Libraries are Development

Anna Shelton /

"When we think about libraries and the work that we've seen around the world, we really think that libraries are driving community development. It's not just about the technology; technology is merely a tool. It's about how libraries are having an impact on lives through their services."

– Darren Hoerner, Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Libraries in Honduras reduce the digital divide. Photo courtesy Riecken Community Libraries.Around the globe, libraries are a force to be reckoned with. A recent webinar highlighted cutting-edge libraries in developing and transitioning countries that are empowering their communities to achieve local goals. Presenters Bill Cartwright, President and CEO of Riecken Community Libraries, and Ugne Lipeikaite, Impact Manager at EIFL-PLIP (Public Library Innovation Programme) led webinar participants on a worldwide tour of libraries that are creating huge impacts with modest resources.

Community development can be understood to mean many things, but the United Nations recognizes it as "a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems." Riecken Foundation and EIFL-PLIP, which both receive support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, bring this definition to life each day through their work.

Since 2009, EIFL- PLIP has developed 49 projects in 27 countries, enabling public and community libraries to use technology in innovative ways to support agriculture, economic well-being and employment, health, education, social inclusion, and more. Astoundingly, 93% of libraries that have received support from EIFL-PLIP have able to sustain these innovative services after the end of the initial investment from the program.

Photo courtesy Riecken Community Libraries.Since 2001, Riecken Foundation has established a network of 53 community libraries in Honduras and 12 community libraries in Guatemala. The libraries serve as development hubs in communities where sometimes the only other institution is a local school. Community ownership of each new Riecken library is established through a three-pronged investment model. The municipality contributes land and staff salaries; Riecken Foundation contributes the building, books, computers, and training; and community volunteers contribute their time through an active local governing board.

Consolidated below by topic area is the remarkable array of examples from Riecken Foundation and EIFL-PLIP of libraries advancing community development that were shared during the webinar by presenters Bill Cartwright and Ugne Lipeikaite. Read on to the end of this article for Bill and Ugne's observations and advice about key ingredients for successful community development in any context. As you peruse the list that follows, take up the challenge posed by Ugne: keep your eyes and your mind wide open to ways that global experiences can be applied in your library.

Global examples of libraries powering community development, from EIFL-PLIP and Riecken Foundation

HEALTH: people live healthier lives because of libraries.

  • Health text messages sent by libraries in Ghana make for safer pregnancies. Photo courtesy of EIFL-PLIP.In Ghana, many women lack maternal health information. A library registered pregnant women and sent weekly health text messages about what to watch for during pregnancy. An area of the library was set aside for health workers to research medical information online, and for pregnant women to use pre-loaded health materials. Nearly 100 women were served in the first year, and they reported that library information helped them give birth safely.

  • In rural communities throughout Honduras and Guatemala, medical brigades routinely provide health services in libraries. Among many health-focused library projects in the region, one library aims to reach the whole family by pairing training for women in safe food handling with early childhood reading materials about food.

EDUCATION: people learn through libraries.

  • Across Lithuania, libraries are reconnecting at-risk children to school. For kids who frequently skip class, the library created an interactive computer game officially recognized by schools, where game achievements actually improve the child’s grades. The service was so effective it has been expanded to 137 public libraries and 70 schools across Lithuania – reaching 8,000 kids.  

  • In Ghana, children in rural areas were failing school exams on ICT – in large part because no computers were available for hands-on practice. The library started traveling to villages with a van of computers loaded with educational materials. Initially, there were 18 children to each computer; more computers were later purchased to help meet demand.

  • A library in Mongolia created a laboratory to record digital audiobooks for blind and visually impaired people, and trained volunteers to load books onto DAISY book readers.  The project prompted a national policy change, creating the legal right to a free DAISY book reader for every blind and visually impaired person in Mongolia.

  • Through learning to build and animate robots, children in Serbia are being introduced to computer coding and programming. After children master the basics, libraries will provide training in more advanced programming skills for real-life applications. A different project in Croatia will stimulate children’s imagination through the installation of a 3D printing lab.

CULTURAL & ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY: local treasures are preserved by libraries.

  • Youth in Guatamala learn GPS to map local natural and cultural sites. Photo courtesy of Riecken Community Libraries.In Guatemala, libraries helped publish 8 bilingual books that were written and illustrated by communities in three indigenous languages, as well as in Spanish. Also in Guatemala, young people at 12 community libraries are learning to use GPS to identify and map local natural and cultural sites. The resulting maps promote tourism and assist local government.

RURAL AGRICULTURE: farming is made viable by libraries.

  • Farmers in Uganda are being trained by librarians to use the internet to research questions about their crops. New solar panels brought internet—and electricity—to five community libraries, where librarians trained 700 farmers in the first year.  The service was so valuable that the farmers pooled funds to maintain internet in the libraries when the project ended.

  • In Serbia, after training farmers to use the internet, four rural libraries developed a website for local farmers to advertise and sell their products. The website has become an important platform to attract new buyers and increase rural tourism.

EMPLOYMENT: people find jobs and economic opportunity in libraries.

  • In several libraries in Guatemala, women artisans promote their products through a Business Center housed in the library. The business center assists weavers, cheesemakers, and other artisans and members of local cooperatives to learn financial literacy, marketing, and valuable computer skills.  

  • A library in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, took their training directly to homeless shelters, teaching people to use ICT and look for work. The service helped 22 homeless people find jobs, and attracted additional partners to provide participants with free legal assistance.

  • In response to acute local unemployment, a library in Macedonia created a job-seeking service including ICT training and counseling, and partnered with local NGOs to create a website connecting local jobseekers with local employers. In the first year, 39 jobseekers found employment, and this success increased the library’s priority for municipal investment.

CIVIC PARTICIPATION: people become involved in their community and step across the digital divide in libraries.

  • In Honduras and Guatemala, volunteers on library governing boards receive leadership and management training.  Internet access enables community members to conduct online banking and register for school.  Library spaces double as meeting rooms for mayors and local cooperatives, and libraries publically post library income and expenses each month, modeling a level of institutional transparency not universally demonstrated in Central America.

What makes community development successful in libraries?

Webinar presenters Bill Cartwright and Ugne Lipeikaite shared their reflections about the key conditions for successful community development, summarized here.

  1. Services must address real community needs. Don’t rely on what you think you know; take time to find out. Local statistics and community needs assessments can be helpful, but the process doesn’t have to be academic. In some cases, it’s just a matter of getting out and talking with people. Skipping this step runs the risk of designing a service that isn’t used, lacks stakeholder support, and will be dissatisfying for staff to implement.

  2. Hold open community meetings before you start a new service. Cultivate open dialogue to discuss community priorities. Consider community needs assessment as the first step in marketing any new library service.

  3. Choose appropriate technology.

  4. Train library staff to seek partnerships and other forms of community support so they can strengthen and sustain new library services.

  5. Once a community development focus is selected, get the word out. Bill calls this “socializing” the project. Everyone in the whole community needs to understand the project, what it can accomplish, and what it will take to make it happen.

  6. Build advocacy skills among library staff. As Ugne notes, “we all know our services are good, but how do you prove it, especially to outsiders of the library world?”

  7. Continually measure and communicate the impact of your work. Use stories and numbers. Ask: How did the library’s work change a practice? How did the library’s work change a life?

  8. Reframe the library as a platform for community development.  Though often initially surprised, people are quick to adopt this notion of libraries once they understand it.

"Each community is different. We all don't need fish ponds; we all don't need newspapers. Each community's needs ... has to be assessed."

– Bill Cartwright

"Behind every successful service is a successful librarian: motivated, passionate about the work."

- Ugne Lipeikaite

Watch the complete archived webinar: Libraries as Drivers of Community Development: Global Edition.

Photos taken from webinar slides, courtesy of Riecken Community Libraries and EIFL-PLIP.