A Glimpse into the Libraries of Central Africa

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By Barbara Conaty

Kinshasa Municipal Library, Democratic Republic of the Congo

In a city where nine million people make their home, there is just one public library, the municipal library of the Funa district. Headed by Professor Tete, who also teaches cataloguing at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), this library was established with the assistance of the French government in the late 90’s as an early bid for normalcy after the civil strife of Mobutu’s overthrow.

The library keeps track of its patrons in a big register and in March recorded its 12,000th member. Yearly memberships cost $10 while a single drop-in visit costs about $1. There are lower rates for students and membership can be monthly or quarterly. While the municipality absorbs the cost of staff salaries, Prof. Tete relies entirely on membership fees for new acquisitions for the collection.

Until July, 2007, the French sponsor absorbed some of the costs of running the library but the original arrangement expired. The library is seeking other support.

One profit center is the “Cyber Espace,” a large room where up-to-date equipment allows scanning, printing, and general computer operations. About 50 people a day use this service to burn CDs, scan documents, and work on the internet. Rates are comparable to commercial rates. Kinshasa is commonly afflicted by power failures and it is not unusual for the library to be without power for several days. The library does not have plumbing and water must be supplied from outside.

Nevertheless, the reading room of 200 seats is full of patrons. Books are arranged by decimal class number and the stacks are open. One of the stars of the library is the Congo Collection. Books published in or about Congo have been preserved and there is not a comparable collection in the country. One of the features is material collected by Mobutu’s personal bibliographer. The ex-president, though not known to be a reader, was a bibliophile so the bibliographer had carte blanche to buy books and have them bound in handsome leather covers. Often, the bibliographer bought second copies for his own collection and occasionally now donates a volume to the library. Though elderly, he is still active. For example, there is Stanley’s own account of his five years in the Congo in a Belgian edition with many illustrations and fine binding. Mobutu’s library, sadly, was pillaged in the violent overthrow of his regime and his books were lost and probably destroyed.

There is a small children’s collection of several hundred titles as well as periodicals. The collection is in French, the official language of the DR Congo. The American Embassy periodically donates an assortment of American titles translated into French and sold commercially by Nouveaux Horizons. For example, Barack Obama’s autobiography is on this library’s shelves. The library also offers training for library professionals. There is a large lecture hall where training and other events are held. UNIKIN includes a department of library science but enrolment is quite low as librarianship is not an attractive career path. Alain Mesa, director of the American embassy’s special library in the Public Affairs Section, makes a point of visiting many libraries in Kinshasa and estimates there are about 600 libraries serving NGO’s, government ministries, corporations, churches, and other special groups.

A large generator is being installed at the library and will kick in when the city’s power supply fails. It will be shared by a project personally sponsored by Kinshasa’s mayor. The library will need to buy 400 liters of diesel fuel periodically to keep the generator going. The library building is also home to AMADAN, the Congolese association for archivists, documentalists, museum workers, and librarians. The groups now publish a journal whose first issue went out in April 2007. The group meets annually and some library leaders attend the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions' World Library and Information Congress every year.

Angola

This country on the Atlantic side of the sub-Saharan part of Africa has experienced colonial and post-colonial traumas that have had long and deep consequences for modern Angolans. Since 2002, however, this country of some 12 million has made mighty strides to stabilize of the country. Parliamentary elections last year and imminent presidential elections have seen large parts of the population registered to vote. Angola is rich with petroleum resources and supplies the USA with about a quarter of its oil. The National Library of Angola has begun a major project to modernize the country's library services with a new building and fresh initiatives in acquisitions and services. The director, who received her professional librarianship degree in Cuba, has a seat on IFLA's standing committee for Africa. There are said to be about 60 libraries in the capital housed in government agencies, universities, corporations, and non-governmental organizations. A fledgling Angolan Library Association has applied for an official charter. Educational institutions such as the Catholic University and the Agostino Neto University have small but well-organized libraries. There are also two good libraries in Huila Province where the main city of Lubango was spared most of the ravages of internal warfare.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The capital, Kinshasa, is home to some 11 million inhabitants. DR Congo is the size of Texas and is rich in natural resources such as ores, timber, gold. The country has been at war with its neighbors for decades and has also been riven by internal conflicts. The United Nations administers an 8,000-man protective force in Kinshasa. The Protestant University, which also teaches law and is about to open a faculty of medicine, is home to a well-equipped library. The University of Lubumbashi in the Eastern Province, where mining is a major economic activity, also houses a library for its 12,000 students.

Malawi

This small country of some three million is often described as the poorest nation of sub-Saharan Africa. On the shores of Lake Malawi, revered for its colorful cichlids and natural beauty, this country has invested greatly in education. Malawi National Library Services strives to provide reading materials and promotes reading through initiatives like a village-based reading program for moms and kids. While the universities and their provincial branches maintain libraries, there is a long-standing shortage of materials due to the high cost of acquisitions and problems with collection security. Organizations such as Books for Africa are attempting to ship books for use in schools. Professional librarians get their training in Malawi and abroad. A master's degree program is now available and completely filled with candidates seeking to sharpen their professional credentials.

Zambia

Zambia, a landlocked, copper-rich country, is home to about 12 million people. There is a network of public libraries sometimes staffed by trained librarians but severely undersupplied with books. Computers and internet access are available at the University of Zambia where interest in library careers is so strong that a master’s level program is to be added imminently. Zambia is hosting the 18th biannual meeting of the Standing Committee of South, Central, and East African Libraries in July 2008 and some 500 participants are expected. A shining model for children’s services is the Lubuto Library Project headed by Jane Kinney Meyers and headquartered in the DC metro area. In late 2007, Lubuto opened its first new library for the vulnerable children orphaned by HIV/AIDS assault on Zambia in recent years.

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