The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced matching grants totaling $6.5 million to help public libraries in eleven states maintain and increase free public access to computers for their patrons.
The final round of Opportunity Online hardware grants will help libraries upgrade and add computer workstations for patrons in communities with high concentrations of poverty and where a library's public computers are at risk of becoming outdated. Eight hundred public libraries in Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin are eligible for the grants, which will be administered and managed by library organizations in each of those states.
Because 80 percent of library funding comes from local sources, libraries eligible for the program will be required to match the Gates funds with local dollars to demonstrate that they can sustain investments in technology access in the future. The foundation expects this round of Opportunity Online grants to leverage $3.7 million in local funding. In addition, library staff participating in the program will attend a professional development conference hosted by the Public Library Association to help strengthen the skills and confidence library professionals need to increase awareness of the library's value and catalyze local support.
While most (73 percent) libraries in the U.S. serve as the only provider of free Internet access in their communities, many do not have adequate funding to maintain quality computer and Internet services or to meet growing community demand for these tools.
"In today's economy, more than ever, public access to technology in libraries is a critical resource for people who are working to improve their lives and regain financial stability," said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. libraries at the Gates Foundation. "But this valuable public benefit that opens the door to opportunity for millions of people is at risk. Communities must commit the funds libraries need to ensure they can keep pace with local demand for high-quality computer and broadband access."