Libraries and ICTD

I’m on my way to Veracruz, Mexico to spend a week with Gates Foundation global library grantees for what they call the Peer Learning Meeting. Ever since we started studying libraries about 18 months ago I’ve been wondering, why is it that these institutions of information access haven’t registered on my ICTD radar in the decade I’ve been in this field? Have I simply been blind to libraries, or are there other explanations? Since posing this question to myself my first observation is that the library and ICTD communities simply don’t intersect — in journals, conferences or communities of practice. I didn’t run into any library professionals at GK3, and at my first IFLA last year I didn’t find anyone I knew from the ICTD world. Why is this? For one, libraries have a far longer history (going back millennia) and so its community is naturally well defined and established. In my opinion this makes it somewhat impenetrable to people outside libraries. On the other side, the ICTD world’s infatuation with telecenters probably blinded it to considering existing institutions like libraries. From an implementation viewpoint, it also comes down to which ministry controls which program. Where telecom ministries have been in charge of providing universal access they will tend to go with telecenters or other such schemes, rather than work with ministries of culture that oversee libraries. Political realities.

But things might be changing. In a recent CIS study of public access centers in 25 countries we found a keen interest among stakeholders to both revisit libraries and explore how the different models of public access (commercial cybercafés, donor/public telecenters, libraries) can each contribute their respective strengths to creating something better. Some of our country researchers reported that the act of carrying out this research itself caused their political stakeholders to look at libraries in a new light. They had passed them over as old institutions of dusty books, not as modern information providers. Telecenter fatigue may also be contributing to this resurgent interest. Something to continue following. On the academic side we see many information and library schools hiring new faculty who come out of the ICTD field. UCLA, Berkeley, our UW among others. I attended last year’s iConference at UCLA expecting to be just as lonely as I was at IFLA and I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many like-minded folks.

Which brings me back to my upcoming week with 70 library professionals and other experts from around the world. I’m excited to see how we can bring together our experiences and ideas to make libraries a stronger institution for using ICT in development. After this week, the next step on this ‘bridging libraries and ICT’ excursion will be an informal session at ICTD2009 where I’ve invited representatives of IFLA, UNESCO and other library folks to attend and discuss the question – what is the relevance of this ICTD research findings and demonstrations to libraries? We’ll then turn the tables and do a similar session at the 2009 IFLA congress this summer.