Gates donates £2.6m to provide UK libraries with Net access

350 libraries in socially deprived areas will be eligible for new online PCs through the grant money

Software tycoon Bill Gates has given a £2.6m handout to public libraries within deprived areas of the UK to help turn them into technology learning centres.

Each library benefiting from the grant will be able to install between two and 12 additional terminals with free Internet connection for local residents. The donation could help to accelerate the government's People's Network project, which aims to have all of the 4,300 public libraries in Britain online and linked to the National Grid for Learning by 2002.

The UK Online programme -- the government's campaign to boost Internet use in Britain by 2005 -- also plans for 2,700 librarian staff to have received a European computer driving licence-standard of training by 2002.

"More than 350 libraries in some of the most socially excluded areas will benefit [from the gift], which will be to the enormous value of both libraries and library users," said Lord Evans, chairman of Resource -- the council for British museums, archives and libraries -- who is managing the grant.

Authorities eligible for funding will be informed over the next few weeks about the size of their windfall, and will be expected to spend the money on the provision of new terminals, although printers and cabling are also eligible. Fifty-five main learning centres each with between seven and 12 terminals, and 296 branch learning centres each with between two and six terminals will be created across the UK.

The head of Microsoft set up the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation from part of his personal fortune, estimated to be about £30bn at current stock market prices. His donation will be added to National Lottery money and government UK Online funding.

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