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A Global Experience

by Audra Caplan on April 26, 2013

Last fall, I had the honor of being asked to give a speech to the attendees of the first Turning the Page: Global Libraries Advocacy Training, a specially adapted version of the PLA training hosted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program. The two-and-a-half-day event took place September 22 – 24, 2010, in Brussels, Belgium.

The Gates Foundation expanded its library initiative to the international community as an outgrowth of the program in the United States. The goal of the program is to “improve lives by providing access to information through computers and the Internet in public libraries.”1 The foundation partnered with countries that “demonstrated both a need and readiness to start and sustain nationwide online access programs.”2 Ten countries around the world were selected as grantees. These countries were provided funding for programs “to evaluate local technology needs, purchase equipment, train library staff, and help libraries build public support for long-term funding.”3 Most of the countries are in Eastern Europe and include Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania. The remaining four are Mexico, Chile, Botswana, and Vietnam. A number of these programs had already been working on implementation before coming to Brussels for the advocacy training. Chile and Mexico were the first countries to be awarded grants.

An example of an established program is Romania’s Biblionet National program. In Romania, only 20 percent of the population had access to the Internet. A five-year grant from the foundation was awarded to a nonprofit organization, the International Resources and Exchange Board (IREX), that worked in partnership with local public libraries and library associations to help launch this nationwide effort to provide computers and Internet access to more than 1,600 public libraries and train more than 3,000 librarians. In 2009 and 2010, the Biblionet National program equipped 795 public libraries with 3,318 computers with free Internet access. In addition, thirty county libraries were equipped with training centers used to train 905 librarians.4

One of the greatest challenges we face both in the United States and globally is the ability to garner greater sustained support from local governments. This was the reason the Gates Foundation partnered with PLA for the U.S. version of Turning the Page and the same reason they decided to develop a version of this training for the ten participating countries. The conveners of the Brussels training had two goals they hoped to achieve:

  1. to provide an adapted Turning the Page training to the teams sent from the participating countries so that they can learn how to use advocacy to
    increase support and funding for their public libraries; and
  2. to provide feedback about the training to help inform and develop an advocacy training model and approach that could be customized and offered to
    local librarians working in the grant supported countries.5

With these goals in mind, they invited teams from each country. The teams included library administrators, association officers, national library agency representatives, and local government officials. In addition, project managers and advocacy trainers from the implementation organizations, representatives and consultants from the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and other international library organizations, and the staff of the Global Libraries program were in attendance. This made for a dynamic mix of library practitioners, trainers, and consultants who were able to look at the training from many perspectives and provide insightful critiques based on their individual project experiences.

The keynote speaker, Kevin Carroll, who also opened at the U.S. trainings, inspired the group with his optimistic message about play and creativity being road maps to maximizing human potential and fostering social change. The curriculum over the two-day period included many of the same subject areas as the PLA training workshops such as: building partnerships, funding identification and development strategies, leadership and community outreach, developing compelling stories, working with the press, and evaluation metrics. I was able to fully participate in these sessions and had the rich experience of learning alongside my counterparts from all over the world.

Although I had participated in the PLA training, I took away new and valuable information from this opportunity. One of the lessons I continuously relearn is that every training opportunity changes and becomes fresh based on the composition of the participating group. In this case I was able to share in the learned lessons and knowledge base of this wide range of people with different cultural experiences. Listening to the trainers and practitioners from these countries I found that the range of ability and experience varied widely depending on the individual situations. For example, an urban library system may employ a number of staff and have access to a wide range of resources and training opportunities, while a small rural library in the same country could be run by one person whose job responsibilities include everything from stoking a wood burning stove and cleaning, to providing information service and programming. The administrators of the larger library system would have a great deal more experience and opportunity to interact with the local elected officials than the person running the very small library. This revelation was not unlike what we experienced during the U.S. version of Turning the Page. The level of ability of people targeted for the training varied widely.

This training variance was a large topic of discussion during the last day when the country teams met in groups with their managing agencies to evaluate the training content. The teams worked to identify the sessions that provided the best information, those that would be least helpful at the local level, and how well the training would prepare local library staff to develop and implement an advocacy plan. Another factor that needed to be taken into consideration was how the curriculum could be translated into country-specific languages. The consensus seemed to be that the training should have a core framework but would need to include the flexibility necessary to allow it to be tailored to individual situations. In order for some library staff to get the most from the training, the group identified the need for a pretraining component that would address key concepts. This might take the form of an online course prior to the in-person training. The discussions also identified other factors that would need to be taken into consideration. In many local jurisdictions, advocacy initiatives would need to be developed acknowledging the fact that “money is not a resource.” Advocacy plans would need to be created with existing resources in mind. Also, there needs to be sensitivity to individual cultural values when creating training components and developing advocacy plans.

The next step in continuing to customize the training was to synthesize the information gleaned from the workshop and evaluation and create curriculum and training delivery models that will be successful with each individual grantee country. The Global Libraries staff has identified a program advisory committee made up of training representatives from each country and other leaders in the library field to help with this endeavor. I am excited to be part of this initiative and looking forward to working with this dynamic group to help create an international advocacy training model.

Personally, the experience of meeting and beginning to build relationships with librarians and library supporters from these countries has been extremely rewarding. I have begun to develop new friendships with wonderfully dedicated and passionate people. Another lesson that I learned is that we in the library community are dealing with many of the same issues and challenges no matter what part of the world we live in, and that we can learn and gain knowledge from each other when we reach across geographic borders and engage in continuing conversations.


  1. Janet Sawaya, e-mail correspondence with the author, Jan. 13, 2011.
  2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “Global Libraries: Opening a World of Information and Opportunities,” accessed Jan. 22, 2011, www.gatesfoundation.org/libraries/Pages/global-libraries-project-update.aspx.
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “Our Approach: Global Libraries,” accessed Jan. 22, 2011, www.gatesfoundation.org/libraries/Pages/global-libraries.aspx.
  4. International Resources and Exchange Board (IREX), Biblionet, Information on Biblionet National Program handout, Sept. 22, 2010.
  5. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Turning the Page: Building your Library Community, adapted from the Public Library Association’s U.S. advocacy training curriculum, “Conference Overview,” Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 22, 2010.