Gates Fund could give national library new spark life

  • 2005-08-17
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - The Latvian National Library could receive an estimated 3.5 million lats (5 million euros) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help create an online library network throughout the country with free Internet access and other state-of-the-art computer technology.

The news was announced on Aug.12 after a delegation, led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Minister of Culture Helena Demakova, met with foundation representatives in Seattle to discuss Latvia's information technology sector.

Plans to begin construction on Gaismaspils (Castle of Light) 's the library's name 's have been sitting on the back burner for years waiting for a grant such as this to come along.

Still, the precise amount of the grant has yet to be determined, said Martins Vanags, public relations secretary for the Ministry of Culture.

"This is just a preliminary estimate 's 3.5 million lats. The only guess that we can make is that it's common habit for the Gates Foundation to donate approximately this amount to applicant countries," Vanags said. "The foundation will make its final decision in April 2006, after representatives visit Latvia to evaluate the situation."

Once the grant is implemented, Latvia will boast one of the most advanced libraries of the 21st century, he added. UNESCO has already recognized architectural plans for "Gaismaspils" as meeting such a zenith level.

One of the prerequisites for receiving the Gates grant, a philanthropic fund created to bring innovations in technology and learning to the global community, was that the library must offer free Internet access.

"Of course, we fully comply with this prerequisite," Vanags said. "Most of this money will go toward bringing Internet access to library sources in every Latvian county under one cohesive network."

Plans to launch construction on the library, which will be located on the left bank of the Daugava River, are scheduled for this fall. The project is the largest and most extensive of the last decade in Latvia and will be implemented largely with state money.

Seattle-based Microsoft could also support the Gaismaspils project, Vanags added. If Microsoft does choose to finance the library's computer technology, this money will not be restricted to company software.

"We are interested in what is happening in Latvia," former Microsoft Vice President Brad Smith told the daily Diena. "So we're considering the possibility to support both Latvia's education system and cultural projects."

Kalvitis and Gates met earlier this year in Prague to discuss possible IT developments. The two signed an agreement in which Microsoft would pursue various philanthropic activities if Latvia eliminated the piracy of company products within two years. However, this topic was not discussed during last week's Seattle conference and the details are still uncertain.

The Gates foundation has so far invested $28.8 million in health, education and public library development throughout the United States and the world. The fund is an independent organization that is only connected to Microsoft through its founder, Bill Gates.

"The national library has been a much discussed topic for 10 years," Vanags said. "This grant could help us implement the project of uniting Latvia's libraries under one Internet system by 2008. Without the funding, this goal could not be achieved until 2012."

While in Seattle, Kalvitis also visited international airline manufacturer Boeing and the University of Washington, the only university in America to offer a comprehensive Baltic studies program.

He met with Baltic studies program professors and supports to discuss using this unique opportunity "in order to promote Latvia, the Latvian language and the culture of our nation in the United States."

The Latvian government also announced that it would allocate 10,920 lats for a Latvian lecturer to teach at the university this coming school year.

The Kalvitis-led delegation began their visit to the United States on Aug. 7 in Washington D.C. where it met with Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, among other political figures to discuss bilateral developments.