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Originally published Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 12:09 AM

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Gates Foundation gives libraries around the globe a boost

The Gates Foundation's Global Libraries Initiative, headed by former Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, has given out hundreds of millions in grants for computers and Internet access in 10 countries.

Seattle Times business reporter

In the last year, Deborah Jacobs went from overseeing 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.

After more than a decade as Seattle's city librarian, Jacobs now directs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Libraries Initiative, which aims to expand free access to computers and the Internet in public libraries.

The Gates Foundation has made about $230 million in grants for library programs in 10 countries.

On Tuesday, Jacobs presented a $1 million Gates 2009 Access to Learning Award to the Fundación Empresas Públicas de Medellín, or EPM Foundation, in Medellín, Colombia, for its innovative use of technology in libraries to promote community development.

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.

EPM's network of 34 libraries is part of a regional initiative to use technology to increase government transparency, 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. One of the libraries was created inside a series of donated train cars.

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.

The EPM Foundation's work 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.

The 10 counties receiving the $230 million in library funding from the Gates Foundation's Global Development program are Chile, Mexico, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Vietnam, Poland, Botswana, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

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In some cases, the Global Libraries Initiative funding overlaps with other Gates Foundation work, such as financial services, agriculture and health.

In Botswana, the Global Libraries Initiative works in tandem with a Gates-funded comprehensive AIDS program, Jacobs said. The Botswana libraries offer books and training on HIV prevention and even provides condoms.

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

The Gates Foundation also funds technology equipment and training in U.S. libraries through a separate program.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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