Young librarians changing libraries in Africa
Young public librarians impress African library community with presentations about innovative library services

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The IYALI team at the AfLIA conference: back, from left, Koi Kazungu, Kenya; Mustafa Tuhami, Egypt; Momoh Mansaray, Sierra Leone. Front, from left, Harouna Ahmadou Saliou Yerima, Cameroon; Joseck Olala, Kenya; Ramune Petuchovaite, EIFL, Joan Njogu, Kenya.
The IYALI team at the AfLIA conference: back, from left, Koi Kazungu, Kenya; Mustafa Tuhami, Egypt; Momoh Mansaray, Sierra Leone. Front, from left, Harouna Ahmadou Saliou Yerima, Cameroon; Joseck Olala, Kenya; Ramune Petuchovaite, EIFL, Joan Njogu, Kenya.

In May 2019, I joined six young public library innovators from Africa at the 3rd African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) Conference and 5th African Library Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was a rich learning ground for the young librarians, who were all there as a result of their participation in the Initiative for Young African Library Innovators (IYALI).

The conference theme was Creating the Africa We Want and Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over 200 delegates, representing all kinds of libraries - public, community, academic, research, school and special libraries -  as well as representatives of governments and NGOs, took part in the conference.

IYALI is an intensive international learning experience organized by EIFL and partners that offers early career public librarians from Africa a unique opportunity to explore new ideas and approaches to library services. In August 2018, 15 IYALI participants from 11 African countries travelled to Indonesia and Malaysia on a journey that included workshops on library service innovation, visits to public libraries and participation in the IFLA World Library and Information Congress. Six months after their return home, EIFL awarded scholarships to six of the young librarians to attend the AfLIA conference and, in short ignite talks, to share information about the impact of IYALI on their work and their libraries’ services.

The six young librarians impressed conference delegates, speaking with passion and infectious enthusiasm about the practical ways in which their libraries are helping to eradicate poverty, hunger and unemployment, improve education and digital skills, and contribute to peace in their communities.

Libraries improving community ICT skills

Harouna Ahmadou Saliou Yerima, from Garoua Municipal Library in Cameroon told conference delegates how an IYALI  workshop on library ICT training, and a visit to an Indonesian public library that is providing ICT training, had helped him improve his library’s ICT skills classes. Garoua Municipal Library’s classes especially reach out to women and girls, aiming to improve their employability and to help them pass technology exams at school. The library has engaged a woman trainer, and the classes are now more interactive and practical. “Having a woman trainer encourages other women,” said Harouna. “Enrolment more than trebled, from 15 in 2017 to 56 in 2018,” he said.

Joan Njogu from Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) / Meru Public Library spoke about her library’s ICT skills programme for adults and seniors, which includes mobile banking and social media communications. The classes have especially attracted seniors, who in the past were reluctant to use the library: “We currently have 15 senior citizens who meet in the library every Tuesday, hold discussions and connect to the internet to communicate with family members who are far away. Most importantly, they are now able to use their phones to do mobile banking from their homes,” said Joan.

Libraries promoting peace in their communities

Momoh Mansaray from Sierra Leone Library Board /  Kambia District Library, spoke about how the library is promoting non-violence through schools. “Our service sensitizes young people about the dangers of turning to violence as a solution to their problems. We partner with organizations that have peace and conflict experts, and move from school to school to raise children’s awareness about peaceful ways of resolving conflict. We also organize focus groups in the library, at which members of the community discuss ways of reducing violence,” said Momoh.

Using digital technology to teach foreign languages

“In our community, few people have proficiency in foreign languages,” said Mustafa M.Tuhami of Misr Public Library/Zaytoun branch in Egypt. “We decided to address this issue in an innovative way, using gamification and smart technologies. We have created a customized e-book to make it interesting for students to learn English, that students can personalize. We also use free online games, and engage volunteers who play with children to teach them English through gaming. To further motivate students to learn English, we are developing an app which will assign location-based tasks for students.”

Mustafa’s inspiration came from a demonstration of a cultural game application created for young Indonesians by Goethe Institut-Indonesien in Yogyakarta, and a course of lectures in educational technology that he attended at Cairo University.

New confidence and communications skills

Most of the six IYALI participants had never before given a presentation at an international conference.

“I cannot believe it is me doing this!” said Michael Koi Kazungu, of KNLS / Kwale Public Library. Koi had just completed an ignite talk about how he worked with eight other KNLS libraries in Kenya’s Coast region to enable them to organize learning circles (in-person study groups for online learners) to support education in their communities. Now more adults and young people are using libraries, he said, and the increased visibility and use of the libraries convinced local government officials to allocate funding to build a second library in Kwale town.

Joseck Kweya Olala, of KNLS / Nakuru Public Library was also a first-time presenter who drew on communications skills gained through IYALI. “IYALI taught me to manage the stage, deliver messages in a short time, and how to answer questions from the audience. It was a huge milestone to know that I could do this at an international conference, and contribute knowledge to other information science practitioners,” he said.

Joseck’s ignite talk was about a transformative leadership and effective communications course for young people now being offered by Nakuru Public Library. The training draws on a leadership workshop that IYALI participants attended in Indonesia.

Learning from others

The IYALI participants used the opportunity of the conference to network and learn from others. Presenters from all over Africa shared information about an impressive range of library services firmly focused on the SDGs and Agenda 2063 (the African Union blueprint for transforming Africa). For the six young public librarians there were some inspiring ideas to take home.

Services that they especially noted as having potential for replication in their libraries include a Kenyan library training programme that is skilling women to recycle paper and other waste to make jewellery to sell, a Nigerian medical library information service that is building people’s confidence to go to hospitals when they are ill, and the African Storybook Initiative, which makes openly-licensed storybooks available online and encourages libraries to translate them into local languages to promote children’s literacy.

New energy in the African librarians’ network

I also left the conference with a sense of achievement.  I delivered a paper, co-authored with my colleagues, in which we summarized results and impact of three years (2017 - 2019) of IYALI, involving 28 African public librarians aged under 35 from 13 countries. The first IYALI group (2017) travelled to Lithuania and Poland, the second (2018) to Indonesia and Malaysia.

The IYALI programme is designed to transform attitudes, knowledge and behavior. All the librarians returned home inspired by new ideas and motivated to introduce changes to their libraries. Some have improved existing services, making them more interactive and sharply focused on local needs. Others have introduced new services that are attracting different kinds of users - job-seekers, farmers, people with disabilities, the business community. They are measuring the impact of these services. They have redesigned library spaces to make them more welcoming. They are using communications skills to make their libraries more visible in their communities, and advocacy skills to attract resources. Last but not least, they are sharing their new ideas, learning and experiences with the African library community. I am confident that our IYALI participants will be active players in the African librarians’ network.

Find out more about IYALI

Read the EIFL paper presented at the AfLIA conference, Professional development for young librarians matters! An Initiative for Young African Library Innovators, by Ugne Lipeikaite, Ramune Petuchovaite, and Susan Schnuer.