Measuring the Library Movement in Bangladesh

Ingrid Bon (from the governing board of IFLA) and I were in Bangladesh last week, exploring along with Save the Children’s Bangladesh office how the country’s libraries might contribute to early literacy efforts. There are around 130 government public libraries in the country at the district level, and another several thousand at the village level run by an assortment of NGOs and communities themselves.

A community map on the wall of a village library in Mukamer Gul, near Sylhet, Bangladesh.

A community map on the wall of a village library in Mukamer Gul, near Sylhet, Bangladesh.

Among the meetings we had across the public and private sector, we had the fortune to meet with a group from the education division of BRAC. BRAC is the world’s largest NGO, and one that has put considerable investment into community libraries in Bangladesh (“gonokendros”, or GKs), helping communities in mainly rural areas establish more than 2500 of them. While this is an impressive effort, we were particularly intrigued by a study BRAC commissioned to understand whether and how the GKs were contributing to and valued by their communities.

Working with libraries over the last decade, I know that research scientifically documenting the value of libraries in developing countries is pretty rare. TASCHA‘s Global Impact Study was a vast effort that tried to quantify how libraries, telecenters and cybercafes were used, and looked at around 20 countries. IREX has done its own impact evaluation while administering the Global Libraries programs, but hasn’t yet compiled all the data together. This study is especially remarkable because it included a counterfactual, comparing data from communities with a GK to similar ones without.

I found this study both interesting and affirming because it presents a compelling case for the significance of libraries to their communities, particularly in rural areas. I wanted to share some of the findings that I found notable within the study.

Libraries are important to Bangladeshis and people attach tangible value

63% of those from communities with a GK reported using a library, compared with only 37% in areas without a library. The chief reason those who didn’t visit cited in the control areas was its distance, which suggests that any libraries within convenient distance of people will be used and used frequently. On a related note, the Global Impact Study found that people would pay up to three times more to access a library than other public access venues. In the BRAC study, 95% of respondents expressed they would make an extra effort to ensure their GK survived.

The specific location within a community was less important than I expected

Most of the GKs are located on school grounds. In many countries, facilities located on school grounds are understandably limited to students. Teachers and administrators usually don’t want to deal with strangers wandering around school grounds. However, the study showed that while at GKs located in school campuses, students were the majority of GK users, 41% were still not students. This openness to the community is pretty unique, and promising when thinking of libraries as a base for community activity.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in the library in Bangladesh

In a study in neighboring Myanmar, when asked about ways to improve their community library, only 11% noted computers and internet access were a priority. However, in the BRAC study, 43% of respondents mentioned the need for computer and internet was a priority. In GKs where there already were computers, 41% of library users had used them. This might indicate the reach of Digital Bangladesh, a nationwide effort to bring technology usefully into all areas of development.

There is much more within the study suggesting a strong basis for library development in Bangladesh, while also a few areas identified for further focus, such as bringing more adult women into the libraries — a group that’s currently underrepresented among users. Over the next few months, we’ll be looking at ways Beyond Access might contribute to the efforts in Bangladesh already targeted at strengthening libraries.