An organization called Libraries without Borders brings essential information to underserved communities wherever they are found. The group “creates spaces that serve as learning centers, fab-labs, and incubators of ideas for people in precarious situations.”
The international organization, founded in 2007 by the French academic Patrick Weil, works in dozens of countries around the world, including in refugee camps. The U.S. branch launched in 2015, operates in Minnesota, Texas, North Carolina, California, Maryland, Michigan and Puerto Rico.
The group provides underserved populations access to the internet to connect them with employment, training, education and staying informed about local, national and international issues that impact their lives. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Aaron Greenberg, executive director of the U.S. branch of Libraries without Borders, who discusses the organization’s current work and plans for the future.
AARON GREENBERG: We help bridge the digital divide. We help bring essential resources that people need. And, we bring libraries to places where people are: laundromats, storm shelters, community spaces that people are comfortable with that they’re already going to. We bring all the resources of public libraries to those public spaces.
A great example of what we do and have been doing for years is what we call the Wash and Learn Initiative. So, we have all around the country 24-hour laundromats, often in low-income areas, and we have lots of folks who are going to the laundromat, week in and week out and waiting for their laundry. And in that there is a great opportunity, while people are waiting for cycles to end, to spend time on the computer, to get familiar with tech, for kids to have time with librarians and have access to high-quality books and materials. So in places like Detroit and Durham and San Antonio and Baltimore, over the past few years we’ve collaborated with public libraries and community organizations, and then with the owners of the laundromats to transform laundromats into public educational center for folks to access everything they could access at the library, but sometimes 24 hours a day. Libraries close, laundromats don’t. So that’s a great example of the kind of programs we do to meet people where they’re at. We ask, before we start any project in any city, where do people spend time? Where do working class, poor, under-served communities spend time, and where can we meet them with the kinds of resources they need, whether to apply for a job, surf the web, to learn about technology, to check out books from the library or have access to other information like that?
MELINDA TUHUS: Wow, a laundromat seems like the perfect place for that. Do you have any specific plans to expand beyond the cities you’re already serving?
AARON GREENBERG: Absolutely. It’s very clear to me that the need is only growing; the digital divide has been laid bare by Covid. Everyone remembers the pictures they saw of kids doing their homework on laptops using the wi-fi outside Taco Bell or McDonald’s. It’s just unacceptable, and fortunately, we’re in a position with the Biden administration with its first stimulus bill and then hopefully with the one that will be passed soon, there’s incredible resources and national leadership that we’ve long needed to invest in communities, to make sure they have broadband, access to information. And we’re one of the organizations that can help with the rollout of that, that can work in cities across the country as we identify the needs, that can collaborate effectively with public and private institutions to make sure people have access to the Internet, access to tech, knowledge about how to use those things, and at the end of the day, safe spaces where they be learning what they need to learn to live decent lives.
So I’m very excited about our plans to expand. I’ll say some areas that we want to work in: affordable housing, housing insecure and homeless populations. We’d love to work with refugee populations as we’ve been doing in Minnesota. We’d love to work with labor unions on workforce developments programs to make sure members have access to the Internet.
MELINDA TUHUS: What about people who think they already have good information but are going down the rabbit hole of stolen elections and QAnon and teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools. Do you try to reach them, too? Or is that not your thing?
AARON GREENBERG: I think everything we do is helping to fight the spread of misinformation. Everything we do is about giving people access to good information — not just Internet access, but also training and programming and access to cultural resources of various kinds.
We don’t have programs that are explicitly about propaganda or misinformation or disinformation, but I think our core mission is to give people access to high-quality, reliable information that is going to help them navigate the world. We’re not just putting a laptop in a laundromat or an iPad in a storm shelter. We are working with community leaders to make sure that there’s enriching programming that’s going on, that there are tech navigators who are helping people figure out how to make sense of the different sources, how to use technology in an effective way. So we’re already in that fight, but I think as your question suggests, this is really a crisis in our moment for our democracy and our civic culture and we see ourselves as intervening in a big way.
For more information, visit Libraries Without Borders at librarieswithoutborders.org.