Making a Worldwide Impact

The Global Libraries Initiative Addresses an Imbalance of Opportunity

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Emerald Group Publishing   / 

Originally published in a Global Libraries Special Issue of Performance Measurement and Metrics, WebJunction is hosting five articles on impact planning assessment worldwide, made freely accessible in précis format through arrangements with Emerald Group Publishing and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This text from the introduction by guest editor, David Streatfield.

Image courtesy of Gates Foundation via Flickr.com - Students Jerry Bade and Philip Arkipo Osano utilize the services provided at the Ndhiwa Maarifa Center. (Kisumu, Kenya, 2011)At a time when only 35% of the world's population is connected to the Internet and people in rural and poor communities are deprived of the economic, educational, health, and social opportunities which a digital world offers, the work of the Global Libraries Initiative is making a worldwide impact on addressing this imbalance of opportunity.

Following pioneering work to provide free access to technology in public libraries in the US, the Global Libraries Initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now has success globally and includes Indonesia, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Botswana, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova and Colombia.

But how can that success be measured? How can the impact be assessed? Impact Planning and Assessment (the preferred term to describe performance measurement and impact evaluation) specialists involved in the first five years of GL have collaborated to reflect on experiences and outline progress in eight of those countries (the first eight in the above list).

Through the IPAs, these countries are learning a great deal about the results of introducing public access to information through computers in public libraries into an enormously varied range of settings. They have also learnt what is important when seeking to evaluate the work at a national level – and, not surprisingly, there are substantial differences across such diverse settings. However, some consistent patterns have emerged in how individuals, communities and their libraries respond to enhanced public access and how this information affects people's lives.

Gradual evolution of country-by-country evaluation

Image courtesy of Gates Foundation via Flickr.com

This work shows the commitment of the IPA specialists to communicating what they are learning to public library evaluation specialists and to library service managers in other countries contemplating any kind of service innovation.

Since two earlier public access initiatives in Chile and Mexico which paved the way for GL, evaluation of the various country programs has evolved gradually. The rationale behind the current approach to IPA, as exemplified in the GL "IPA Roadmap", is that public libraries in most countries are familiar and generally comfortable with collecting basic service performance information and that public library evaluators at national level in most countries are thoroughly familiar with the types of performance metrics that are collected in common by all of the countries involved in GL (such as the number of public library service points providing public access computing, workstation use rate, or number of library workers trained), all of which are within the range of data types that all country evaluations of Public Access ICT installation and support programs will want to collect.

Going beyond assessing public access to ICT

Moving beyond basic performance monitoring to engage with evaluating the impact of PACs on users can be more challenging. Focusing on changes that access to information via the Internet can bring in communities where little or no free Internet access is available, presents a host of challenges. The IPA specialists in the countries which were engaged in the GL initiative in the first few years (Latvia, Lithuania and Botswana) responded by trying to identify and share key learning at each stage in the IPA process and this evolved into the four-stage IPA Roadmap: 1) Pre-planning/learning, 2) IPA planning, 3) IPA implementation, and 4) Applying the findings and embedding IPA.

Most countries have relevant data on their public libraries that can be of use in the planning stage, but the needs analysis work will need to be more than checking whether public libraries are already providing public access to ICT. Stakeholder consultation and especially user consultation should be a minimum starting point in building IPA momentum. Deep discussion with stakeholders may be the lever with which to move the evaluation towards assessing impact rather than just service monitoring, because it may show areas where public access ICT can make a real difference to users.

Read more about this excellent work in the précis for Impact Planning Assessment Worldwide.