New Research Shows Libraries in Africa Are "Essential," Yet Underutilized Resources for Technology and Community Development Services
Nov 09, 2011 (Menafn - Electronic Information for Libraries/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) --Six-country study examined use and public perceptions of libraries in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe; most see libraries primarily for educational purposes but recognize potential for much more
New research on people's perceptions of public libraries in Africa demonstrates that awareness of public libraries is high and a majority view libraries as very important to both communities and individuals. Library users and non-users, librarians, library officials and government decision makers alike view public libraries primarily for educational purposes (90% across all groups), however a range of other information services are emerging in libraries, including Information and Communications Technology (ICT), that have the potential to help meet community development needs.
The six-country 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."
"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," said Monika Elbert, senior policy advisor at EIFL and lead on the research project. "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."
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 percent 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, a growing number of users visit public libraries to seek information on important issues, including health (18%), running a business (15%) and employment (14%). This growth is attributed to innovative programs that are being implemented at the country level. For example, the Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) created "e-health corners"-dedicated areas with Internet to allow access to online health resources-in its branch libraries in Eldoret and Kisumu. The project trained 1,600 people to use health resources online. The libraries are now recognized as health information providers in their communities and regularly host lectures on health topics for the general public.
Participants are enlightened on how they can use available information to avoid common ailments and stay healthy. Workshops for health workers and community care givers are also organized by these libraries to provide a platform for them to share information and advance their knowledge.
In Kenya, education, local and national news and information were at the top of the list of public library services librarians reported 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%).
"The research reinforces what we are already experiencing in Kenya," said Richard Masaranga Atuti, director of the Kenya National Library Service, a state corporation under the Ministry of State for National Heritage and Culture. "Our public libraries are playing an important role in communities, especially when it comes to agriculture, local economic development, youth empowerment, social cohesion and the provision of health information. And we can and must do more."
According to the study, there is recognition among local and national government officials in Kenya, and across the continent, of the potential contribution libraries can make in the areas of education, economic development, employment, health, agricultural and closing the digital divide.
"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, 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."
Copyright Electronic Information for Libraries. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).