RIGA - American software giant Microsoft, together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have donated 12.8 million lats (18.2 million euros) toward updating Latvia's nationwide library system. Culture Minister Helena Demakova announced that the Gates Foundation had donated $16.2 million to the library project, $7.9 million of which was received from Microsoft.
"This is a tiger's leap," she said. "The implementation of our [library information] project is proceeding much faster than in neighboring Estonia."
The donation will be spent on installing 3,833 new computers in 874 libraries across Latvia. This will enable 17 libraries to gain access to the Internet, 853 libraries to improve their online connections, as well as providing wireless access throughout Latvia's entire library system.
IT education is another project priority. Part of the money will be spent on training 1,455 librarians to work with IT technologies, and 7,700 Latvian employees will begin Internet and computer skill courses.
The agreement on allocating the money was signed three weeks ago, Demakova said, adding that $7.9 million set aside for new computer software has already been received.
As for the much anticipated Latvian National Library project, Gaismas Tikls (Network of Light), the minister said the donation would push development plans ahead of schedule. The project aims to provide all Latvian residents with online informational access.
Andris Vilks, director of the national library, told journalists that Latvia was the first EU member state to receive financing from the Gates Foundation, and will thus serve as an impetus for similar projects in other countries.
The government has allocated 11 million lats in co-funding to Gaismas Tikls, but the library hopes to raise another 5.5 million lats from local authorities, private donors and other sources.
Demakova's press secretary, Martins Vanags, added that Latvia's library system was developing rapidly on the whole.
"Within the past 10 years, all state and public libraries have received Internet connectivity, computers, electronic catalogues and access to local and foreign electronic publications. This is great improvement," he said.
Asked if any of the Gates Foundation money would go toward the construction of Latvia's new National Library 's or Gaismas Pils (Castle of Light) - Vanags said no.
"These resources are not planned for Castle of Light construction work, but the grant will certainly help attract supporters for it," he said.
The Castle of Light, currently one of the government's most ambitious and modern architectural projects, will be erected on the Daugava River's left bank. Its stunning design - a glowing mountain of glass - has been acclaimed by architects worldwide. Construction will begin once the necessary funding has been earned.
The Network of Light project, whose total costs are estimated at 100 million lats, is due to be completed by 2008.