Evidence of impact shows that libraries can be local hubs for community development, says communication specialist Jean Fairbairn.
There are more than 230,000 public libraries in developing countries. Known and trusted in their communities, staffed by trained librarians, and increasingly connected to the Internet, they are uniquely positioned to change lives and build strong communities.
Public libraries are mostly still viewed in traditional terms, as quiet spaces for books and study. As a result, they are chronically under-resourced. But there are plenty of success stories that should convince policymakers to unlock their potential.
National public library networks, funded by governments, have branches in cities, provincial towns and villages. Some national networks also operate mobile library services that reach deep into rural areas.
For example, the Ghana Library Board deploys minibuses, some equipped with wifi (wireless communications) and laptop computers, in each of Ghana's ten regions. Kenya National Library Services uses camels to reach nomadic pastoralists in the country's arid north-eastern region.
In some countries, vibrant community library sectors have mushroomed over the past two decades. The Uganda Community Libraries Association lists more than 80 community libraries as its members; there are about 100 community libraries in Ghana, as yet without a network.
These are largely funded with community support a powerful vote of confidence in libraries as valued and needed institutions.
With economic recession and tough competition for shrinking public funds, public services everywhere are being forced to step up efforts to prove their value and purpose. As a result, today's public libraries are focusing more on local needs, and increasing numbers are starting to offer non-traditional services to particular communities.
ICTs underpin services
My organisation, Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), is building on this energy with our Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP). Since 2009, EIFL-PLIP has invited public and community libraries in developing countries and those in 'transition' (moving to a free market economy) to apply for small grants to implement innovative services based on information and communications technologies (ICTs).
More than 500 libraries from 50 countries applied indicating high levels of motivation and readiness and EIFL-PLIP has supported 39 new services in 23 countries.
The services use traditional and modern ICT in creative combinations print, radio, computers, the Internet, websites, video and, increasingly, mobile phones and smartphones.
For example, Ugandan farmers are using smartphones to send photographs of diseased plants to agricultural researchers, who respond with solutions by SMS text messaging; health workers in northern Ghana use library computers to send advice via SMS to pregnant women; and three libraries in Uganda have created a database of young people, with information about their career plans and an SMS opportunities-alert service.
Evidence of impact
A key part of EIFL-PLIP is to build the capacity of librarians to assess the impact of the programme, which each must do after 12 months.
For example, in 2010, Radislav Nikevic public library in Jagodina, Serbia, launched the AgroLib service a network of four village libraries where farmers learn ICT skills and now sell their produce through an online market. The village libraries also host lectures and events where farmers can interact with agricultural experts and government support agencies.
In 2012, librarians are reporting steadily increasing numbers of farmers coming to the libraries most are looking for information that helps boost yields and increases their income.
Evidence of impact is also emerging from Africa. Two branches of the Kenya National Library Services have become important health information providers after establishing 'e-health' corners with free Internet access. In just one year, librarians trained 1,600 health workers, students and members of the public to use the Internet to research health information.
Raising the service profile
In 2010, EIFL-PLIP commissioned research on the perceptions of public libraries in six countries in Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. While an overwhelming majority of stakeholders including library users, librarians, and government decision-makers placed high value on public libraries as educational spaces, only five per cent of users and non-users associated libraries with ICT.
Most library users (85 per cent) rated librarians' competence as good or very good except in the area of technology.
But most also strongly believed that libraries could provide community development services in areas such as health, agriculture, e-government, employment and business.
EIFL-PLIP is now using these findings to support teams of librarians in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda to advocate for policy change and sustainable funding, so that they can afford ICT and provide new services focused on community needs, especially in rural areas.
What more needs to be done?
In developing and transition countries, public libraries are small and under-resourced, lacking finance and technology. Given their numbers, reach and proven potential, that should not be the case.
EIFL-PLIP's experience and evidence of impact shows that many libraries are ready and able to provide services that change lives and improve livelihoods, with minimal additional support.
It is time to raise awareness and change perceptions of public libraries, provide the funding and training they need to offer these services, and encourage partnerships with other local development agencies. It is time to bring public libraries fully into the development arena.