Whatever you think about the role of libraries—you’re right, but don’t stop there. Libraries in a place like Kenya offer an opportunity to revolutionize the way we think about information services, to develop innovative solutions to information needs of citizens in ways that are distinctly Kenyan, and distinctly 21st Century.
What does that mean?
Libraries, traditionally understood, are places where people can access information and written material. Access to information has long been understood as a necessary condition for social, economic and political development—for an accountable government, efficient markets, and public health among other social goods. People may also want access to information for entertainment, personal enrichment, or any number of personal reasons. Libraries can play a clear role here.
In an age where information is increasingly available via digital tools, libraries can further serve as a centralized location for digital equipment. The most innovative advances in information services in many parts of Africa, including Kenya, have been via mobile phones. This technology, which is the most likely among all other available technologies to be already in the hands of even very poor citizens all over the continent, has a great deal of potential for providing an avenue for information sharing in a way that ordinary citizens can use. However, despite this enormous advance, significant challenges to meaningful information access remain. In particular, while broadband has reached far into the interior of Africa, the availability of computers has not kept pace. The plethora of new tools being developed in Nairobi is of limited value if access remains a serious problem.
But the role of libraries has never been “merely” access; they are also public spaces, places where people can interact, create new relationships, and turn information into knowledge. In short, libraries also have a role in creating positive social capital—both horizontally, providing space for like-minded individuals to meet; and vertically, providing space for the development of new relationships outside of existing economic, social, or political peer groups.
How does this reflect on our work?
Taken together, these two key attributes of libraries—as places to access information and as public spaces—can inform the development of programs that not only support the information needs of communities, but also dynamically involve communities in creating new information streams across any number of sectors, including strengthening civil society, supporting economic development, and cultural preservation.
This is how we at Maria’s Libraries see the role of libraries in communities. We do not need to replicate the library model as it was developed in the West. Rather, we would like to bring a diverse set of actors to the table to learn from traditional library services, and creatively reinvent them based on the specific challenges and specific opportunities in the communities we work in.
In doing so, we hope that the libraries create opportunities for citizens to engage with the library in whatever way they like– in whatever way will make their lives better– whether that means reading a novel, learning about a new type of seed, or organizing a civic meeting.