Libraries in Kenya face similar challenges. From our conversations with librarians all over Kenya, the common threads are pretty clear. At the top of that list are resources. Both community libraries (those sponsored and run by the community, sometimes with the help of outside donors) and public libraries (those run by the government) report that have trouble getting high quality books, sponsoring innovative programs, and improving the library infrastructure. Many community libraries also face sustainability issues. Another common challenge, particularly in rural or semi-rural areas, is reaching out to people who don’t live in walking distance of the library; affording transportation to the library is a problem. And, finally, as anyone working in the literacy industry in Kenya will tell you, it is difficult to promote reading that is not directly related to school curricula or the news.
Libraries in Kenya also face completely different challenges. Some areas have trouble with electricity or internet. Librarians have different levels of training, in particular between community libraries and public libraries. In some areas, there are very few books that the majority of local population can understand, since local language books remain rare. Populations have different levels of education, different relationships to reading for pleasure, and sometimes different social and economic needs. The last one here is important, because, as libraries address locally specific barriers to information, the services may be very different between, for example, a predominantly agricultural community and a predominantly pastoralist community.
Maria’s Libraries thinks that a network of libraries can help individual libraries deal with their common and dissimilar problems. Forging relations among libraries and librarians help turn many challenges into collaborative opportunities. First, while some resources, like staff salary or electricity bills, can’t be shared among libraries, some resources could be an economy of scale. How can libraries share high-quality books, for example? How can they jointly design programs or come together to receive trainings? Second, librarians can share experiences. Even where information needs are different, how can the experiences of one library inform the experience of another library? Since many of the librarians in our network have different backgrounds and experiences, simply bringing them together and asking them to talk through these challenges can go a long way towards strengthening libraries services throughout our network.
In 2009, we launched our pilot network of libraries, or Kitabu Kenya. Currently, we work with libraries in Busia, Elangata Wuas, Garissa, and Lamu. This involves the work of a lot of organizations, including (get ready for a list of champions!): Africa Soma, the Elangata Wuas Resource Center, Family Support Services, Kenya National Library Services, the National Museums of Kenya, and (in the first round of programs) Slums Information Development and Resource Center. In our first program, the Citizen Archivist Project, we also included a library in Kibera, and we are hoping to again include a Kibera library in our next round of activity (a future blog will describe the new library in Kibera!). Thus far, we have run two programs through the library—the well documented Mama Mtoto Storytime project and the aforementioned Citizen Archivist Project— and have held one training for all of the librarians. We currently have two trainings planned, and are hoping to launch another program this year. At each training program, in addition to sessions dedicated to particular capacity-building lessons, librarians from all the sites discuss their experiences, both with the programs we’ve implemented and more generally. We hope that eventually, the librarians will develop training manuals out of these discussions, which can be of use to librarians in other parts of Kenya and/or other parts of Africa.
The next few posts will profile each of the libraries currently in our network!