As an African student in Britain pursuing a Master’s degree in information and library studies, I was eager to attend every seminar or presentation concerning librarianship and information science. To me, Britain was the like the Israel or Mecca of libraries. I met information professionals of all backgrounds, experience and ideas. I saw libraries built hundreds of years ago. And I saw what libraries in Africa and especially my country could look like.
Coming from a country where Libraries are simply a room that can be used for everything else apart from reading, I wanted to see how librarians in Britain were faring with storage space, job cuts and redundancy. Lucky for me, part of the course included a study tour of libraries around London. While I was very impressed with how well the libraries were organized, how innovative each library was in trying to keep its patrons satisfied and definitely how willing as information professionals they were to share their “tricks”, it was evident that the absence of job security and fear of the library becoming obsolete were looming over them.
Speaker after speaker mentioned the words “we have to remain relevant”, “we have to keep reminding our patrons that we exist” and “we began offering this service because we realized our users went out to look for it elsewhere”. For example there was an ice cream vending machine in one of the libraries. Ten years ago it was unheard of to have food in the library.
After graduation, I came back home with all these ideas about turning the library I work for into something great. I also had an idea about showing my employers that Librarians are no longer defined by the building they work in but rather people with skills to handle all aspects of information from generation, dissemination, communication, storage and if necessary selling. However, there is one thing I forgot, libraries are useless unless the population knows how to read and is interested in acquiring knowledge through reading. Many times as information professionals (in Africa to be specific), we take it for granted that if we have a library, then people will come to read. To be fair, the libraries in Academic institutions do not face this challenge as much as the public and corporate libraries.
It is only in the last four years that Adult literacy classes began to be conducted but mostly in the urban areas. And with the bulk of the population aged between 15 – 40 years, only a small percentage is able to sit down and read more than basic English. Attempts have been made to translate information into the local languages, but again very few within this age bracket can read their own languages. So why have a library when there are no patrons?
In other words, while libraries in the west are being shut down due to budget cuts (as librarians we like to blame search engines), libraries in my country are being shut down because the population is unable to use them and therefore they are redundant.
The other reason why libraries are being shut down in Sub Saharan African is that the effects of the economic meltdown are finally upon us. Many of the organisations that could afford to have libraries on their premises were relying heavily on donor funding from the western world. This means that what affects our donors, affects us too. It is unfair for us to spend money on something our donors are doing without.
One of the implications for this is that, with more corporate libraries shutting down in Sub Saharan Africa, the percentage of books being sold from the western world might go down slightly. This is because many of the books in these libraries are from the west. One might argue that book sellers continue to buy and of course individual buyers. But these are not likely to buy as many books as a library would buy at a time.
The other implication is that fewer jobs for librarians are going to be available in Sub Saharan Africa. One only has to go to LinkedIn to see how many information professionals are seeking jobs outside their countries. Alongside this is that many of them going abroad for further studies, hoping to improve their skills and remain relevant.
Maybe one of the solutions would be to have a librarian equipped with not only information literacy skills, but also the skills to teach reading and writing (as well as computer skills so we can catch up with the digital age too). This way if there is more demand for information and documentation and eventually a communal place where reading can be done, then use for the library will be realized.
Loss seems to create room for innovation, therefore as a librarian who now has to close down my library, I am thinking about acquiring skills to conduct Adult literacy classes so that I create demand for my library if ever I am able to open up another one.