FOR many years I have observed with sadness that as a people and country, we strive to provide quality education at primary and secondary levels but we have done little to ensure that all the schools have functioning and well stocked libraries.
Any dream to provide better education without having libraries in schools will always be unfulfilled. Libraries are repositories of knowledge, as such no meaningful learning could take place without libraries.
In Zambia today, primary and secondary sub-sectors do not have libraries, schools exist without libraries. The problem is more acute in primary schools. Virtually all primary schools in the country run without libraries. I wish to state here that some public secondary schools used to have libraries but school authorities turned them into classrooms. Few government secondary schools still have libraries.
The United National Independence Party (UNIP) government inherited secondary schools built by the Northern Rhodesia government with functioning libraries. This is because a white man understood that he could not provide quality education without libraries in schools.
Those who attended government secondary schools during the UNIP government will attest to the fact that libraries existed in many secondary schools. The UNIP government too maintained libraries in schools just after independence but the governments that followed after UNIP saw no need to have libraries in secondary schools.
Since the time of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government, many libraries in secondary schools have been turned into classrooms. The Zambia Library Services (ZLS) which is responsible for managing school libraries in Zambia seems to be powerless to stop this bad practice.
Further, the tendency today is to build schools without libraries but only laboratories (chemical and computer labs) and recruit teachers to teach in these schools. No attention is paid to have library services in schools. This is where we miss it as a country. A library has been a missing link in the education sector in Zambia. You may recruit more teachers to teach in schools but if there are no libraries and school librarians to help the children learn how to read and write, the much talked about literacy levels will not be attained.
A teacher works hand in hand with a school librarian, as a librarian finetunes the skills the teacher imparts in the pupils by providing reading materials and space to the pupils. In serious private schools, a teacher and librarian work hand in hand. As a result, private schools in Zambia perform better than government schools in terms of literacy and other indicators of good education provision. This is not because private schools have extraordinary teachers, it is just because they have well established libraries that support the teaching and learning processes in schools.
Private schools such as the International School of Lusaka, American International School, Lusaka International Community School, Simba, Chengelo, Pinewood and other private schools have invested in their libraries by stocking them with books and recruiting qualified personnel to run them. For instance, the International School of Lusaka library is headed by someone with a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. This shows how a library is respected in a school.
As early as pre-school, pupils in private schools are meant to have reading targets per term and school librarians give pupils books to read per week. This results in the provision of high quality education. Due to the high quality of education provided in private schools, our politicians and well to do Zambians scramble for places in private schools despite the high fees charged.
In government schools, pupils are meant to read only the notebooks because of lack of library materials. How could we expect to improve the quality of our education without investing in libraries? Where do we expect our children to get the information they need for them to be knowledgeable? The lack of libraries in schools makes learning difficult; pupils have difficulties to comprehend and retain what they learn.
I wish to submit further that you may introduce the policy of teaching pupils in local languages from grade 1 to 4, but this will also not improve literacy and comprehension skills you desire. Let us start by building school libraries in primary and secondary schools, or else the provision of quality education in public schools will remain a far-fetched dream.
In concluding, I wish to appeal to the minister and permanent secretaries at the Ministry of General Education to reflect on what I have written and reverse this trend. Further, I submit that you loosen and empower the ZLS in your ministry so that it should have real powers to stand up to the school managers who wish to turn the remaining school libraries into classrooms. I also wish to appeal to you to create more positions for school librarians at the Public Service Management Division (PSMD) so that they are recruited alongside teachers to help teach our children. Lastly, make it mandatory for new schools being constructed to have not only laboratories but also library facilities.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, Department of Library and Information Science.