The role of libraries in the leadership development of women and girls around the world

Karla Strand
Sep 11, 2019 · 11 min read


Around the world, it is imperative that women hold positions of leadership at all levels and in all fields. Many community organizations, governments, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals work to develop leadership skills in women and girls and provide them with opportunities to grow and practice these skills. At the same time, libraries around the world are often overlooked or taken for granted when these leadership-building initiatives or events are being planned. Sometimes seen merely as places where women spend leisure time or where schoolchildren go to study, libraries are undervalued and their role in shaping women leaders is invisible or ignored. In some areas outside of the United States and Europe, libraries are seen as elitist or as remnants of colonization. At times, the typical Western styles and structures of libraries are intimidating to potential users and the materials inside are irrelevant, outdated, or in unreadable languages. Despite these perceptions, libraries and information centers are valuable community institutions. While their utility in providing access to information is undeniable, libraries can also be effective partners in community development initiatives, creating or supporting leadership programming vital in the lives of women and girls.

This paper will briefly discuss the role of libraries in the leadership development of women and girls around the world. More pragmatic than theoretical, the aim of this paper is to encourage readers to re-examine their notions of traditional libraries and explore the opportunities libraries provide for the growth of women and girl leaders. Examples are provided of libraries that are offering successful programming and outreach in community leadership development.

Libraries and development

To begin this exploration, it is necessary to clarify that this paper will use a broad definition of “library” that includes Western notions of brick and mortar libraries but also those that may be housed in shipping containers like some in South Africa, in people’s homes or sheds as in Nicaragua (see below), or even the biblioburro in Colombia.

This also includes various local versions of libraries that are sometimes referred to as community libraries, information or resource centers, knowledge centers, telecenters, learning centers, and more. It includes public libraries, school libraries, national libraries, business or legal libraries, digital libraries, and libraries in university settings. It is important that each community develop library and information services that are relevant and meaningful to their citizens; services, resources, and programs may vary widely by community. Community members and organizations should play an active role in library development and maintenance in order to feel invested in their continued existence and funding. No matter the country or the format, libraries are known to play important roles in community development, education, and empowerment.

Literature concerning libraries as development partners around the world is increasing. Evidence is being gathered to show the value of libraries in growing an engaged citizenry, in educating the community, and in contributing to sustainable development, more specifically in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), or 2030 Agenda. More research is needed specifically regarding the role of libraries in the leadership development of women and girls.

UNESCO itself has long been a supporter of libraries and has helped to shepherd their role in development, education, and empowerment of global citizens. In two documents, the Public Library Manifesto and the Digital Library Manifesto, UNESCO partnered with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) to formally state their belief in the important role of libraries in development (see also: UNESCO also collaborates with the Library of Congress and hundreds of libraries and archives around the world to offer free access to primary source documents via the World Digital Library. UNESCO’s work with and for libraries around the world makes a strong statement about the importance of libraries and in partnering with them for the betterment of all communities.

Libraries and leadership development in women and girls

While much has been written on the topic of women as leaders within libraries — how there are too few, how we can develop more, and the importance of doing so — little has been written about how and why libraries should take part in developing women as leaders within communities. But libraries can, and do as this paper will show, play important roles in the leadership development of women and girls.

Despite the negative view of libraries that can pervade some communities and discourage their use, in many others, libraries are celebrated and valued for their educational and community-building potential. Libraries provide spaces for groups to meet, information to build engaged citizens, and resources to grow skills and knowledge among their users. Many have partnered with community organizations, schools, government entities, and individuals to provide classes, offer materials, and hold events. While there is little academic research on the role of libraries in leadership development, there is no shortage of examples of libraries’ contributions to growing leaders within their communities. The next section of this paper will describe some initiatives and programs that libraries are undertaking to encourage leadership development in women and girls in various parts of the world.

Examples of library projects for leadership development of women and girls

This section will provide several examples of how libraries in various parts of the world are working together in community partnerships to support the development of women and girl leaders. Examples were solicited from international and U.S. libraries on Twitter as well as on two discussion boards of major library organizations, the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Examples were chosen based on the uniqueness of their program, location, and focus.

Lubuto Library Partners (LLP)

Lubuto Library Partners (LLP) is one outstanding example of libraries leading the empowerment and leadership development of women and girls. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., this organization “builds the capacity of public libraries to create opportunities for equitable education and poverty reduction” (Lubuto Library Partners, home page) of orphans and vulnerable children and youth (OVCY) throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By providing traditionally styled spaces, relevant resources, and active programming, LLP has been able to help hundreds of girls reconnect with social institutions to increase their chances at healthy, happy, and productive lives (Lubuto Library Partners, “What We Do”).

In 2016, Lubuto Library Partners was one of 56 winners of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, an $85 million investment funded by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Johnson & Johnson, and ViiV Healthcare, that aimed to reduce HIV among girls in sub-Saharan Africa 40% by the end of 2017 (Lubuto Library Partners, “Keeping Girls in Secondary School and AIDS-free”). LLP was not only focused on keeping girls in school to reach this goal but addressed some of the most common challenges facing retention of girls. To this end, LLP provided health information and referral services, family literacy instruction, sexual health programming, and role model mentoring, as well as awarding secondary school scholarships to 56 girls. Their libraries contain volumes of valuable information about health, productivity, and leadership.

Lubuto Library Partners’ impressive eight-week-long mentoring program for girls and women aged 15 to 24 “focuses on overcoming discriminatory gender norms, equipping girls with HIV and sexual and reproductive health information and access to services, and fostering girls’ resilience and determination to succeed” (Lubuto Library Partners, “Keeping Girls in Secondary School and AIDS-free”). It consists of large and small group discussions as well as one-on-one time with young volunteer mentors. The groups take field trips to government buildings and the University of Zambia. There are also two sessions for parents/guardians focused on discussing sexual health topics with their daughters. After participating in the mentoring program, one young woman in Zambia shared that she coordinated sessions to cover all eight lessons for the other children in her village; she taught them about goalsetting and the importance of self-esteem and hard work in achieving those goals (Lubuto Library Partners, Twitter). By creating and working with public libraries to provide resources and programming, LLP is able to equip local girls with the knowledge and skills to become engaged leaders within their communities.

Technology programming and outreach: Girls Who Code, TechniGals, and Tech Age Girls

There are many examples, especially in the United States, of libraries building confidence and leadership skills among girls by offering programming focused on coding or other technological skills.

Girls Who Code is one organization that partners with libraries, schools, and businesses to offer girls opportunities to build skills, knowledge, and experience in computing. Their mission is to close the gender gap in computer science and along the way, build the self-esteem, confidence, and technological expertise of girls across the United States. They offer after school clubs for girls in grades 3 to 12 to learn to code, two-week summer campus programs for girls in grade 6 to 12 on a wider range of topics, and seven-week summer programs for 11th and 12th grade girls to learn how to code and about employment opportunities (Girls Who Code, 2018, “About Us”). Hundreds of libraries across the country now offer clubs and some 90,000 girls have participated in Girls Who Code programs.

TechniGals is a week-long half-day camp for middle school girls held at Middletown Free Library in Media, Pennsylvania. The goal of this program is to increase girls’ knowledge and interest in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts/design and mathematics) careers. Women in STEAM professions speak to the participants about their jobs and the challenges they face as a woman in a STEAM field. The Middletown Free Library has also offered Girls Who Code programming for the last four years (Mary Glendening, Director of the Middletown Free Library, personal communication, September 24, 2018).

Public libraries in Myanmar recently partnered with IREX, a global development and education organization, to implement their Tech Age Girls (TAG) program. Already operating in 10 countries, the TAG program “provides young women with specialized leadership and information technology training, mentors, and hands-on opportunities to become positive agents of change in their communities” (Tech Age Girls). TAG is a year-long program consisting of three phases during which girls: learn leadership, technology, and soft skills; participate in internships and meet powerful women leaders; and work on local projects to benefit their home communities. So far, 100 girls aged 16 to 20 have participated in TAG programs in public libraries throughout Myanmar (Tech Age Girls Myanmar Flyer).

Women’s Knowledge Digital Library (WKDL)

Women’s Knowledge Digital Library (WKDL) was created in 2015 by the Office of the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian (GWSL) at the University of Wisconsin. The idea of a digital library focused on knowledge for women and girls around the world came from a conversation between Karla Strand, the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin System, and Teresa Langle de Paz of Women’s Knowledge International. Information included in WKDL is by and about women and girls. The focus is on reaching those who have limited access to universities and libraries, as well as those who lack the time, skills, and other resources necessary to search online for helpful, relevant information that would allow them to improve and empower themselves and their communities. Activists, students, and women outside of the workforce are among the specific potential users WKDL seeks to reach.

WKDL is a small project, with only two employees working to search for and add new resources when time allows. Originally housed on the GWSL website, WKDL was moved to the Omeka open access platform in 2018. While intended for archives or other digital exhibitions, Omeka was chosen for this project because of its ease of use and its metadata options. The resources included in WKDL are not original, in that any skilled internet user would be able to find them freely available online. This process though, takes time, knowledge, and skills to search for and evaluate each item, which some users may not have. Curators of WKDL are able to find and evaluate potential resources, add them to the database, and include adequate metadata to ensure they can be found easily through user keyword or tag searches. The partners seek to locate and evaluate useful resources and make them easily accessible through WKDL in order for users to adapt and use them in their own communities.

As of this writing, WKDL includes over 1,500 resources. Going forward, the library may expand to include more original resources, digital collections, or exhibitions. The resources included in WKDL can help to empower women in their communities, as activists, educators, and leaders.

Wisconsin / Nicaragua Partners of the Americas

Building libraries is a vital part of the work of Stevens Point-based Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners (W/NP). As a progressive humanitarian organization, W/NP is focused on cultural exchanges and volunteerism that promote cultural understanding, educational opportunities, and sustainable community development. Through their Learning Center Program, W/NP “provide and promote opportunities to develop skills that will improve vocational options, income, self-sufficiency and empowerment for people living throughout Nicaragua” (Wisconsin/ Nicaragua Partners of the Americas, 2018, Centros de Aprendizajes). W/ NP has also fostered creation of lending libraries, such as Biblioteca Sherin Bowen, that offer books but also baking, cooking, and craft classes (Wisconsin/ Nicaragua Partners of the Americas Annual Report, 2018). Created and housed by community members with the assistance of W/NP, these libraries have the potential to reach women and girls interested in learning skills to empower them to become valuable leaders in their communities and beyond.


This paper is an attempt to add to the literature about the role libraries can play in the leadership development and engagement of women and girls. While often overlooked, libraries can teach the skills necessary to lead, partner with community stakeholders on successful programming, and offer space and expertise to encourage the empowerment of women and girls around the world.

The goal of this paper was to call attention to the potential of libraries in leadership development and offer examples of successful initiatives around the world. The aim is to encourage stakeholders to re-examine their notion of libraries, reconsider their roles in crucial leadership education of women and girls, and reflect on how they might partner with libraries for the good of women and girls in their communities.


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Meyers, Jane Kinney. (2016). Dynamic Partnerships for Sustainable Development of Public Libraries for Young People in Zambia. Paper presented at: IFLA WLIC 2016 — Columbus, OH — Connections. Collaboration. Community in Session S27 — Africa. In: Building Cross Cultural Capacities for Universal Access to Information and Knowledge in Africa, 11–12 August 2016, Athens, Ohio, USA.

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Note: This article originally appears in the open access (free) ebook entitled The Time is Now: Feminist Leadership for a New Era. Published by The Global Network of UNESCO Chairs on Gender in 2019, the book was edited by Araceli Alonso and Teresa Langle de Paz.

Karla Strand

Written by

Librarian, book reviewer, freelance writer: Ms. Mag, Pulp Mag, The Startup, Fearless She Wrote. Views only mine.

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