SEATTLE -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today presented its 2009 Access to Learning Award of $1 million to the Fundación Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM Foundation) for its innovative use of technology in public libraries to promote community development. The organization is being honored for helping provide the people of Medellin and the metropolitan area with the skills and tools they need to improve their communities and their lives. Microsoft, a partner of the Gates Foundation in its efforts to help public libraries connect people to the Internet, will provide the EPM Foundation's network of libraries with software and technology training curriculum.
The EPM Foundation's Network of Public Libraries (NPL) provides citizens with access to information and technology through its 34 libraries. NPL is part of a regional initiative designed to use technology to increase the transparency of government, create a competitive business environment, and improve education.
Included in the network are five library parks, known as "hearts of knowledge." Located throughout the city in some of Medellin's most marginalized communities, the library parks have become cultural centers, providing broad, community access to information and educational resources. The network's libraries offer a range of training programs, including how to use the computer and access information online, and English for the Internet.
"Libraries have become spaces to not only access knowledge and learning, but also areas of community action and pride," said Clara Patricia Restrepo, executive director of the EPM Foundation. "By continuing to bring new information and resources to our users, libraries are now perceived as dynamic centers that offer accessible, relevant learning opportunities."
The majority of NPL's patrons are from low-income communities. Most do not have a computer at home, and the libraries serve as their only access to the digital world.
Hugo Patiño, a 50-year-old cook, came to Medellin in 2007 after violence displaced him from his home in northern Colombia. Patiño had never used a computer before, but through courses at the public library, he learned how to create cost estimates, keep books, and market a business online. Now he is inspired to open his own restaurant. "At this moment of my life, it has changed 100 percent," said Patiño. "I feel very thankful to the library, because through it I saw the light, the clarity, and the opportunities."
Through NPL's expanded services, the number of library visitors has jumped from 90,000 to more than 500,000 per month. NPL has also helped narrow the digital divide in Medellin and the metropolitan area, rapidly reducing the individual-to-computer ratio by more than 66 percent, from 140 to 1 in 2005, to 47 to 1 in 2008.
The Gates Foundation's Access to Learning Award, now in its 10th year, recognizes the innovative efforts of libraries and similar organizations outside the United States in providing free access to computers and the Internet. It is awarded by the Global Libraries initiative, which works to open the world of knowledge, information, and opportunity to help improve the lives of millions of people.
"The EPM Foundation's efforts have contributed to the revitalization of Medellin by providing residents with access to information and training, and creating new hope and a renewed sense of community," said Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries initiative for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at an award ceremony in Milan, Italy. "Their work is a stunning example of how a country can use the power of public libraries and technology to transform people's lives."
The EPM Foundation will use the Access to Learning Award funds to expand the services on its web portal, and develop information and communication technology training programs. These additional services will help contribute to the development of Medellin and the surrounding area.