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Connecting the World 8 November 2012

Takeaway (No.130) Digital Inclusion and Public Access to the Internet: What Policymakers Need and how Libraries and Other Community Services can Deliver

While Governments are increasingly good at producing services online and see efficiencies to be gained, often such initiatives are taken without conisdering how or where these services are going to be delivered and used. There is a current divide between access to information support; with Public Libraries serving to bridge this gap and representing an ideal area where such issues can be tackled. Public Libraries are able to fulfil this role by being trusted open instutions with qualified knowledge managers.

Since Public Libraries have traditionally served this role, this is a huge plus. It also ensures that Governments can get more value out of Library funding. That being said, Libraries are under-resourced and must obtain the support to bring material, ICT support to rural communities. It is important to lead in with the solutions not the technologies to promote partnerships between technology companies, government and Librarians to bring the concepts necessary.

Mutually beneficial partnerships may exist, though it is necessary to identify the need. Whether the need is bridging the digital divide or content creation will help in determining success indicators. Often rural connectivity or rural access projects are grappled with lack of funding, however in many of the cases libraries exist already and in the Government support can be leveraged to supply the needs on a permanent basis. Politicians need to be held accountable by librarians and civil society to prioritise libraries. Perceptions and potential of library infrastructure needs to be realised and to facilitate this it is important for librarians to speak in terms of their development plans (including creative steps such as mobile libraries and solar powered libraries).

Particularly, in areas where broadband does not exist, investment is made in schools and libraries for use the internet to youths and adult populations. Some interesting case studies include:

– Bhutan which defines access to information as a fundamental right. The Government has taken up initiatives to expand network coverage and increase administrative areas all over the country. The quality of connectivity is the focus; as well as challenges such as literacy, content and application (with the government to citizens services initiatives). The growth of handhelds has increased but typically internet access happens on computers. In Bhutan there are tele-centres in districts with trained personnel assisting locals in accessing the internet. The tele-centre tries to bring the internet to the citizens the majority of which are youths.

– Azerbaijan has had rapid advancement in ICT, for instance a new law on electronic signatures and e-documents, as well as an action plan for e-government etc. There is a program to upgrade libraries, including automated systems and internet access. Libraries have a new task to change citizens’ view of them, such that it is not only a space to access hard copy books, but rather to turn readers into users to take advantage of all the services available. As such, small libraries have been merging into large information centres.

– Ghana made the effort to create partnership in bringing research documents into the libraries, therefore adding relevance to citizens. While there is no necessity to do cloud computing,  something as small as SMS to check the status of a book in the library does make a difference. Simple technology changes the life of people and does serve the purpose of building local content.

– Indonesia uses telecentres to disseminate information in rural communities, supported with expert face to face meetings.

Libraries have a part to play in the future of the internet, including the addition of the asset of librarians to this goal. As the internet is just a huge collection of content, libraries are able to help with this clarification, collection of information and the need to share new services. Traditional methods using Archie, Veronica, Jughead services to facilitate this access, classification and annotation are now used tandem and supported by the new means such as access via mobile phone; utilising open source (which serves libraries well since it has free and open principles); etc. Also, the physical facilities that libraries provide are important including shared office scanner, fax etc in today’s digital world. The role of Libraries in community building, consulting skills, physical access, printing, skill development, support development visions to increase competitiveness of the people is manifold and critical; particularly as the internet has generated increase in the need of digital libraries and there borderless nature of cloud computing.

More information on this session.

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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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