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Public Libraries in Latvia Receive Funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Expand Access to Computers and the Internet

In November 2006 the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation awarded $ 16.2 million grant to the Latvian Ministry of Culture to expand no-cost access to computers and the internet in Latvias public libraries and provide the necessary training and technical support to librarians. This grant is a part of foundations Global Libraries Initiative, which aims to support libraries in countries all over the world. At the moment besides Latvia, the Global Libraries Initiative has grants for libraries in Chile and Mexico and in a near future plans to award grants in Botswana and Lithuania.


Kaspars Rklis, Project Advisory Manager of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Library Public Access Computing Program in Latvia

In Latvia the Gates foundations grant for Library Public Access Computing Program, as it is officially named, is matched by the funds from the Latvian government and Latvian municipalities. The government funds will be used for various project activities and local municipality funds will help to improve the condition of library facilities and security for computers. In addition to this funding from the Gates foundation and the Latvian government, Microsoft has donated USD $ 7,9 million in software to the libraries. The total funding for the Library Public Access Computing Project from all sources is expected to reach $ 48 million at the completion of the project.
In Latvia, where almost all of 874 public libraries (except 17 small rural libraries) are already connected to the internet during the State Unified Library Information Network or the Net of Light project, the Library Public Access Computing Program will provide resources to connect all Latvian public libraries to the Internet with broadband connections, build a Wi-Fi network for library users for wireless access, provide approximately three new computers per library to meet an anticipated high demand, offer basic computer training to library patrons, and provide training to all 1,792 public library librarians in Latvia.

Access to Computers and the Internet in Libraries in Latvia

The Republic of Latvia has made significant investments in public libraries to ensure that all citizens have access to technology prior this project. The State Unified Library Information Network , a state-financed project started in 2001, has increased the number of computers in libraries, connected more than 80 percent of public libraries to the Internet with at least a dial-up connection, trained two-thirds of library staff, and encouraged municipalities to invest in library infrastructure. Starting January 1, 2007, amendments to the Library Law prescribe that the government will reimburse all expenses to local municipalities that are connected with providing free access to the internet in libraries. 
Libraries in rural Latvia continue to face challenges in the quality of connectivity. Few people living in rural areas use the Internet at home or work, and libraries in those communities remain the least connected. There is also a need to provide increased training for librarians so they can help citizens benefit from the technology. Currently, 70 percent of staff members have access to basic computer training through the State Unified Library Information Network project.
This investment in public libraries is closely connected with the new National Library of Latvia project. The goal of the project is to create an information infrastructure throughout the country with the National Library building in Riga as its central hub. Latvia has made significant investments in public libraries over the past years to ensure that all citizens have access to technology. More than 80 percent of public libraries in Latvia are connected to the Internet. However, there is still a need to improve connectivity in libraries serving rural communities and to increase training for librarians so they can help citizens benefit from the technology.
 As a part of the new National Library of Latvia project, this investment in public libraries reinforces our commitment to improve the lives of all Latvian citizens by giving them opportunities to access information and technology at no cost, at the time of signing the grant agreement said Helena Demakova, the minister of culture of the Republic of Latvia.

Gates Foundations Global Libraries Initiative

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations Global Libraries initiative supports the efforts of countries to provide no-cost access to computers and the Internet in public libraries. The grant to Latvia is the first of what is expected to be an overall USD $328 million program reaching 12 to 15 countries globally. Latvia was invited to apply for funding based on a number of criteria, including a commitment to providing technology for the entire community, demonstrated need, the presence of a strong library system, and the ability to sustain computing services. The foundations partnership with Latvia represents one of the first grants offered and the first committed to an Eastern European country.
Technology can help people find employment, research a medical problem, and communicate with others across the world, said Martha Choe, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations Global Libraries initiative. Access to the benefits of the digital age for the Latvian people, no matter their age, ethnicity, income level, or where they live, will be a tremendous asset to the country. And public libraries, with their history of being centers of information and knowledge, are the ideal institutions to provide that access.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations Global Libraries initiative has been helping libraries worldwide provide no-cost access to computers and technology since 1997. In Chile, the foundation worked in partnership with national and local government leaders to provide computer and Internet services and training in all of the countrys 368 public libraries. Since the project started in 2001, the percentage of public libraries with computers has increased from 10 percent to 100 percent. In Mexico, the foundation is working with the Ministry of Culture to support no-cost computer access in 30 percent of the countrys 8,000 libraries. In the United States, the foundation provided libraries with the necessary equipment, training, and support to offer computer and Internet services. Today, nearly every library in the United States offers no-cost Internet access.
As it is well known Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation considers as one of its mains tasks the reduction of the so-called digital gap or decreasing the isolation of people from information, technologies and knowledge all over the world. To reach this aim the Foundation has already donated and is continuing to donate significant resources to libraries all over the world the major recipients have been the USA, Mexico and Chile. The funding granted to Latvia project is one of the first grants awarded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the country belonging to the so-called New Europe.

Overview of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations Grant to Latvia

The grant provides resources for Latvia to expand no-cost access to computers and the Internet, including the installation of computers and Internet connectivity, building a Wi-Fi network for library users, providing training and technical support for staff, and supporting advocacy efforts to sustain the program long term. The Culture Information Systems (CIS), a state agency within the Ministry of Culture, is administering the project. CIS was established by the Ministry of Culture to oversee all technology projects and systems for Latvian cultural agencies such as libraries, archives, and museums. The Ministry of Culture oversees the project and has established clear implementation goals that include:

Install 3,833 computers in 874 libraries in Latvia
Connect 17 libraries to the Internet for the first time
Upgrade the Internet connectivity in 853 libraries
Install equipment in 874 libraries to allow users to connect to the Internet wirelessly
Train 1,792 librarians in computer use and user support
Train library users in basic computer use

Project funding to date:
USD $21,169,000 Republic of Latvia
USD $16,231,000 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Impact of funding:
Coverage 80 percent of library computers will be installed in libraries that serve less than 10,000 people (70 percent of population)
Training 1,792 librarians will receive training in either computer use and support or user training
Connectivity Target is to connect all libraries to the Internet at a speed of 1 MB
Access Target is to provide three computers per library to meet user demand

Library Public Access Computing Program Activities and Goals in Latvia

The Library Public Access Computing Program aims to purchase around 4000 new computers to be used in 874 library buildings throughout Latvia. On average, it will be 3 new computers per library but they will be distributed based on the number of visitors to each library and population of the area.  17 libraries will be connected to the Internet for the first time, in 853 libraries the internet connection will be upgraded, but in 874 wireless accesses to the Internet will be installed, which will allow visitors with personal laptop computers use the internet at the library free of charge.
During the project, 1792 librarians will undergo information technology and customer service skills training. The first training phase for librarians without prior IT skills has already been completed. Also many library patrons throughout Latvia will be trained in computer and Internet use skills. Besides computer skills, librarians will also receive other training, for instance, customer service skills, marketing and public relations skills and others. All training will take place near the workplace of librarians 10 regional training centers have been established all over Latvia to serve this purpose. It is expected that these training centers will continue to operate as lifelong learning centers for librarians and local communities also after the completion of the Library Public Access Computing Program.
Project also aims to attract new library visitors that could benefit from the new technologies. The Gates foundations work is guided by the belief that every life, no matter where it is lived, has equal value.  The Library Public Access Computing Program will focus on inclusion of various socially disadvantaged groups into the beneficiaries of this project. One of the project activities will focus entirely on the visually impaired people. The project will provide special computer equipment not only to the Library for the Blind in Riga and its 7 branches throughout Latvia but also will deliver a similar set of equipment that will include a computer, a monitor and a printer for visually impaired to all major regional libraries so that people who need this equipment could use it as close as possible to their place of residence.
Impact assessment is also a part of the project. The evaluation of activities and their impact on the society will be measured several times before, throughout and after the project. Such an extensive studies of libraries will be performed for the first time in Latvia. There will be a total of 7 studies done during the project and after its completion.
An important component to the project is its sustainability after the grant and therefore one of the important project components is advocacy and public relations. The goal of the communication of this project will be not only inform the public about the new technology and opportunities available in public libraries throughout Latvia but also change the whole image of libraries from a place where book collections are kept to a new, modern center of information and creativity.

Authors contacts: kaspars.ruklis(at)kis.gov.lv


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