The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $8.3 million in grants to help public libraries serving communities with high concentrations of poverty acquire quality computers and Internet access.
Representing the first of three rounds of funding awarded through the foundation's Opportunity Online program, the grants, which require matching funds, were awarded to more than a thousand library branches in Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming. Although public libraries have continued to provide the public with access to computers and the Internet, many have struggled to keep pace with technology and community demand for these services. A recent national survey revealed that four out of five public libraries don't have enough computers to meet their community's needs, while 60 percent of libraries have no plans to add public computers in the coming year due to cost and space limitations.
The second and third round of grants will be awarded in 2008 and 2009 to libraries in Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. (The remaining eighteen states participated in the foundation's Public Access Computing Hardware Upgrade Grant program in 2006 and are not eligible for Opportunity Online grants.) Librarians participating in the program will be required to go through training designed to help them raise awareness in their community about their library's services and increase local support and funding for technology services.
"If you walk into any public library today, you will see people using computers to find jobs, access e-government services, complete school assignments, and connect with friends and family," said Jill Nishi, program manager of the U.S. Libraries initiative at the Gates Foundation. "Unfortunately, many libraries do not have enough local funding to adequately maintain their technology services, putting people who rely on library computers at a disadvantage. It's critical that communities commit the local resources necessary to ensure all people have opportunities to benefit from technology."