Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bill Gates Foundation Donates $1 Million To Medellín Libraries

Deborah Jacobs went from helping build Seattle's state-of-the-art Central Library to visiting libraries overseas with no heat or running water and budgets as low as $30 a month.

In her first year on the job at the Gates Foundation, she has directed an expanding program called the Global Libraries Initiative, which aims to improve free access to computers and the Internet in public libraries.

Today she is presenting a $1 million prize to a foundation in Medellín, Colombia, for its innovative use of technology in libraries to promote community development.

After more than a decade as City Librarian in Seattle, Deborah Jacobs now manages the global libraries program at the Gates Foundation.

In her travels over the past year Jacobs said she has seen "absolute heroism and commitment to what libraries can do," in places where "librarians are having to close the door to go across fields to their house to get warm water or go to the toilet or wash their hands."

"A million dollars feels like a lot of money to a library system," she said.

The Fundación Empresas Públicas de Medellín, or EPM Foundation, won the Gates 2009 Access to Learning Award.

The network of 34 libraries is part of a regional initiative to use technology to increase the transparency of government, create a competitive business environment and improve education. It serves patrons from low-income communities where people have no computers at home.The network includes five library parks throughout the city that serve as cultural centers with educational resources and training programs for how to use computers and the Internet.

The EPM Foundation's efforts have contributed to the revitalization of Colombia's second largest city, Jacobs said, and its work can be a model for other communities.

"As a librarian I really recognize that libraries with computers can open the doors to people, help people feel a sense of inclusion and greater connection with the broader world," she said. It has also made libraries busier than ever.

The number of library visitors in Medellín's network has jumped from 90,000 to more than 500,000 per month, and the program has helped reduce the individual-to-computer ratio from 140:1 in 2005, to 47:1 in 2008, according to the Gates Foundation.

The EPM program will use the Gates award to increase its library network, develop additional training programs and expand its services.

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