The Polish government has joined forces with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Polish-American Freedom Foundation to support under-financed Polish libraries. As Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski stated, the government recognises the new challenges the libraries are faced with and acknowledges the new roles the libraries are to assume as centres of cultural life.
In order to update the libraries the government will grant 100 million zloty while the foundations will spend 90 million. The programme is aimed at libraries located in villages and small towns of up to 20 thousand inhabitants and is designed to work similarly to the “Orlik” sports field programme. Under the programme the local government secures 20 percent of the required funds and the remaining 80 percent is covered by the state. The Ministry of Culture is in charge of the scheme and local governments can start applying from January 2009. Local governments from the poorest voivodships – Podlaskie, Podkarpackie, and Lubelskie – have already shown their interest in the programme.
As Minister of Culture Zdrojewski estimates, only 15 percent of Polish libraries meet all of the requirements; 30-35 percent are in need of moderate investments, while nearly half of them demand substantial funding. It has been verified that from the 8,000 public libraries in Poland one in every three has no toilet. Only 15 percent of the buildings are accessible for disabled persons while 40 percent are not connected to the Internet.
The purpose of the programme is not only to modernise the buildings and to connect the libraries to the Internet but also to provide continuous support in keeping the equipment and staff training methods up to date. With experience gained from transforming libraries in Chile, Mexico, Botswana, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria, the Gates Foundation puts great emphasis on long-term help. Once the equipment becomes outdated and does not allow full use of the content available online, the institution is no longer able to perform its function properly. Most importantly, libraries should cater for specific local needs, be it unemployment and help with job hunting or taking care of young children where no kindergarten is available.
Keeping the equipment up to date and sustaining the internet connection is, however, not the only challenge for the programme. With the new responsibilities, librarians are afraid the institutions will be short-staffed and will lose their primary function. However, with libraries losing 10 percent of readers between 2003 and 2006, extending the functions of the institutions appears to be a remedy. In the countries where institutions were modernised, the number of readers has not decreased.
The new and modernised libraries, as centres of local communities, stand a chance of helping bridge the gap between cities and rural areas.