Starting a library... some thoughts

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A library entrepreneur in Kenya wrote recently asking for advice, so I thought we would post my and Kate's replies. 

My quick thoughts:

If your librarian could travel to Uganda, I am sure a training at Kitengesa Library in Uganda would be very useful.  Alternatively there is a community library in Busia operated by an NGO called Maria's Library that might be a good place for help and networking.

There are a number of documents on the FAVL website you might find useful:  Also of course on the blog there is plenty of useful info.  We have not had time to pull together everything we have learned in terms of practical tips.  A pity.  But mostly it is all common sense I think.  Running a library is pretty straightforward. The hardest problem I think is ensuring that there is long-term institutional oversight somehow... The question to ask is, 10 years from now, who will be ensuring that the library is open and operating reasonably well.  if there is no one credibly making that commitment (people in the community saying they will volunteer, if they are not reasonably wealthy, are not that credible, in my experience... the many shocks and constraints of people in villages make it infeasible for them to take full "ownership" to repair leaking roofs, by more books, etc.  Sounds like though you are embedding in a successful cooperative, so maybe there is nothing to worry about there.)

And Kate wrote:

It is terrific that you are planning to set up (or have already set up?) a library in western Kenya. I don't know Gisambai District, though I do know the Ugandan side of the border fairly well.

Michael's advice below is both good and important, and I hope you find the FAVL documents useful. His reference to ten years is appropriate: the library that I am myself most closely involved with (the Kitengesa Community Library in Masaka District, Uganda) is now just ten years old, and it has really taken that long to build it up as a strong community institution. If I had left it after just two years, it would certainly have collapsed. And I'm afraid continuing financial support is likely to be necessary for at least that long. A friend has just done a study of successful libraries in Uganda, and it appears that there are two essential factors: (1) strong community backing, and (2) a regular income, especially for paying a librarian, but also for maintaining and expanding the collection.

With regard to the collection, please consider buying some of the books locally. Heinemann Kenya, now owned by Pearson, has published many good books for African children and teenagers, especially in the Junior African Writers (JAWS) series -- and while people in our Ugandan libraries are happy to have any books, they are much happier if those books feature African people and address African issues directly. I'm also worried that if a library is stocked exclusively with donated books from northern countries, children (and adults too) will get the idea that writers and publishers have to be Wazungu. Finally, it's really important to get books in Swahili for a Kenyan public (though they're little use for southern Ugandans), and, again, those are produced by Kenyan publishers as well as Tanzanian ones.

For training, yes, your people would certainly be welcome to spend some days at Kitengesa, though I'm going to have to formalize this with Dan Ahimbisibwe, our librarian, because we're now getting so many wanting to do this! There are other libraries, too, closer to where you are that might be helpful: the Bushikori Christian Centre near Mbale; the Busolwe Public Library in Butaleja District not far from Tororo; the Caezaria Public Library in Buikwe District. All these are members of a network of libraries called the Uganda Community Libraries Association (UgCLA), of which I am the chairperson, and which is affiliated to FAVL (most importantly, FAVL helps us raise funds in the United States, while in return we give FAVL some East African heft).I'm attaching a list of our members both to give the contact information for the libraries that I've mentioned (though I have to admit that I have been unable recently to contact Bushikori by phone) and to show you how extensive the network is -- we have about 100 member libraries, even if not all of them are active. I think this network is extremely important. We have a conference every year through which the managers of the libraries get to know one another and exchange ideas, and we do our best to get grants to support projects for selected libraries, usually on a competitive basis. This year, for example, we are administering a project with ten of them for Book Aid International. We also visit as many of our member libraries as we can -- on Monday, for example, I'm off to Mbale to monitor some of the BAI project libraries and to get to know other libraries that have joined us in the past year. This combination of activities is critical to sustaining morale and to building capacity. UgCLA has a website,, but since we're having problems at present keeping it up to date, the best source of information is FAVL's blog, where you could search either for Uganda or for UgCLA.

There is as yet no such network in Kenya, though there are a number of community libraries, and I keep hoping that someone will take the initiative to bring them all together. Western Kenya is not so far from Uganda, though, and we already have one member from Rwanda, so I don't see why your library shouldn't join UgCLA if you wanted it to. Our next conference, in January 2013, is likely to be in Mbale, in fact, so it would be relatively easy for your library representative to get to. The subscription for this year is 30,000 Uganda shillings, though in 2013 we're raising it to 50,000 and are also asking for a 50,000 shillings contribution to our Development Fund -- a suggestion made by our members at our last Annual General Meeting when I explained how much money we were losing on each conference! The 100,000 shillings total will be payable at the conference, but that is the only cost since UgCLA covers accommodation etc. There are now 2400 Uganda shillings to the dollar, by the way, so it's not such a very large amount of money.

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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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