Espen Stranger-Johannessen on promoting a reading culture in Uganda

Espen, who has been affiliated with the Uganda Community Library Association and Kitengesa Community Library, both supported by FAVL, has a new article in the IFLA Journal.  It is based on his fieldwork in Caezaria Library in Uganda.

It is a fine article, and I thought well worth some attention.  So here are some comments in the spirit of … we need more discussion and attention to community (and public) libraries in Africa!

I have some quibbles with Espen’s definition of community library.  It seems to me that the origin or even control of the library matter little.  An NGO insisting on stocking European classics only, and a village schoolteacher insisting on stocking her favorite anti-colonial literature dated from the 1950s…. both are equally “un-community” libraries.  What matters is the usage, involvement, sense of belonging, efforts to create ties, openness to change, etc.  A community library is one that is responsive to local readers, is used by local potential readers (a community library in a village with low literacy will have few readers), and makes efforts for local leaders (and readers) to be involved in governance.  I also think that the distinction between community libraries and public libraries is overblown.  Any good public library will be responsive to local readers, will be used, and will make efforts for local people to be involved.  The ideal public library is a community library!  The ideal community library is a public library!

Espen then has a section that quite properly raises some general theoretical questions about community libraries.  In essence: it is entirely reasonable and right to question library collection priorities and reading programs.  Given the focus on community libraries, however, I think Espen elides a thorny issue.  A community is really a set of communities: villages (in English-speaking Africa) have anglophones, anglophiles, anti-colonialists, Daneille Steele lovers, grumps, Bible readers, terse and laconic intellectuals… all types.  Sometimes they agree, but sometimes they disagree.  Again, a library ideal is to be responsive, within constraints of budget and time, to these many constituencies.  Extreme cases can arise: in American library history trashy novels were the subject of endless disputes between moralizing librarians and library boards (one part of the community) and many readers (another part of the community).  So community conflict over libraries is to be expected.  Indeed… maybe it is a good sign that people take reading seriously enough that it becomes controversial!

I like Espen’s brief aside (following Lareau) that one of the effects of libraries is to prepare children to be more comfortable with adults in the “adult” world  of office spaces.  Too often rural children are completely unprepared for the more informal and collaborative work of an office.  They are used to simply following directions.  In an office setting, where knowledge is both tool and product, collaboration and communication are much more valuable.  A library, a social space where children interact with adults, may help develop that skill.  A librarian’s question, “What did you think about this book?” may be the only sincere and respectful intellectual conversation a child has with an adult!

Overall, a fine article, well-worth reading!

Stranger-Johannessen, Espen. “Promoting a reading culture through a rural community library in Uganda.” IFLA Journal 40.2 (2014): 92-101.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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