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Internet Governance 12 November 2012

Digital inclusion and Public Libraries

The workshop on digital inclusion and public libraries was organised by International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) and the Internet Society (ISOC). Stuart Hamilton of the IFLA introduced the workshop agenda and emphasized that the workshop format would be dialogue based.  He stated that for many access to Internet is still lagging. The workshop was intended to discuss the notion of libraries as agents for development, and to raise awareness within the IGF’s multistakeholder community that libraries are the ideal partner to solve the problem of digital inclusion. A small percentage of people are connected to the internet yet it is a powerful tool for accessing essential services. For those without Internet, public libraries as trusted institutions can play an important role in the development process by making information accessible.

Siri Oswald from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stated that the foundation believes access to information changes lives. The Internet opens many opportunities for people. In the US, elections are currently underway to elect a new president. Public libraries play a vital role in deepening democracy as they are a source of information and are crucial for accessing important services. Public libraries can become key players in government strategies to provide universal Internet access, promote civic engagement and economic empowerment.

Olivier Creplin-Leblond of Internet Society (ISOC) outlined the key services of libraries in the digital age
– Counselling
– Community building
– Skills development
– Physical access
– Access to basic services such as printing, faxing etc

Ari Katz, director of Beyond Access a coalition of nine organisations . Beyond Access sees the world’s 230,000 public libraries as hubs for development. The coalition has two goals:
1. Promote public libraries as partners in achieving development goals
2. Empower libraries so that they serve the purpose of being development
partners

For public libraries to establish and meet user expectations there is a need to conduct a local needs survey. In remote and rural areas, public libraries can provide basic services such as job searches, agricultural and farming information. The Executive Director of Tech Aid from Ghana shared the success story of providing access to information in remote areas of Ghana through the use of a solar powered mobile library.

Some of the challenges discussed :
– User perceptions towards public libraries
– Government / policy makers attitude towards libraries; viewing libraries as archaic institutions
– Lack of capacity of librarians/users to use technology

Recommendations:
– Sensitise policy makers on role of libraries in the development agenda /process
– Collaboration of all stakeholders in ensuring that libraries play a major role in attaining development goals
– Create content relevant to the end user
– Build capacity of librarians / users to increase levels of technological skills
– Raise the profile of public libraries so that there is a change in attitude and perception among the users and the information professionals

In conclusion, the workshop debunked the perception that libraries are archaic institutions. Libraries are untapped resources and are still relevant in providing key services for development, promote civic engagement and bridge the digital divide. Librarians were also encouraged to embrace technological developments such as cloud computing and view them as opportunities for promoting access to information.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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