In many Bulgarian towns and villages, there is a special place where choirs rehearse and drama groups perform, where children learn instruments and pensioners gather to chat. We are not talking about the town square or the school. Nor do we mean cafés or theatres. We are talking about public libraries!
Known as chitálishta (“reading places”), public libraries in Bulgaria are much more than just places to find a good read. Dating back to the middle of the 19th century, chitálishta have been crucial institutions of community life, recognized by UNESCO for “safeguarding the vitality of the Intangible Cultural Heritage”. They are wonderful connectors!
The challenge in Bulgaria is that many citizens are not connected. Take digitalisation, for example. SDG 10.2 challenges countries to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all”. Yet, Bulgaria ranks last in the EU’s 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index. Only 2 in 3 citizens are internet users, and 1 in 4 have never used the internet at all!
The Global Libraries initiative seeks to help turn this around, knowing that chitálishta are a great place to connect locals to the world, but suffer from a lack of funding. It all began in 2009, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation set out to provide libraries with internet access and computer hardware. In 2013, the Bulgarian government and library associations set up a foundation to continue these efforts. Today, the Global Libraries – Bulgaria Foundation has grown into a big partnership of about 1,000 libraries in 260 municipalities!
This is not just about buying computers. The idea is to transform libraries into places where locals can gain new skills and join the international online community. Through a broad range of training programmes, libraries introduce new users to the internet and open new job prospects. The courses range from the very basic (e.g. “working with computers” or “private finances”) to the more advanced (e.g. “marketing” or “entrepreneurship and leadership”). In addition to training programmes, libraries also host lectures, exhibitions and competitions, bringing together people from different backgrounds and helping them learn from one another.
Global Libraries qualifies library staff as trainers, operating 39 training facilities and an online training platform. In 2019 alone, the foundation organised 90 workshops for library staff members, held 413 public events in 61 settlements with almost 8.000 visitors and hosted a national conference.
The government recognizes these efforts. In Bulgaria’s 2020 Voluntary National Review on the SDGs, the government refers to the need for a “community-led local development approach” and highlights the role of Global Libraries in reaching even the smallest settlements and putting into practice the SDG principle of “leaving no one behind”.
Yet, around the world, the SDG stories of public libraries often remain untold. In Bulgaria, the Global Libraries Foundation and participating libraries run campaigns to communicate the importance of chitálishta to society. At the global level, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) seeks to help libraries make a stronger case for themselves. Its SDG Storytelling Manual provides advice on how to communicate about library activities, projects and programmes, and about their impact on communities and their lives.
The story of chitálishta is a reminder of a universal principle of good SDG communications: to engage your audiences, you need to find them where they are. You need to go to where they communicate with one another and provide them with information and tools to carry the conversation forward themselves.
As SDG communicators, the more we can help libraries tell their story, the more library-goers we will be able to inform and engage for the SDGs!
This post is published in partnership with Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.
Featured image from FreeImages.com/Vullioud Pierre-André