KNOWLEDGE

Community libraries great equaliser

In Summary
  • Kenya was identified as one of four countries that control 60% of Africa’s digital economy.
  • Yet only a privileged few had access to digital infrastructure to continue with education uninterrupted.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our lives. It has also exposed and exacerbated many conditions that have long lurked beneath the surface of our lives. One of these is the deep inequities that exist in access to digital resources and infrastructure.

This was brought into stark relief when we attempted to leverage digital educational resources to minimise learning disruption in the face of unforeseen school interruption. Kenya was identified by an UNCTAD report as one of four countries that control 60 per cent of Africa’s digital economy.

Yet it turned out that only a privileged few had access to the necessary digital infrastructure to continue with their education uninterrupted. The vast majority of students did not. It behoves us to bridge this gap if we are to cherish any hope of achieving the high quality of life for all citizens envisioned in Vision 2030.

Community libraries can play a vital role in bringing the benefits of the digital economy affordably to the vast majority of Kenyans. Establishing these libraries can be viewed as a long-term strategic response to the deep inequities that exist in access to digital resources, including vital educational resources, which have been exposed by the pandemic.

They can help bridge the access gap by enabling local communities to collectively own resources such as books, smart devices and internet connectivity that they would not otherwise be able to afford.

Community libraries can also serve as an extension of the classroom and be an invaluable partner in promoting literacy. They can serve as a study space and a venue to hold adult education classes. They can stock specialised books for technical specialists such as agricultural extension workers.

Community libraries make a difference.  According to a report by Book Aid International, the exam performance of Std 4 students at St Xavier Primary School in Nakuru improved by close to 15 per cent once they started book clubs in partnership with the Nakuru library.

Despite their potential, however, there is a dearth of libraries in Kenya. The Kenya National Library Service lists only 62 public libraries serving a population of 54 million. We desperately need more libraries. How do we get them?

Our Constitution places the responsibility for libraries under the purview of county governments. Community libraries are an essential public service and therefore deserve to be on the county budget alongside other essential services such as local health services and markets. It is within the power of county governments to make these budget provisions so we can build a community library for every one of the 1,450 wards.

A plus for community libraries is that they can be built at relatively low-cost. You need no more space than the equivalent of three classrooms. You can start with 2,000-5,000 books at the outset, 10 computers, some basic furniture, a solar power solution and internet connectivity.

This initial investment need not surpass Sh10 million. That means that if each county government allocates an average of Sh50 million in its budget each year to build community libraries, we would be well on our way to achieving the goal of having a community library in every ward within six years.

The total cost of allocating funds to five community libraries for each county would be less than one per cent of the total national government budget. In consequent years what will be needed in recurrent expenditure would be support for a small staff, funds for equipment maintenance and journal subscriptions, and a provision to gradually grow the number of books.

Community libraries make a difference.  According to a report by Book Aid International, the exam performance of Std 4 students at St Xavier Primary School in Nakuru improved by close to 15 per cent once they started book clubs in partnership with the Nakuru library.

The ‘Kids on the Tab’ project at Kibera Public Library that provided a select group of students from the local community with access to tablet computers for elearning resulted in a significant spike in the number of students who qualified to join national schools.

Building a community library is like building a 21st century well from which everyone in the community can quench their thirst for knowledge and learning. The ball is in the county governments’ court.

CEO, Eneza Education – an EdTech company. [email protected]