Libraries, Technology, and the Digital Divide in Developing Countries.

Libraries in the United States and Europe have made technology an integral part of their everyday operations. Through OPAC’s, they allow us to browse their collection, borrow materials. They give us access to digital art collections, and databases where we find the information needed with little to no restrictions, and all of this without leaving the comfort of our homes (and thank goodness, it’s freezing outside). But, what about libraries everywhere else? Libraries in poor countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, countries that may have different ideas of what patrons need, and where society at large have more present issues than catching up with technological advances. I was interested in finding out how librarians in those countries overcome problems of infrastructure, literacy gap, lack of funding, and troubled political environment to provide the service that their community needs.   My initial reaction when doing the research for this post was that, there isn’t enough written exclusively about libraries in developing countries, -that is without going into the reasons why those countries are under-developed (I am looking at you colonialism, war,  IMF hyper-inflated loans, and World Bank before Dr. Jim Yong Kim). However, I did find an interesting paper written by Heather Moulaison, titled Exploring access in the developing world; people, libraries, and information technology in Morocco.

Morocco:

In looking for sources to write this post,  I came across an article by Heather Moulaison, titled: Exploring access in the developing world; people, libraries, and information technology in Morocco. Where she focused on Morocco’s use of Information and communication technologies (ICT), the failed experiment of libraries as cyber cafes, issues of literacy gap pronounced by the plurality of  languages spoken in the country: Morocco official language is Arabic, but is only spoken in the southern and central area; Spanish in the northern area and library science is taught only in french (although I imagine students also speak the dialect and/or language of their region, I don’t see how they would function otherwise, but the author gave no insight into that detail). This disarray of languages makes for a truly challenging task of disseminating information, without adding problems like, lack of infrastructure that could support technological innovations, and the troubled political environment of their neighboring countries. So, in which ways do they use technology in their libraries? (Let’s get to the point,  I know I can ramble). Technology in libraries is limited to their Online Open Access Catalog (OPAC) in collaboration with the Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) who share resources with other African libraries like Dakar in Senegal in that way pooled their resources to help patrons. However, only those belonging to a certain socioeconomic status have access to these resources. Everywhere else in the country, people are more concerned with getting their necessities than reducing the digital divide. Language in Morocco is a barrier for librarians trying to combat illiteracy, and therefore to integrate citizens into using their electronic resources.

Why should we care?

The lack of technological and sometimes physical resources of libraries in developing and non-western countries are lamentable, and we can spend hours, days, months, and years (as many organizations have done) trying to come up with solutions to these social problems that affects libraries, and therefore the communities they serve. But why should we care? After all, we live in a developed country,  in a city with amazing technological developments, so many that sometimes this writer feels -at times overwhelmed by the fast pace of the “big new thing”. Well, we should care because nothing happens in a vacuum, and the lack of technological development in libraries means a lack of informed citizens, lack of opportunities for those citizens and a less informed, less connected world. And,  isn’t that the amazing, incredible thing about technology? to make our world smaller, so that we can help each other? I like to think so, I also like to think that no one holds all the answers and that libraries in developed countries can learn from libraries in developing ones, after all, they make a lot with very little.

Is anyone helping?

Yes, organizations like the Melinda and Gates foundations, who provides grants and works with the existing infrastructure of public libraries in developing countries to assure access to information, in addition to effectively train staff to meet the challenges of illiteracy. Thanks to the help of the foundation, public libraries are helping farmers and fishermen to see market prices and new farming methods, in order to make better-informed decisions regarding their business.  As well as organizations like the Elsevier Foundation, who like the Melinda and Gates Foundation, provides grants to public libraries in developing countries,  but with a focus on health.

Thoughts:

  • Libraries in developing countries have more complex problems than “catching up” with the technological advances of developed countries, their priorities are finding funding for their physical collection, which may lack the necessary materials to support research.
  • Library schools in non-western countries should create a balance between a curriculum aimed at competing with technology ever-fast innovation and the community they serve. There cannot be a language gap between those providing access to information and those receiving it. Moulaison sums it up nicely:”If African libraries are to be successful, they cannot pattern themselves on a western model”. They must model their curriculum on what the community needs.
  • Governments should invest and support in an infrastructure that allows for the development and support access to information (easier said than done, I know).
  • Technology in developing in developing countries can be outdated and perpetuate the hierarchical idea of English as the “technology language”, therefore creating a barrier for critical engagement.
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