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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.

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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.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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