Country Brief, September 2012
Open Access to Information, Development and Growth: The Role of Public Libraries in Twenty-first Century Georgia Introduction Georgia is undergoing a rapid transformation. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003 a number of reforms have been implemented and an explicit emphasis is now put on transparency and efficiency.
These efforts fall within an overarching strategy to fight corruption, facilitate the dissemination of information to the public, and make public services readily available to citizens. The use of ICTs plays a central role in that strategy, especially in the implementation of the Georgian government Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan for 20122013, which the government joined in September 2011.
21st-century libraries and development Public libraries can contribute to nationallevel development priorities if policy-makers engage libraries in the discussion. Public libraries have the potential to serve as a strategic partner in civic engagement, education, agriculture, and health-related initiatives. The concept of the 21st Century Library is applied in this brief as a trusted community resource that identifies community needs, offers space and resources, and engages citizens in activities that contribute to meeting local development goals. Libraries throughout the world serve as spaces where citizens can work to improve their lives and their communities through the use of information and technology.
At the forefront of this transformation are policymakers who have indicated an intention to leverage ICTs by developing online platforms to offer a number of services and information to the public. However, the level of the populationâ€™s ICT knowledge remains low and access is problematic, especially in areas far from regional centers and the capital Tbilisi. The network of public libraries spread across the country presents an untapped potential that could benefit local communities if harnessed as a vehicle to foster growth and development. Georgiaâ€™s approximately 500 existing libraries could be used as cost-effective delivery mechanisms for current government initiatives, such as the Rural Development Centers and the Society for Computer Literacy Promotion. Partnering with libraries to facilitate community outreach and education can be more cost-effective than investing in new infrastructure of questionable sustainability to meet this need.
Citizen engagement for the 21st century Georgia has already introduced a number of e-government services (www.my.gov.ge; www.egovernment.ge). Other initiatives are ongoing and are part of the countryâ€™s OGP action plan.1 Accessibility is crucial in order to ensure that the benefits are brought on an equal basis to citizens in the regions. The rural population lacks ICT skills and many are socially and economically marginalized. At a minimum, this population needs the same type of access as everyone else in order to have the tools to improve their lives. According to the 2011 Caucasus Barometer survey, 77% of the rural population never uses the internet; when asked what the internet is, 14% could not answer.2 The Georgian government acknowledges the need to provide ICT training to the population to help them benefit from e-government services and is planning for Rural Development Centers (RDC) to strengthen e-governance in rural areas by including local governments in the current e-government system.3 The e-Governance project, implemented by the Civil Registry Agency and supported by the European Union, aims to allow citizens to freely access online services provided by different levels of government including social assistance, land registration, passport and ID services, agriculture consultations, and payment of utilities. Five centers have been built in Chaladidi, Chumlaki, Foka, Koda and Ruisi, and nine others are under construction in different villages.4 Recently, the Ministry of Justice created the Society for Computer Literacy Promotion to manage a project that will establish computer centers in 300 villages. The goal is to provide basic computer training and knowledge, facilitate access to e-services, and promote economic development in rural areas.5 Funding has been allocated to select and train center staff, as well as provide computer equipment and tech support for up to one year.6 The initiative is expected to be sustained through user fees.
While these efforts illustrate a level of commitment on the part of the Georgian government, other countries have attempted similar models, often with disappointing results. A recent 10-year study of telecenters in South Africa demonstrated that in the areas with the most need, telecenters have not been able to identify an effective business model.7 Expecting such centers to become self-sustaining businesses in places where the population will struggle to pay for such services may be unrealistic. Meanwhile public libraries throughout the country offer an existing infrastructure designed to accommodate users. Public libraries make up a broad geographic network, offering reach in both urban and rural areas. Thanks to the existing infrastructure and trained personnel, public libraries require comparatively minimal investment when considering new social programs. Lastly, public libraries are accessible to all and have ties to local governments who could support modernization, IT equipment and internet access. In Romania, 400 public libraries helped 17,000 farmers successfully receive farm subsidies made possible through funding opportunities under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Despite their small budgets, the participating libraries were able to bring $20.3 to $27.1 million back into their communities. The Romanian experience is a clear example of how libraries, if modernized and used in innovative ways, can serve development in the agricultural sector.
Libraries and development in Georgia The most reliable estimates suggest that there are between 500 and 600 working public libraries in Georgia.1 That network of public libraries spread across the country presents an untapped potential that could benefit local communities if harnessed as a vehicle to foster growth and development.
For example, there are public libraries in Georgia that are already being transformed into community centers and information hubs and are achieving impressive results: In Svaneti, where access to health services is difficult in the winter, libraries use ICT to interact with the community about health, as part of an EIFL-Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) replication grant. The public library in the regional center of Mestia and libraries in the three mountainous villages of Latali, Hadish, and Becho are creating e-health corners equipped with computers and free access to internet. One component of the project includes a question and answer service for people who need to consult doctors about specific personal health issues.8 Ten public libraries in the Imereti region of Georgia, mostly located in the regional capital of Kutaisi, have worked with the Information Society Development Foundation (FRSI), a Polish NGO, to modernize their services. Librarians learned how to maximize their institutions’ assets and perform community needs assessment. This training coupled with new equipment resulted in participating libraries offering new services, including ICT classes for refugees and afterschool events that provide a constructive outlet for local youth. The project demonstrated that with some targeted engagement, Georgian libraries can evolve into valuable community resources. The concept of a 21st century library works in Georgia. While many perceive libraries as outdated, librarians simply have not yet had the opportunity to update their skills and modernize their approaches. Renewed interest, new investment, and new tools could transform libraries from. A start could be basic renovation, some computers with internet access, and training in modern ICT skills adapted from existing models. The cost for this sustainable approach would be far less expensive than investing in costly new infrastructure to meet Georgia’s information needs in the 21st century.
Recommendations Building off of Beyond Access’ assessment in Georgia, which included meetings with librarians, policymakers, and government leadership, these are some steps that can support and strengthen libraries in Georgia as development stakeholders and as critical knowledge and information hubs: 1. The Government of Georgia should explore libraries as access and information partners in government initiatives that promote citizen engagement and social inclusion. As decision makers in Georgia embark on new initiatives, they must consider the potential of libraries as a viable implementer. Using the existing network of libraries is a sustainable option that would contribute to the success of upcoming projects. This would further ease accessibility constraints in Georgia’s rural areas. Such an approach has already proven successful in Ukraine where libraries are an integral part of the government’s OGP action plan.9 2. Georgia should study successful models of modern public libraries in other countries to inform national library modernization policy in Georgia. On the national level, this could include the possibility of creating a body responsible for public libraries. This would balance the challenges of the current decentralized system by providing methodological guidance countrywide, which is currently lacking. At the moment, the burden of responsibilities for managing the libraries has essentially been transferred to local governments with little supervision.10 A long-term development and modernization strategy should be devised to set clear boundaries and goals to be met. 3. Explore local government investment in public library ICT services to increase digital inclusion in communities. The costs associated with the provision of computers and trainings are very low, but as has been proven in nearby countries, the potential for accelerating digital inclusion is considerable.
4. Position public libraries as information hubs and community centers. As public institutions, libraries should adapt to the changing needs of their communities and offer services that correspond to those needs. Librarians should be proactive in reaching out to different levels of government, building partnerships and facilitating community participation. They should consider implementing pilot projects to demonstrate their value. Training for librarians should include relevant modern information needs and public libraries should all be equipped with computers and IT equipment.
Note 1. The fact that no one can provide a simple number is indicative of the attention that these libraries are currently receiving and more reliable statistics are needed to fully assess the state and location of these libraries. The National Statistics Office of Georgia (GeoStat) used to record the number of public and universal libraries but stopped after 2008. However, those statistics show that the number of libraries decreased significantly, from 2170 in 2001 to 824 in 2008.
References 1. Open Government Partnership. (2011). Georgia Action Plan 2012-2013. <http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/www. opengovpartnership.org/files/country_action_plans/OGP_AP_Final_eng.pdf> 2. CRRC. (2012). Caucasus Barometer 2011, Georgia. <http://www.crrc.ge/oda/?dataset=16&row=165&column=1 > 3. Open Government Partnership. (2011). Georgia Action Plan 2012-2013. <http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/www. opengovpartnership.org/files/country_action_plans/OGP_AP_Final_eng.pdf> 4. In Nigoeti, Shorapani, Khevi, Nukriani, Natakhtari, Mabrolauri, Oni, Jvari and Manglisi. Civil Registry (2012). Selection of Employees for Rural Development Centers has started. <http://www.cra.gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=49&info_id=2023> 5. Ministry of Justice. (2012). Computer Knowledge Society Initiative. <www.taoba.ge> 6. For more information on the centers: Christine Prefontaine for TASCHA. (2012). Georgia to Establish 300+ Technology Centers: How Can We Help Them Succeed? <http://tascha.uw.edu/2012/06/georgia-to-establish-300-technology-centers-how-can-we-help-them-succeed/> 7. Wayan Vota for ICTworks. (2012). Ten years later, telecenters are still not sustainable. <http://www.ictworks.org/news/2012/06/27/tenyears-later-telecenters-are-still-not-sustaianble> 8. EIFL. Mestia Public Library, Georgia. <http://www.eifl.net/mestia-public-library-georgia> 9. Open Government Partnership. (2011). Action Plan of Ukraine for the Implementation of the Open Government Partnership Initiative. <http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/www.opengovpartnership.org/files/country_action_plans/actionplanukraine.pdf> 10. Government of Georgia. (2007). Decree of the Government of Georgia #131, July 3rd, 2007. <http://www.government.gov.ge/index. php?lang_id=GEO&sec_id=95&info_id=25807>
About Beyond Access: Beyond Access is an initiative of IREX, EIFL, IFLA, Makaia, Civic Regeneration, TASCHA, The Riecken Foundation, and READ Global, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.