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At the IGF 2011, Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) organised a workshop to discuss the findings of a recent study of perceptions of public libraries by policy makers in six countries in Africa. The study revealed that policy makers still thought of libraries in terms of printed media, and not as spaces for catalysing internet access and use.

Evidence was presented that public libraries that offer innovative and ICT enabled services based on free public access to the Internet can contribute to positive change in their communities and support development goals in vital areas including health, agriculture, employment, education and children and youth at risk. The lively workshop discussion underlined the need for a shared vision and dialogue by policy makers, civil society, private industry and librarians, of how Internet enabled public libraries could contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The discussion focused on the public library as a trusted place for the community to learn about the world of digital information, how to harness ICT’s and the Internet for social well-being and economic livelihoods, the potential to reach out to poor and marginalised communities and help them bridge the digital divide through innovative library services, thus catalysing change.

Within the UN 2030 Development Agenda, the importance of access to information has been recognized across the Sustainable Development Goals. Libraries are the key to ensuring universal access to information through the Internet, as an existing sustainable and trusted public institution where investment in technology will be supported by trained staff who can ensure that the public has the skills they need to fully benefit from access. In addition, libraries can provide the starting point for internet infrastructure in communities that are not yet connected, acting as the hub that provides affordable universal access where home access cannot yet be achieved.

While the number of Internet users worldwide now tops two billion, it is important to remember that a significant percentage will not have their own network connection. Instead, hundreds of millions of people utilise the Internet through shared connections, or through providers of public access to the Internet such as libraries. It will not be possible to maintain or increase the number of worldwide users without continued support for public access to the Internet – something that is even more important in times of financial austerity when the role of public libraries, and the gateways they offer to free or low-cost Internet access, becomes even more crucial to people’s opportunities in areas such as employment, education and health.

However, libraries still remain largely overlooked as community development partners. Recent research in 6 African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe) shows that national and local government decision makers, as well as library users and non-users are ready to support public libraries. At the same time, there is overwhelming agreement that public libraries in Africa are under-funded and under resourced. Sustainability of library services and funding is needed to make sure that libraries meet existing community needs today and can continue to work to meet the changing needs of communities in the future.

Within the context of the IGF, no arena currently exists for the discussion of Internet governance issues relating to public access intermediaries such as public libraries. Public access to the Internet is tackled in a cross-programme sense, but the sheer reach of libraries – there are over one billion registered library users on the planet – demands that special attention be paid to the challenges and opportunities faced and offered by these crucial institutions. Everyday libraries face challenges offered by serving disparate user groups – children and young people, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled and many other mainstream and marginalised groups. They may be the only places in communities that allow access to social media or Internet telephony, or provide gateways to e-government services. Public library staff must be aware of and able to serve the needs of users, while at the same time remaining aware of privacy and human rights issues.

The Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries provides a space within the IGF to address the Internet governance issues relating to public access, and enable a discussion to take place about how the existing expertise, networks and infrastructure offered by public libraries can contribute to the goals and spirit of the WSIS process. This discussion is truly multistakeholder – public libraries are funded by the taxpayer and embedded in government infrastructure, they are frequented by members of civil society and the entrepreneurs behind SMEs, and they frequently partner with the private sector to provide buildings and services. A Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries benefits from the participation of representatives from all these groups.