Libraries and Literacy… Is there a connection to quality education?

Copyright: UNESCO UIL

Early this year I was a participant at a UNESCO sponsored workshop dubbed – How do Libraries support National Literacy efforts? The event was organized by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and held at their offices in Hamburg Germany on 5-6 April 2016. Thanks to the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) through the Working Group on Books and Learning Materials (WGBLM), I was given this auspicious opportunity to attend.

As a Librarian, I must admit that it was a great feeling sitting in one room with several Librarians drawn from various countries and after over 20 years as non-practicing, but nonetheless a strong advocator for libraries. I felt at home with all the discussions that were held and I vividly remembered with nostalgia my early years in the profession when I connected so well with library patrons at the Kenya National Library Services at the headquarters in Nairobi. At one time I served as the Reference Librarian and I remembered how satisfied and relieved I felt whenever a library patron came in and I was able to give exactly the right kind of information they needed. I can tell you it felt so good to see a library patron showing satisfaction at the service and for me it made my day then!

At another time I served as an acquisitions Librarian, responsible for sourcing for children’s books and at that time in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there were not many titles for children available from the local publishing industry. I remember acquiring books mainly from India and the UK and as we processed them, I read each one of them voraciously and boy didn’t I enjoy them! As a young child going to school in a village in Taita Taveta county, at Abori primary school in the mid 50’s and early 60’s our teacher introduced us to books which I remember reading with enjoyment. I was one of the fastest readers and after exams, having performed very well; I will be given a book as a present which I would show off to my dad with a lot of satisfaction.

So much for my own experiences as a young reader and as a Librarian over 30 or so years back! So what makes me tick whenever libraries are being discussed? Indeed, why was I so excited being with other librarians during the said UNESCO workshop? The keywords here are Libraries and Literacy! What is literacy? Or yet again what is a library? And why do the two seem to always go together? Needless to say, for most of my adult life I have remained a campaigner for literacy. I believe in the power of information to liberate, to inspire confidence, to be knowledgeable and above all to empower individuals and spur them towards personal development and fulfillment. By the way, a country is well endowed if it has knowledgeable people!

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users has come up with a toolkit that shows clearly how libraries can drive progress across the entire UN Agenda 2030. It has zeroed in on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ably shown how libraries will drive the development agenda. For example the SDG 1 states: End poverty in all its forms everywhere. Under this goal IFLA says 'libraries support by providing':

  • Public access to information and resources that give people opportunities to improve their lives
  • Training in new skills needed for education and employment
  • Information to support decision-making by governments, civil society and businesses to combat poverty

A look at SDG 5 on Gender Equality IFLA states: In order to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, Libraries support this goal by providing:

  • Safe and welcoming meeting spaces
  • Programs and services designed to meet the needs of women and girls, e.g. their rights and health
  • Access to information and ICT that helps women build their businesses

Under each goal IFLA has shown the central role libraries play in personal and national development. I believe that if each individual is empowered there is a sense in which the nation is collectively empowered and enabled to grow economically, as each person has the means to support themselves through the literacy skills they have. Therefore, literacy is the key to personal and national development; and if you like, development begins with literacy and is supported by literacy. Can you begin to imagine a national leader who is not literate? It will be case of a blind person leading another blind person!

And so why was my participation in the Hamburg workshop important, first for ADEA and for Africa at large? I would like to dwell a little on the reasons why literacy and libraries are really so important for the development of Africa especially at this point in time.

All over the world libraries provide free and equitable access to information for all, be it in written, electronic or audiovisual form. They play a key role in creating literate environments and promoting literacy by offering relevant and attractive reading material for all ages and all literacy levels and by offering adult and family literacy classes. Libraries assist in finding, using and interpreting appropriate information that opens up opportunities for lifelong learning, literacy enhancement, informed citizenship, recreation, creative imagination, individual research, critical thinking, and ultimately, empowerment in an increasingly complex world. Above all, literacy enables democratic participation without which leaders become inept and corrupt.

Unfortunately for Africa, libraries are not common, let alone the love of reading. Africans have shunned away from discussing these important matters and in most countries, there are no books that are relevant, because the book industries are weak or nonexistent! In a few countries, some efforts have been made especially in the urban areas to set up public or community libraries which as can be imagined serve a small percentage of population. On a not so inspiring note, most of the books in such libraries are donated and may not serve the real needs of readers! Meanwhile, school libraries have not even been given a chance anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa! You only need to Google “school libraries” and I guarantee that not much if any information will pop up regarding school libraries in Africa! Therefore, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) has a tall order! As a policy dialogue forum, it really must begin to bring up these pertinent issues for discussion and possible way forward. Each member country of ADEA ought to have the following policies in place in addition to Education policies in order to truly contribute towards quality education and literacy development, both of which have been so elusive.

Each country ought to have national, public and school libraries policies. These are important because each one of them addresses a particular information need for the users. A national library policy will address the bibliographic needs of the book publishing industry as it feeds on the business aspects of the information industry and allows easy findability and accessibility of the publishing output; the public library will address the reading needs of the general public who should be enabled towards lifelong learning through free library services provided and funded by the state; the school library policy on the other hand, be specifically geared towards “catching our children while young” and making them readers from an early age. If you catch them young you keep them hooked to books for the rest of their lives, particularly when the public and national library aspects are also catered for. It is that simple really! But the big question is - why has this not happened and yet professionals in the teaching fraternity are forever crying foul about falling standards, or lack of quality students who have adequate skills and who can be relied upon in the world of work?

We dare say that libraries are the answer! Those of us in the education business need to realize that we do not need to reinvent the wheel! Studies have clearly shown that school libraries work in terms of enhancing students achievements. Africa needs to borrow a leaf from countries which have proved over and over that books in a child’s life do make a difference! Currently, the ADEA Working Group on Books and Learning Materials (WGBLM) is carrying out an advocacy for all these policies and our hope is that the discussions will be accelerated and action taken on their implementation!

Onto the Hamburg workshop now… What was achieved and what are the implications for ADEA and Africa?

Since its creation in 1945, UNESCO introduced the World Book Policy to the international arena. This unprecedented initiative is said to have had a clear positive impact on book development, on literacy and on education throughout the world. In the backdrop of this initiate that helped many regions of UNESCO members grow their book and information industries, it is unfortunate that Africa was left behind on this positive movement. India, the Caribbean, Australia, Asian countries and China quickly took the cue and now they boast of well-developed book industries. You may wish to ask, why is a well-developed book industry relevant to education and literacy development? Well, put simply, books are the carriers of information, ideas, skills and knowledge. Without books we cannot have literacy. Once one achieves literacy, they can easily acquire an education! It is quite simple really. But, why is it so difficult to relate the three concepts and work towards a common initiative to develop all once and for all? For after all, all are interrelated and critical to the development of individuals and nations!

This is where I say, Africa must rise and shine! ADEA must drive Africa towards that dream of having all, and I mean all Africa’s children towards literacy and education. Each member country ought to commit itself towards having all the policies necessary to drive book publishing, literacy, quality education and Lifelong learning opportunities for all, in order to fight against poverty, hunger, disease and by chance achieve all the 17 SDGs set out by the United Nations by 2030.

The Hamburg workshop report is now out and we invite each one of you to read it. One of the landmarks of the workshop is the issuing of a policy brief on Libraries and Literacy and how they will support national efforts around the world. ADEA ought to take this brief seriously and propagate it among its member states urging all Ministers of Education to adopt the brief and implement the ideals thereof. The ADEA 2017 Triennale offers an opportune venue for discussion of this report and the policy brief as well.

Some of the highlights of the workshop report include best practices as shared by participants from a Nigerian Librarian, Neemat Abdulrahin who based her presentation on Abuja City Library. They have a reading program targeting children between 7-14 years to foster their interest in libraries and to make reading fun. Sanjana Shrestha of READ Nepal, talked about how community libraries provide a literate environment where readers can practice, enhance and retain their literacy and numeracy skills. Juan Pablo of Medellin Colombia shared how the library offers reading programs to parents and families in remote areas through story telling for children, and offers a venue for adults to read books and then discuss with family and friends. Melanie Ramirez from the National Library of the Philippines, said librarians conduct story telling sessions to children, they also hold puppet shows, encourage art and craft and read aloud sessions. Perhaps the best example of how to engage rural people in reading is offered by CODE Ethiopia, where Yalew Zekele, said that they hope to create and support literate environments in rural areas. CODE Ethiopia develops and refurbishes community libraries and works with the local governments to implement literacy initiatives. All these good practices can be scaled up in Africa and ADEA can spur literacy with the support of these knowledgeable individuals and institutions while addressing the 2030 Global Agenda and the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063.

The participants of the Hamburg workshop arrived at five recommendations for policy makers as below:

  1. Involve libraries in the policy dialogue surrounding literacy and ensure that libraries are an integral part of local and national literacy strategies and efforts. Given libraries’ unique mission, governments should ensure that representatives of the library community are included, along with other public and private literacy stakeholders, in the policy dialogue for the development and implementation of local and national literacy strategies and efforts.
  2. Enable libraries to provide a literate environment for everyone to develop, enhance and sustain literacy skills within a lifelong learning perspective. Governments should ensure that libraries are able to provide free access to reading materials, literacy activities and (online) information in a safe and friendly environment, where families and individuals can read and learn together. Libraries support literacy and learning needs from birth through senior years and are an ideal community space to facilitate intergenerational and family learning.
  3. Ensure libraries are inclusive and have the knowledge and resources to provide relevant literacy materials in a welcoming space for marginalized, vulnerable and minority language groups. Libraries should serve as a convenient hub where diverse groups can find relevant literacy materials and support. This includes materials, services and activities for people with different literacy levels and abilities. Where availability of materials in minority languages is limited, libraries should support the creation of local content relevant to the community.
  4. Institutionalize professionalization and invest in ongoing training for all library staff. Training should help library staff to be professionals with a service and needs-based approach to modern libraries, including an understanding of literacy challenges and solutions, the process of learning to read and write, and the extent of local and national policies on literacy. Training should also involve using ICT to develop and sustain literacy skills and teaching digital skills.
  5. Collect and analyze the data provided by libraries for better informed policy-making and coordination of the various literacy efforts of different stakeholders. Libraries should measure and evaluate their literacy activities and services and share their findings with governments and the general public. Libraries need to understand and be able to communicate the impact of their literacy work, including how their literacy efforts can best support the achievement of local and national literacy goals.

In conclusion, as Africans we have unfinished business! We owe it to our future generations - our children to clean up our houses and give the best chance to African children. We can do it! Children in many developed nations have a better chance than our own because in some of these countries, school libraries are an integral part of learning and teaching, public libraries are well supported and managed and their national libraries are actively collecting all information about new books and other publications as they come out of the publishing presses, not only within their borders but across the world! Do you ever wonder why we have Super powers? Well, I now hope you have an answer!

As a policy and dialogue Forum, ADEA has a duty to ensure that the African child is well nurtured from an early age through quality education, which is possible only with deliberately provided-for literate environments that ably support literacy throughout life.

To the question: Libraries and Literacy… Is there a connection to quality education? I believe your guess is as good as mine!