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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

August 25, 2009 at 7:00 AM

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Gates Foundation library program grows under Seattle's former head librarian

Posted by Kristi Heim

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.

Apart from the annual award, the Gates Foundation has made about $230 million in grants to library programs in 10 countries as part of its Global Development program -- in Chile, Mexico, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Vietnam, Poland, Botswana, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Unlike other programs where applicants themselves submit requests for grants, the foundation first identifies a country whose library system is suitable for the Gates program, Jacobs said, and then foundation representatives begin contacting government officials. The Gates Foundation targets countries making investments in their public library systems.

"The government has to show generally they are willing to prepare buildings for new technology," she said, which could include putting in new roofs and heating systems, bringing in furniture and providing last-mile Internet connectivity to the building. "We're seeing governments are really beginning to understand the importance of technology in their towns even under bad economic times."

In some cases, the library funding overlaps with other Gates Foundation work, such as financial services, agriculture and health. In Botswana, the global library initiative works in tandem with a comprehensive AIDS program that is also funded by the Gates Foundation, she said. The Botswana libraries offer books and training on HIV prevention and even provide condoms.


Professor Alejandro Lobo Santamaria helps students practice their computer skills in a library created inside a series of donated train cars. The program received a $1 million award this week from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates global library program has a partnership with Microsoft, which has donated software to all 10 countries where the Gates Foundation has made grants, totaling about $30 million.

After the Gates Foundation makes the grant for computers and training, the country has an option to request a donation of software from Microsoft, said Tom Murphy, public relations director for Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft. All of the libraries have taken the offer of software, made through Microsoft's technology donations program for non-profits, he said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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