Perceptions of public libraries in Africa: research + results = change

14 Sep 2011
Harnessing the potential of public libraries for community development

Perception study coverPublic libraries are uniquely positioned to change lives and build strong communities. In many parts of the world, where access to technology is extremely limited, libraries are often the sole source of access to computers and the internet. Through public libraries, people can discover knowledge and learn new skills, get informed about personal health and well-being, find out about government and local authority services, and seek information about employment and business development. Public libraries help foster a common sense of place and identity for people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures in the community, and link communities to the wider world.

In December 2010, EIFL’s Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) commissioned a groundbreaking research study into perceptions of public libraries in six African countries . The objective was to better understand the status and role of public libraries in Africa and the vision, aspirations and expectations of library stakeholders. The research will be used to inform and support outreach and advocacy efforts to build and strengthen policies and long-term support for public libraries so they can contribute to community development and improve people’s lives.

The study - the first of its kind in Africa - covers six countries in east, west and southern Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Researchers conducted detailed interviews over several months with a wide range of stakeholders including people who use public libraries and those who do not, policy and decision-makers in national and local government, librarians and library officials.

Perception study findings

Perceptions of public libraries in Africa (published in July 2011) shows that public libraries offering traditional print-based services are widely available in most of the countries surveyed. The findings show that in each country an overwhelming majority across all stakeholder groups perceive public libraries to be for books and study rather than spaces for digital technologies and the provision of community development services. For example, only 5% of users and non-users associate public libraries with information and communication technologies (ICTs).  Across all stakeholder groups, lack of technology in libraries – especially computers and the internet – was a significant cause of dissatisfaction.

The study found that funding for public libraries is generally low: national and local government officials say that because poverty is the main issue facing communities, libraries are lower on the list of services supported.  

Yet all stakeholder groups believe that libraries need and deserve more funding and that public library services, when properly supported, can improve people’s life chances and contribute to community development goals. The EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (PLIP) is leading the way in showing how this can be achieved.

EIFL-PLIP pilot projects

EIFL-PLIP is working with public libraries in developing and transition countries to pilot replicable innovative services that meet the needs of communities and support sustainable development. In May 2010, 12 innovative projects that focused on four development areas – youth and children at risk, employment and livelihoods, health, and agriculture – were selected for funding by PLIP. The grantees were from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. After one year, impact studies showed that many thousands of people are benefiting from services.


Leadership and computer training for young people in Tamale, Ghana For example, EIFL-PLIP’s grantee in Tamale, Ghana,where unemployment and school drop-out rates are high, is already giving young people a better chance in life. Supported by the Ghana Library Board, the Northern Regional Library created and equipped a training centre, taught young people to use computers and the internet and provided coaching in leadership and social skills.

Learning to read is fun in Lubuto libraries! Using One Laptop Per Child computers, each lesson is unique and includes exercises such as matching letters and word-picture association games.A further finding of the study was that almost 100% of librarians and government officials believe libraries have a role to play in teaching children literacy skills. In Lusaka, Zambia, there is a notable example of an EIFL-PLIP grantee library that is ahead of the game, by using technology to improve literacy. School drop-out rates have soared in Zambia in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and there are thousands of orphans. To teach vulnerable children literacy in their mother tongue - proven to be critically important for success - the Lubuto Library Project designed 700 computer-based reading lessons in seven local languages using open source software, local knowledge and international expertise. The lessons follow the national education curriculum, and the Ministry of Education is considering replication of the Lubuto library model in other parts of Zambia. 

Library patrons at the Kisumu branch library e-health cornerIn Kenya, the public library is meeting a vital development need: to provide quality health information to health workers and the general public. Through the Kenya National Library Service, e-health corners – dedicated spaces with internet to access online health resources – have been established in branch libraries in Eldoret and Kisumu. 1,600 people have been trained to use the resources, the libraries are now recognized as significant health information providers and regularly host lectures for the general public on health topics of local importance. The Perception study shows that the vast majority of local officials (over 80%) recognize the potential of libraries to contribute towards many aspects of health improvement.

Research + results = change

During 2011, EIFL-PLIP will discuss the study findings with key stakeholders including library leaders, national and local government officials, media and donors in various fora and events. Drawing on the principal findings from the research and harnessing tangible results from the EIFL-PLIP pilot projects, a focused strategy for communications and awareness raising will be developed in close collaboration with librarians to champion the role of public libraries as agents of change for development in the community. Through partnerships, innovation and outreach, public libraries can play a valuable role in serving a community’s strategic goals – renewing the library’s mission, reaching more people and providing a good return on investment.

EIFL commissioned TNS RMS, a Kenyan based company specializing in social and marketing research to conduct a survey of perceptions of public libraries in six African countries. The study is available here.

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September 2011