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October 28, 2009 > Unique partnerships bring libraries to Africa

Unique partnerships bring libraries to Africa

Submitted By Chris Bradshaw

Africans working in rural library development have a long, lonely, uphill battle. Many are passionate about starting libraries but struggle to obtain to stock them. Most countries have no publishing industry. Most cities do not even have a single bookstore.

Mainstream, international conferences usually focus on how to create online libraries in the digital era. That's important but irrelevant to the majority of Africans who live in areas without electricity.

Some dedicated library activists have worked alone to gather and display books but they have few opportunities to exchange ideas about what works best in the unique cultural context of Africa. In fact, most Africans are reluctant readers because they have nothing to read except a few old textbooks. It's not an easy scenario for library development: no books, few teachers or librarians, isolated efforts and reluctant readers.

To respond to these challenges, the African Library Project (ALP) has been quietly starting and improving small libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. This grassroots non-profit, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has developed a unique method embraced by both Americans and Africans.

Using only volunteers, the African Library Project coordinates book drives throughout the US and then matches each book drive with a specific library project in Africa. Each book drive organizer commits to collecting and sorting 1,000 gently-used children's books and raising $500 to help cover the cost of shipping.

Each library project in Africa is assigned to and supported by an African Library Project partner organization, such as US Peace Corps Lesotho, Swaziland National Library Service and the Botswana Ministry of Education. Since beginning four years ago, ALP has already started or improved 375 small libraries in eight African countries with about 400,000 donated books.

Library activists are excited by the potential. This steady stream of library development offers access to books to hundreds of thousands of readers. The BBC carried an article about a Malawian boy who dropped out of school, because he could not afford school fees, but managed to educate himself in a small local library. On seeing an illustration of a windmill, he built one from discarded bicycle and tractor parts and old plastic pipes. Now his home has electricity and he is working to irrigate his family's fields.

The ALP learned quickly that shipping books is not enough to make a library thrive. A crucial role is played by African partner organizations, African teacher-librarians and African community members to ensure libraries are well-run and the books widely-circulated and enjoyed.

On November 8-12 the African Library Project will sponsor its second African Partners Summit in Morija, Lesotho. An international team of 25 library coordinators will meet with ALP partners from Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and the USA.

Together they will tour libraries in Lesotho, share best practices and launch a new tracking system to measure their libraries' growth. On the final day, 60 teacher-librarians from across Lesotho will join the summit for free workshops on how to spread the best ideas in library development across the country.

The African Library Project's "African Partners Summit" is an important milestone in bringing the gift of reading to thousands of Africans.

Milpitas High School Book Club (MHSBC) and Leo Club are local partners in The African Library Project. MHSBC partnered with Mpuluzi High School in Swaziland to start a library. In 2008 Milpitas High School Leo Club helped start two libraries in Swaziland: St. Joseph High School and Zombodze National Primary School.

For more information, visit www.africanlibraryproject.org or African Library Project Facebook or call (650) 851-3640

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