New Africa Public Library Network inspires hope for cross-border collaboration
EIFL-PLIP AfLIA post-conference discusses new directions for public libraries in Africa

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Public librarians took full advantage of opportunities to network during the EIFL-PLIP post-conference event.

“It is smart to belong to a good network,” commented one delegate during the AfLIA 2015 post-conference organised by the EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP) on June 3, 2015, in Accra, Ghana.

The theme of networking came up repeatedly during both the AfLIA main conference (also held in Accra, from May 30 - June 2) and the EIFL-PLIP post-conference.

Discussion reflected deep feelings of isolation among public librarians in Africa, where leadership to organize regional public library gatherings has been lacking, and public librarians do not have funds to travel or to meet. 

The two events provided the perfect arena for African public librarians to begin developing networks, and participants took full advantage of the opportunity.

AfLIA (short for African Library and Information Associations and Institutions) is a new association that aims to be the ‘voice’ of libraries across the continent, to advocate for libraries, to forge links between libraries and set standards for librarianship. The conference, which was attended by over 120 librarians from academic, research, national and public libraries from across the continent, was AfLIA’s first international event.

It was an honour for EIFL-PLIP to be given space for a post-conference event focused on innovation in public libraries. Titled ‘African Public Libraries on the Rise’, the post-conference presented an opportunity for public library leaders and librarians; representatives of public library authorities; educators and other stakeholders to discuss current trends in public library service innovation, and the future direction of public libraries in Africa.

LIBRARIES MUST CHANGE TO MEET COMMUNITY NEEDS

During the main conference, the keynote speaker, Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah, Special Advisor on the post-2015 Development Agenda at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), laid the foundation for conversations that are likely to outlive the conference, and guide the African library community towards defining the concept of an ‘innovative public library for Africa’.

Dr Opoku-Mensah called on libraries to transform themselves to meet critical needs for new skills and local content relevant to Africa’s fast developing societies that are are thirsty for knowledge.

She emphasized the need to grow a new type of library leadership, and for reprofiling, repositioning and restructuring of libraries to make it possible to introduce new and innovative services focused on social needs.

The EIFL-PLIP post-conference attracted over 60 public librarians and representatives of library authorities and associations from 20 African countries. It presented a great opportunity for public librarians representing all regional libraries in Ghana to mingle with librarians from other African countries.

PRESENTATIONS TO INSPIRE INNOVATION

Serious concerns - librarians discuss barriers to innovation in public libraries.A presenter at the post-conference, Joan Mwachi, Senior Manager at Worldreader, Kenya, shared results of impact assessment of the Worldreader pilot project,  ‘LEAP: Libraries, E-reading, Activities and Partnership’. The project provided e-readers through eight public libraries in Kenya. Over 20,000 people used the e-readers, and 84% of people who used the e-readers reported reading more.

Mwachi pointed out that contrary to initial assumptions that there would be resistance to e-readers, public librarians and communities embraced the technology. She proposed scaling up e-reading programmes in countries where they exist, and offering them in all African countries that have national networks of public libraries.

Representatives of EIFL-PLIP grantee libraries from South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana shared experiences of developing and implementing library services that use digital technology to serve community needs.

During lively group discussion and plenary sessions, post-conference delegates reflected on public librarians’ digital technology skills, and capacity building strategies to enable public librarians to integrate digital technology into new needs-oriented services.

STRONG FAITH IN LOCAL SOLUTIONS

Participants identified a daunting range of challenges facing public librarians in Africa who want to initiate technology-based services, including poor technology infrastructure; high equipment and connection costs that public library budgets cannot afford; official and public perceptions that public libraries’ role is to lend books, and narrow definitions of ‘public library service’ in government policy.

But in general the mood was positive, and delegates expressed strong faith in local solutions and the potential for cross-border cooperation:

“The challenges that public libraries face in Africa are similar, and solutions can be formed from within the continent,” said one delegate.

“African librarians can work together for development of their countries,” said another.

NEW AFRICAN PUBLIC LIBRARY NETWORK FORMED

Participants at both events emerged energized and have taken the first steps to create a network - the African Public Library Network (APLN).

The newly-formed AfLIA Public and Community Libraries Committee is committed to ensuring that the APLN grows, and to supporting the network in sharing ideas and best practices in a formal and structured way.

Mary Kiyanjui, of KNLS Kibera Community Library (Kenya), an EIFL-PLIP grantee library, was elected to serve as organising and publicity secretary in the AfLIA Public and Community Libraries Committee.

Congratulations to Mary and the other committee members: Chair, Mandla Ntombela of the Bessie Head Library (South Africa); Vice-chair, Dr Nkem Osuigwe of Professor Kenneth Dike State Central e-Library (Nigeria), and Secretary, Wenceslas Mahoussi, Drabo Public Library (Republic of Benin).

They have a big job ahead of them - but discussion at the AfLIA conference and post-conference provides rich material and a strong agenda. The conference also brought together an international group of African public librarians who are passionate about change.

Our experience of working with innovative public libraries in 27 developing and transition countries has shown us how important networking between librarians is to inspiring innovation. Findings of our new study, What inspires public libraries to innovate? confirms our experience.

Many conference participants also expressed a need to be connected through social media, and have created a Facebook page. Take a look at the page https://www.facebook.com/groups/1591504001116834/ - and African librarians, be smart, ask to join and and start taking part in discussions.

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Ramune Petuchovaite is manager of the EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP).

EIFL-PLIP’s work in Africa includes building the capacity of public librarians to use digital technology in services focused on community needs, and to provide digital technology and e-literacy training in their communities.

Read more about the EIFL-PLIP capacity building programme in Africa.

Read more about the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA).