African Libraries in the Digital Age: “reaching outside their walls”
“I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library”, mused the Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges in 1960. Now, fifty years later, most of us are more likely to turn to the Internet than a librarian when seeking information. Archives of books, journals and articles are being digitised and uploaded on a wide scale; encyclopaedias and dictionaries are not only available free-of-charge online but are also populated with crowd-sourced knowledge, making their content more comprehensive than ever before; millions of people are available anytime, anywhere, to offer you just the expertise you need. So, in this digital age of ours, do we still need libraries? Can they still offer us the paradise of discovery and learning that Borges dreamed of? In a dedicated session at eLearning Africa 2013, six presenters were on hand to prove that libraries are both useful and essential to development and education in Africa.
By Alicia Mitchell
Opening the African Libraries in the Digital Age session, Darren Hoerner, Programme Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and session chairperson, suggested that “Libraries are reaching outside their walls”. “Reaching out”, changing shape and developing new forms were certainly the recurring themes of the session, as speakers from across Africa shared their experiences and case studies of how libraries in Africa are adapting to the needs of their users in 2013.
The first speaker was Deborah Jacobs, Director of the Global Libraries initiative, who began by making the case for libraries as indispensable “pre-existing community platforms for development” that already possess the buildings, staff and services needed to reach out to their local communities. She highlighted inspiring instances of libraries extending their services far beyond just lending books: in Uganda, the Busongora Community Library provides an SMS service, a radio show and training events to over 500 farmers in the region, whilst in South Africa, young people living in an impoverished area of Cape Town receive ICT training as well as access to further training and employment opportunities via their library’s high-speed Internet connection.
Reporting on the status of libraries in Namibia, Veno Kauaria, Director of the Namibia Library and Archives Service (NLAS), shared the success of the Ministry of Education in its efforts to secure the essential development role of libraries in the national agenda. Through negotiations with the Prime Minister, the Ministry won the ability to use part of the its library budget, which was previously reserved for books alone, to buy ICTs, and now all libraries in Namibia employ at least one professionally-trained librarian. “We told ourselves that we need to be relevant”, explained Kauaria, pointing to the NLAS’s dedication to aligning itself with the national development goals of poverty, unemployment, health and education.
Kuauria’s point was echoed by Agnes Akuvi Adjabeng of the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana, who advocated the use of social media and the Internet by library services: “Libraries need to come up and be seen”, she said, “Today, our readers do not come to us … it is necessary that we take double steps to make use of the resources available to us”.
Charles Kamdem Poeghela, Director of the Centre de Lecture et d’Animation Culturelle (CLAC), in Yaoundé, Cameroon, then spoke of the potential for libraries themselves to influence the actions of government. Although libraries are not a priority of the Cameroonian government, he said, the Ministry of Culture was so impressed by CLAC’s work with ICT-supported learning that Ministry representatives visited the centre to find out how they could increase access to and the use of ICTs countrywide.
New technologies and changing roles also enable libraries to address issues of inequality in education and information access. As the Executive Director of UNISA Library, Dr Buhle Mbembo-Thata has overseen many initiatives aimed at ‘bridging the digital and learning divide’ amongst users of the library. During the session, Dr Mbembo-Thata explained how text-to-audio Easy Reader devices and mobile library units, equipped with hundreds of thousands of eBooks, eJournals and eDocuments, have increased access to resources for disabled students and those in remote regions. The library also makes use of freely available social media services such as Twitter and blogs to ensure students are able to receive the most up-to-date information on library services.
Digitisation is revolutionising the way the UNISA Library works: this year, for the first time, Dr Mbembo-Thata revealed, the library’s ‘eBudget’ has overtaken its print budget. And what of the library staff themselves? Along with computerised stock management and state of the art self-service systems, these new technologies have freed up the time of library staff, who are now able to dedicate themselves to providing the best possible service to the library’s many users.
Henk Van Dam, Project Officer for Capacity Building at the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), shared his experiences of working with libraries in Mozambique and Ghana and described the multifaceted role of the 21st Century librarian as he had come to see it: “an information professional, broker of knowledge and teacher, all in one”.
The role of libraries in years to come is clearly one that will continue to change but, with over 230,000 community libraries located in developing countries alone (click here to view a comprehensive map of community libraries around the world produced by Beyond Access) and many more attached to universities, hospitals, museums and other institutions, the power of libraries to implement change on a global scale should not be underestimated.