Earlier this month our Head of Programmes, Samantha Thomas-Chuula, attended two library conferences in Swaziland – Exploring opportunities for aligned action to strengthen the African public library field hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative and the 2nd African Public Libraries Summit hosted by The African Library and Information Association & Institutions (AfLIA). We caught up with Samantha to find out what sort of themes were discussed and how libraries in Africa are developing.
To start us off, can you tell us what the two conferences were about?
They both focussed on the future of African public libraries: what the vision is for them and how, through collective action and partnerships, we should all seek to work towards that vision.
Can you give us an overview of what the vision is for African public libraries?
The vision was put forward by AfLIA and shifts the library service focus from books to responding to community needs. It is a vision of a vibrant network of libraries which contain books and information that are relevant and useful for the whole community, regardless of language or level of education. These libraries offer their users a range of services and respond to the information needs of their local communities and are places which don’t just house books but also computers and other ICT with high-speed internet access. Through an innovative range of outreach activities the libraries contribute to improved lives in their communities. People find space in the library to have community meetings and it is a place where they are encouraged to share skills and plan activities. Libraries become the pride of their communities and this attracts sponsorship and partnership opportunities for individuals, and increased interest amongst young people in becoming a librarian because of the key facilitator role that this position now holds in the community.
And who attended?
Both conferences were attended by AfLIA members, the Director of the Global Libraries initiative Deborah Jacobs and a range of organisations that work in the African library field including Worldreader, African Union, CODE Ethiopia, Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), Goethe Institute, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and Libraries without Borders.
What were the main themes at both conferences – were there any particular topics which they addressed?
Both conferences focussed on partnerships and the need to collaborate to achieve the African public library vision. We discussed what it means to collaborate and that we should not work in silos. We agreed the kinds of support necessary to achieve the positive change described in the vision. This included leadership training and capacity building for librarians.
In what ways is Book Aid International already addressing some of these issues?
I think we’re doing this in a number of ways. Our work is already highly collaborative as we work with in-country partners. We work closely with our partners to ensure we send books which most closely match the needs of their library users. We also provide innovative customer-focused programmes for children in public libraries and schools.
Finally, our training workshops develop librarians’ skills, particularly in working with children and providing health information to the community.
Our ‘Train the Trainer’ workshops focus on enabling librarians to pass their skills and knowledge to colleagues and develop a network of expert librarians.
What, for you, were the key learnings and takeaways from the conferences?
AfLIA’s vision gives a clear indication of the direction they would like to see the African public library take over the coming years and it’s very important that this vision underpins the work of Book Aid International in the future. The focus on collaboration requires us to work even more closely with partners to co-create programmes that focus on different members of their communities.
So what is next for Book Aid International in light of this?
As Book Aid International looks forward to its next strategic period 2017-19, we need to seek to develop new ways of working to identify and understand the range of community members’ needs for responsive programmes and projects. It will also involve sharing those needs with our book donors and supporters so that we increase donations of the books to support these programmes and community aspirations.