Politicians should prioritise provision of public libraries in Zambia

By Tuesday Bwalya

Since I was born, I have never heard a politician in Zambia talking about provision of public library services.

During and after campaigns, politicians do not talk about library services; they just talk about building schools, hospitals, clinics, railways, airports, supplying clean water, tarring roads, modernising trading places, etc. Provision of public library services means little to many politicians in the country. It is seen not to be a necessity, but as an unnecessary cost and of little or no impact on the developmental agenda of this country. Therefore, it is something they can do without.

Probably, our politicians think that nothing good could come out of a library; they do not think public library services provision could spur development. To compound my concern, all political party manifestos do not say anything about public library service provision.

This lack of appreciation of public libraries by politicians can be seen by an attempt to delegate public library service provision by central government to local authorities. These are institutions that are incapacitated to carry out such a noble mandate (Constitution of Zambia Act.2016, Annex, C). Lack of prioritisation of public library service provision has resulted in the country having many districts and towns existing without public libraries. Very few towns and districts have public libraries in Zambia.

There are approximately 17 districts/towns with public libraries, of which 45 percent are run by Local authorities, 32 percentage by the Ministry of General Education through Zambia Library Services (ZLS) and the remaining percentage of public libraries are run by co-operating partners such as Lubuto Library (Mansanje and Hangwele, 2018).

Zambia has 118 districts in total, this implies that 101 of these districts/towns in do not have public libraries. I wish to mention that the public libraries we have in some districts and towns were built by our colonial masters and the post-independence government of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), which are now very old and dilapidated library buildings.

Further, these libraries are too small to accommodate the ever-increasing number of users as they were built when Zambia had less than 1.5 million people. I submit also that these old public libraries largely house outdated information resources and they lack the 21st Century technologies needed in a modern public library. The few books and other materials you find in these public libraries are coming from well-wishers such as WorldReader and Book Aid International, not from our central government and local authorities.

It is shocking to observe that all governments that have come after UNIP have never constructed any public library or renovated the existing ones; libraries have never been a priority to them. For instance, the current government has been building roads, schools, hospitals and now airports but no single public library has been built or renovated.

A library is cardinal in society, as it is a reservoir of information which citizens consume to become knowledgeable. Like the Vice Chancellor of the Technical University (Prof. Francis Aduol) in 2018 at the Second Conference on Knowledge Management in Nairobi observed: “the information which you librarians manage in libraries is critical for everyone. For example, a pilot in UK, who has been to Kenya, flies to Kenya in the dark but uses information on his dash board to land at Kenyatta International Airport safely. ‘’

Public libraries collect, organise and make available information resources to community members which when consumed results in knowledge, thus hatching innovations, problem solving skills and ultimately national development. Furthermore, public libraries provide reading spaces to our school going children and adults who are pursuing distance or lifelong education. School going children need public libraries more than anyone else, as most schools in Zambia exist without libraries.

A public library also provides space for people to socialize, to interact and exchange ideas. Furthermore, a public library today is at the centre of imparting new skills to the general public, such as computer skills.

In other countries, public libraries are appreciated; new national libraries are being constructed or renovated. For instance, the Qatari government in November 2017 inaugurated a newly built national library with modern facilities. The official from the Department of Culture in his speech said that it was government’s belief that the national library that was being launched would help transform the country from being an oil dependent economy to a knowledge economy.

This entailed that a public library would be the centre of knowledge creation. The Qatari government believed that the national library could help bring about sustainable development because information found in libraries brings about knowledge which in turn brings about innovation and entrepreneurship, which is cardinal for national development. Oil can finish in Qatar but knowledge can never finish.

As I conclude, I wish to urge all librarians in Zambia through our association, the Library and Information Association of Zambia (LIAZ) to find time to lobby all political parties wishing to contest the 2021 general elections to put on their to do list the provision of public library services when they form government.

We should lobby for the construction of modern public libraries and rehabilitation of the old ones. Further, we should push for the enactment of the Library Bill in order to bring decency to library service provision and our profession in the country, or else our aspirations as librarians in Zambia will remain unfulfilled.

The author is a lecturer at the University of Zambia, department of Library and Information Science.

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