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Public libraries have enormous potential to help people in so many ways. Through them people can learn new skills, find jobs, discover history and culture, understand current affairs, improve their health, meet other people, connect to other sources of knowledge and generally improve their lives.
While internet penetration in the developing world is steadily improving, the use of mobile technologies is steaming ahead. A recent report shows that the highest share of mobile web usage - the Web accessed from phones and other mobile devices - occurs in developing nations, for example, more than 25% of web usage in Nigeria is from mobiles. This situation is leading librarians to work with interesting combinations of ICTs, such as the internet plus mobile phones, together with traditional technologies such as radio, to deliver effective services to their communities and to provide training in specific skills to improve lives and livelihoods.
The EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) harnesses these new opportunities. Through PLIP, twelve public libraries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America were awarded grants in 2010 to create innovative services using technology to enhance everyday lives in response to an identified community need. The projects cover many socio-economic and cultural needs, including youth development, enhancing employment and market opportunities - especially for previously under-served groups - and improving community health. Here is a selection of some of the new services.
Bringing the library to the rural farm
The Panguipulli Public Library uses a combination of complementary ICTs to reach farmers in the remote mountains and valleys of Valdivia province in southern Chile to enable producers to access agricultural information, and to help improve production and marketing techniques. An SMS service has been developed, and radio programmes featuring vets, agronomists and librarians are broadcast. So far, over 200 farmers have received training in digital literacy, sometimes literally outside in the fields or in grain warehouses during the winter. As a result, many farmers are participating in “Agricultores de Panguipulli”, a social network on rural agribusiness. “I never thought about doing a computer course before, because they are usually only offered in the city and are expensive”, says Silvia Luengo Vasquez, a fruit and flower producer who sells to markets in the capital, Santiago. Now Silvia searches online for horticultural information and checks the local weather forecast. “I’m a different person now, more informed and with more expectations. Now I feel integrated into the information society!”, adds Silvia.
Supporting youth at risk
Zavidovići is a small town in central Bosnia, still burdened by the legacy of the war that came about as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia (1992-1995). A lack of facilities for young people added to the sense of disillusionment, especially for the high school students who spend hours each week waiting for buses to their homes in the rural hinterland. Librarians in the small public library, located right next to the bus station, were inspired to transform the traditional reading room into a modern multimedia space, that provides a safe environment for students to spend quality time learning new skills such as journalism, film-making, digital photography, and English language. The “Youth Corner” has been a runaway success and is visited by more than 60 students daily. “I am really glad that we have the youth centre, so that I can help my peers”, says Velid Vrabac, a student volunteer who gives extra maths tuition. “I’m not better than the teachers or anything, but I can connect with the students!” Find them on Facebook.
Building job-seekers’ confidence
The town of Radovis in south-east Macedonia struggles with long-term unemployment following a protracted economic transition since the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991. Unemployment stands at around 20%, mostly under 40s and women. Following a needs assessment of unemployed members at the local public library "Braka Miladinovci”, two skill sets were identified as lacking - basic computer proficiency and how to “sell yourself” to an employer.
In partnership with the local employment agency, the business sector and two NGOs, the public library equipped a training centre and helped develop materials. In 2010, over 65 people attended a bespoke programme that included practical advice on how to find a job, how to prepare a good CV and successful interview techniques. The results speak for themselves – 31 trainees have since found jobs. “Now I realise that the things I emphasised before in my CV were not at all important. I am also amazed at how many positive things I can say about myself, I just wasn’t aware of them until now!” said Tanja Nikolovska, a successful job-seeker.
Access to quality health information
The town of Eldoret in the Great Rift Valley and the port city of Kisumu on the banks of Lake Victoria both have special health needs. Kisumu has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Kenya, and waterborne tropical diseases are common in both places. The Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) wants to position public libraries to meet a vital development need – to provide quality health information to health workers and the general public. In this pilot project, librarians and health professionals are working together - for the first time - to strengthen their online research skills, discover e-resources and develop e-health portals for the community. As a result, health workers have become ambassadors for the libraries, and librarians recognise how health professionals can help to promote library services. “The project opened our eyes to new ways of delivering services to needy clients”, said Mr Hesbon Kionge, Principal Librarian, Kisumu Library. “We will never close our eyes to them again”.
The Public Library Innovation Program (PLIP) is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation