By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published December 23, 2011
Libraries in Africa are ‘essential’ yet underutilised resources for technology and community development, according to recent research into the perceptions of public libraries in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) commissioned the research under its Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) to deepen understanding of the role of public libraries in Africa and of the vision, aspirations and expectations of the general public, librarians and national and local government. The study was conducted by the social and marketing research company, TNS RMS East Africa Limited, between January and April 2011.
Most people in the six African countries see libraries primarily for educational purposes but recognise their potential for much more. They also believe that public libraries have the potential to contribute to community development in important areas such as health, employment, agriculture and closing the digital divide.
Public libraries are widely available in most of the six countries studied offering the traditional service of lending of books and offering a good environment for studying, for instance, where school pupils or even university students can complete homework and other classroom-related reading, such as reading for examinations.
However, libraries are small and under-resourced, and most people associate them with traditional book-lending and reference services rather than innovation and technology. In some cases libraries lack relevant books to meet the needs of users, the report, titled Perceptions of Public Libraries in Africa, notes.
Awareness of libraries is high even among those not using them. Users share information about their library experiences a lot, mainly with their friends. In addition to the high awareness a majority have very positive sentiments about libraries across all groups surveyed, for instance, from policy level all the way to users and non-users.
“Libraries are perceived as offering academic related information and therefore an extension of academic study. Children’s exposure to libraries is limited and a lot more could be done to improve usage,” the report released in Kampala on November 12, 2011, notes.
“Librarians are competent in the traditional roles of a librarian but have limitations in the technology related services. Low skill levels on technology services result from lacking the facilities that would enable them improve competency. A significant number of librarians admit to lacking the necessary skills for advocacy to generate additional funding,” it adds.
Libraries are seen as essential to the individual as well as communities in general by all groups surveyed. Libraries need to engage with the community at a more tangible level that goes beyond passively providing books and information only, for example, facilitating community interaction with service providers of health, agriculture and culture. Stakeholders recognise a role for libraries in these fields.
“Funding for libraries is low, and donors (local or international) are expected to play a greater role in funding libraries,” the report suggests.
“Print media are currently doing more in promoting the library agenda than other media. Digital media like the internet are not properly exploited and with the growth of mobile telephony and data services in Africa, this could be an avenue to explore,” it adds.
According to the report, electronic media are the best way to reach the policy level target audience for libraries. TV and radio are the most frequently used sources of information and also the most trusted ones.
The study found a significant majority of all respondents (80%) believe the biggest benefit that public libraries offer is the opportunity to learn and to develop new skills. A growing number of people view libraries as a source for national and local news and information on important topics including agriculture, health and employment. Public library users and government officials view libraries as “essential to them personally and to the greater community.”
In addition to raising awareness of the information services libraries provide, the research shows that there is a strong demand for more technology resources. Among library users, only 14% report using computers or the Internet at public libraries. A lack of computers is one of the primary reasons library users (37%) and the local authorities that operate libraries (53%) report being dissatisfied with library services.
Non-users say they would be motivated to use libraries if more access to online content was available (29%) or if there were more computers in general (24%). A significant majority of librarians (72%) would like to see more funding invested in technologies to meet community needs.
In Kenya, education, local and national news and information were at the top of the list of public library services librarians reported as providing. However, high numbers of librarians also reported that libraries are providing information on a wide variety of important issues, including health (65%), use of electronic government services (60%), information on agriculture (59%), financial and investment news (63%), employment searches (54%) and information on starting a business (37%).
“Sustainability of library services and funding is needed and should be enhanced to make sure that libraries meet existing community needs today and into the future,” said Silas Kobia, Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) board chairman. “Community leaders, government decision makers and other library stakeholders are needed to provide the policy and financial support libraries need for sustainability.”
The research also shows that ICT is a library service area with significant growth potential. Unprompted, few users and non-users in Uganda, associate libraries with ICT. Among library users, only 20% report using computers or the Internet at public libraries. A lack of computers is one of the top reasons library users (36%) and the local authorities that operate libraries (69%) report being dissatisfied with library services. A significant majority of librarians (94%) would like to see more funding invested in technologies to meet community needs.
In Uganda, the study looked at four regions: Kampala, Mbale, Masaka and Lira. More than 75% of library users report visiting the library on a weekly or daily basis. The librarian is an important part of their library experience, with a majority (69%) seeking advice or consultation from librarians. Users and non-users alike view the library as a place for study and a social place to meet people.
Among non-users in Uganda, a majority (58%) report being ‘too busy’ as the primary reason they do not use the library. However, if more libraries were able to offer broader selection of books, computer stations and more online content, a portion of non-users would be motivated to use the library.
Librarians report educational, health information and national news as the top three services libraries provide in Uganda. However, significant numbers of librarians indicate that libraries are providing information on a wide variety of other important community development issues, including agriculture (70%), information on financial and investment news (38%) and use of electronic government services (14%).
Uganda has 26 public libraries and 80 libraries owned by communities and individuals.
Soon there will be a new library service introduced that will focus on helping young people find employment. The National Library of Uganda (NLU), working with Lira and Masindi public libraries and the National Youth Council, will train young people to use computers and the Internet increasing their employability.
The new service, Electronic Information for Youth Employment (EIYE), will take advantage of the popularity of mobile phones among youth and send regular text messages to more than 1,000 young job-seekers about vacant positions, education and training opportunities, business support and loan facilities. NLU was recently awarded a grant of USh39 million (US$15,000) from EIFL to pilot the new service through PLIP.
“This is an exciting time for public libraries in Uganda,” says Gertrude Kayaga Mulindwa, director of the National Library of Uganda. “The perception research reinforces what we are already experiencing: public libraries are playing an important role in community development, especially when it comes to agriculture, health, social cohesion, local economic development and youth. And it will take all of us ; community leaders, government decision makers and other library stakeholders to provide the policy and financial support libraries need for long-term sustainability.”
According to Monika Elbert, senior policy advisor at EIFL and lead on the research project, “Everyone agrees that public libraries are essential. But more awareness and support is needed for library services that go beyond providing books and places for study.”
“Access to knowledge is critical for development and public libraries are uniquely positioned to provide ICT-enabled information services that will contribute to countries’ medium and long-term development plans. Libraries are a hub where, for example, at-risk youth can access computers and learn new technology skills for the 21st century, unemployed people can learn job-seeking skills and farmers can find valuable information about new farming methods all of which are key strands of community development. We want this research to spark dialogue and create more interest in libraries as community development partners,”Elbert added.
EIFL is an international not-for-profit organisation dedicated to enabling access to knowledge through libraries in more than 45 developing and transition countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. PLIP supports public libraries to implement innovative community development services.