Ideas for building the ‘next’ libraries for Africa
Young African public library innovators share learning from their IYALI experience in Denmark

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The six young African library innovators in the Dokk1 conference hall: back row, from left - Claret Misika (Namibia), Constance Chilipa (Zambia), Jemmimah Maragwa (Kenya), Hayford Siaw (Ghana). Seated, in front, Kennedy Rutoh (Kenya), Mary Mamba (Zambia).
The six young African library innovators in the Dokk1 conference hall: back row, from left - Claret Misika (Namibia), Constance Chilipa (Zambia), Jemmimah Maragwa (Kenya), Hayford Siaw (Ghana). Seated, in front, Kennedy Rutoh (Kenya), Mary Mamba (Zambia).

In May 2019, six young African public librarians travelled to Denmark to take part in an intensive week-long learning, knowledge-sharing and networking experience that included participation in the Next Library 2019 conference in Aarhus (2 - 4 June), which was attended by over 400 people from 44 countries. The six young librarians, from Ghana, Kenya, Namibia and Zambia, were participants in the EIFL Initiative for Young African Library Innovators (IYALI) 2019 programme. Afterwards, we asked them to reflect on the experience and its impact on their lives and work.

IYALI 2019 was a partnership between EIFL and Aarhus Public Libraries. For the six young African public librarians, the experience was intense. In just six days, they took part in workshops on library service innovation and library leadership; visited four Danish public libraries; led interactive session that included round table discussions at the Next Library conference and took full advantage of opportunities to attend presentations and to network with library professionals, innovators and decision-makers from all over the world. 

They saw dynamic, modern library interiors, designed to accommodate different kinds of community needs. They brought home some exciting ideas for new services that will improve lives in their communities. And they learnt new ways of thinking about library service development.

Changing library spaces

“Youthful, dynamic, attractive and connected places of learning!” This is how Hayford Siaw, Director of Ghana Library Authority, sees library spaces in Ghana in the future. As a result of IYALI, “internal reorganization of library spaces is now high on my agenda,” he said. 

The six IYALI 2019 participants were inspired by each of the four Danish public libraries they visited, and by Aarhus’s award-winning Dokk1 Library, where the Next Library conference took place. 

The six observed how carefully and cleverly the interiors of the libraries they visited had been designed for diverse activities to meet the needs of different groups of users. “In Denmark, public libraries offer spaces for creativity and innovation, for art and making things. Here, in Kenya, we mostly offer spaces for reading,” said Jemmimah Maragwa, of Kenya National Library Service / Embu Public Library.  

They were all impressed by Silkeborg Public Library, which is considered to be a leader in library innovation in Denmark. The library is situated among some of the largest lakes and forests in Denmark, about 40km west of Aarhus.

“Even toddlers, have a special place at Silkeborg Public Library. Children, teens and adults can find spaces and things do. Now I plan to involve local school teachers, who know the children’s needs, to create a special space in the library where teens can get counselling and guidance, and access to health information,” said Mary Mamba, from Mongu Provincial Library in Zambia.

Silkeborg was the first library in Denmark to introduce the ‘open library’ concept, in which citizens can use a special borrower’s ticket to unlock the doors and visit the library outside of staffed hours. The young African librarians experienced an open library in Harlev, a suburb of Aarhus.  

“It was amazing to actually get into a library and check out without library staff. That way, the library should not close, and always be open to the community,” said Constance Chilipa, from Solwezi Provincial Library in Zambia.

Exciting new service ideas

The IYALI group heard about many innovative services during the Next Library conference, and saw some in action at Dokk1 and the other libraries they visited. The one they liked best - and which they all said they would most like to introduce in their libraries - was the makerspace. Library makerspaces provide space, technology, tools and information that people can use to design and make things, to learn and test their skills. 

“I am keen to create a makerspace in our library where people can learn and practice skills like coding and robotics,” said Claret Misika, Senior Librarian at Omungwelume Community Library in Namibia. 

Kennedy Rutoh, from Kenya National Library Service / Narok Public Library, wants more fun in his library, and believes a makerspace will be a starting point. “We will include games where youth can have fun with ideas, express their talent and learn strategic and decision-making skills,” he said. 

Constance from Zambia, agreed: “A phrase I picked up from one of the speakers was - ‘if it is not fun, it is not sustainable’,” she said. “Makerspaces will bring fun into the library. If someone walks into the library and is happy, that person will come back. Fun enables the library to achieve the goal of serving the community." 

Jemmimah, from Kenya, and Mary, from Zambia, are also keen on the makerspace idea. “This will be especially good for those who are entrepreneurs, to stimulate their creativity,” said Mary. 

The IYALI participants were also excited by ‘The Glass Room’ workshop, brought to them by the Berlin-based non-governmental organization, Tactical Tech, which raises awareness about the impact of technology on people’s privacy. Each of six took home a ‘Glass Room’ toolkit, with pop-up exhibition materials for use in workshops. And they have started conversations about offering workshops on data and privacy in their libraries.  

“Since most people in our community use smart phones, issues like internet security, data privacy and being able to recognize fake information and fake news are important. I have shared with my fellow librarians information distributed by Tactical Tech. We are adapting the material for our environment, and we are mobilizing young people to come to a workshop so that they can be more in control of their online lives,” said Jemmimah.

Mary has already tried a Glass Room workshop with students at a local high school: “They loved the idea. I strongly believe that if we could incorporate sessions like that, about the internet we would attract many people to the library,” she said.

There were new ideas for library storytime. Traditionally, during storytime, librarians read to children. “I learnt ways of using drawings and pictures to encourage children to write or tell their own stories, stimulating their creativity,” said Claret, from Namibia.

New ways of thinking

All six IYALI 2019 participants were inspired by one of the Next Library conference keynote presentations, The Burning Man Project - Temporary Spaces, by Christopher Breedlove. 

‘The Burning Man’ is an annual festival held in the Nevada desert in the USA. The festival brings people together to build a temporary city, exploring their artistic self-expression, experimentation, creativity and learning. 

The concept made an especially strong impression on Kennedy, from Kenya. Narok Public Library serves a dispersed and nomadic pastoral community, who make a living from herding livestock in the Great Rift Valley. “I believe we can use the concept with our community, to develop our outreach services. We can make temporary spaces where people can come together to play, to create. We will be able to engage them in helping to design the kind of library services they want and need,” said Kennedy. 

The young librarians were also attracted to the idea of Design Thinking, which is a  systematic and human-centered approach to developing better and more relevant libraries. Using Design Thinking methodologies, librarians engage communities in co-creating modern and innovative services that are geared to community needs. Aarhus Public Libraries practises Design Thinking in service development, and so it was a strong theme throughout the Next Library conference. Other librarians in Kenya and Namibia who attended EIFL and Aarhus public library workshops on Design Thinking in 2018 and 2019 also welcomed the concept.  

At the end of their journey, the six recognized that there were huge differences between their own public libraries, which tend to be small, traditional and under-resourced, and the libraries they saw in Denmark. “But we are all struggling with the same big issue - how to be powerhouses of knowledge, culture and learning in a rapidly accelerating digital world. We must all be places where people can come to learn, and to solve their problems,” said Mary, from Zambia.

FIND OUT MORE

Find out more about the EIFL Initiative for Young African Library Innovators (IYALI).