How laundromats are improving access to information

Written by Christina Lee


As an intern at Libraries Without Borders (LWB) last December, I witnessed the power of libraries. Since its founding in 2007, LWB has been striving to invent the 21st century library. More than just a collection of books, libraries now have a cross-cutting impact on society, from fighting poverty and social inequalities to capacity building, to stimulating creative energies and entrepreneurship. Libraries Without Borders is active in 25 countries throughout the world, and over 2 million people have benefited from LWB’s programs.

It appears to me that when we think of fundamental human rights, we often do not associate ‘access to information’ as one of the core rights we are entitled to. Many of us have constant access to information – through our phones, readings provided by our lecturers and of course, social media. But what about those who cannot afford the technology or those do not have time nor resources to go to a traditional library?

Patrick Weil, the president of Libraries Without Borders and an incredible human rights professor at Yale University asked, “What is a man, a woman, a child, once safe, food and shelter provided, if they cannot read, write, draw or communicate, and thus take back their place in the human community, to envision their future and start fresh?”

As humans, we have the gift of communication, sharing information and the ability to dream and imagine – and that is what libraries provide for us. There are many projects that LWB are leading but there is one that needs to be shared with the community here in Australia. What if I told you that laundromats are improving access to information, hence increasing access to justice?

In the US, the “Wash & Learn” program transforms laundromats into informal learning spaces where local residents can access high-quality literacy and professional development materials as they wait for their clothes to wash and dry. People usually wait for around 2 hours while their washing is done, this means there are 120 minutes per person to access these resources for free. This project is a testament that we do not need new and abundant resources to make a difference, what we need is collaboration and communication between existing NGOs and community groups – a set of minds who see the importance of libraries and literacy.

In an article produced by the Laundry Cares Foundation, Allister Chang, the executive director of Libraries Without Borders stated that, “a lot of families have told us they don’t participate in library programs because they have unpredictable work schedules and can’t afford to miss a shift,” and that “Wash & Learn reduces these barriers because it brings the library to a location they visit weekly. It helps families knock out three birds with one stone: wash clothes, complete a professional development program, and help children develop early literacy skills.”

But what does this mean for us here in Australia? In 2013, the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) surveyed a sample of Australians from 15 – 74 years-old and rated them on a level of 1-5 for their literacy skills, with Level 3 meaning the person was considered proficient. They found that 1 in 3 Australians have literacy skills low enough to make them vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion.

We can acknowledge that access to information is a fundamental right, but I believe that significance of human rights lies in its implementation, not just in its existence.

Unfortunately, laundromats are not as prevalent here in Australia. But the question now is, what place can we transform into an information hub here in Australia? And who would be willing to join in creating this? But what we do know for sure is that – we need it here too.

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