Internet penetration is high—for example, check out this library that also functions as a maker space—but they’re especially important in developing countries.

Beyond Access, an initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a coalition of nine organizations focused on helping libraries power development by acting as hubs for social and economic change. "People have certain perceptions about libraries. Many libraries have trouble talking about the work that they do," says Ari Katz, the deputy director for technology and civil society at IREX, a nonprofit focused on education, community, and independent media. "There’s a knee-jerk response on the part of development planners to create new institutions to do work that libraries have always been doing."

That work includes stocking books, of course, but it also involves providing access to e-books, the Internet, community information and services, and perhaps most importantly, librarians. In the developing world, government agencies often make services available online (for example, driver’s license applications) and just assume that people know how to navigate them. This is often not the case, which is exactly why librarians are so important.

"Libraries are evolving and they are becoming more and more relevant because people need to navigate information. In developing countries, people don’t have access to computers and the Internet at home. Libraries become knowledge hubs," explains Catalina Escobar, founder of Makaia, an organization in Medellín, Colombia, that promotes information and communication technology for development projects.

So until e-readers can double as librarians, libraries are probably here to stay. As Katz explains, "Unless you have that information guide in every community, then talk of development through information technology is empty."

Want to check out some libraries around the world in action? The slide show above shows libraries supported by Beyond Access member organizations.

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