Introduction to libraries
Public library services in Uganda began as far back as 1940, with the major aim of providing information to the ?lite, who were able to read and write in English and were mostly expatriates. Later the role of the public library was expanded to include fighting illiteracy, especially at the time when the East African Literature Bureau (EALB) ran libraries. The Bureau had a prime duty of fostering basic literacy, hence had to be supported by library services, which would provide follow-up reading materials for the rural people to whom the Bureau publications were directed.
Later, the control of public library activities in Uganda was handed over to the Public Libraries Board (PLB) which was established by the Public Libraries Act, 1964, with the sole responsibility 'to establish, equip, and manage libraries in Uganda'. It currently operates under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
Statement of the problem
Public library services have had, and are still having, a lot of problems. These include:
Financial and moral support from the public and hence from government: the role of the library (and information) must be appreciated. Particularly, the role that libraries can play in the socio-economic development of the country, and that the lack of the financial support from the government (accruing from the lack of an appreciation of the importance of information), has a profound negative impact.
A sizeable budget has never been provided to enable the public libraries to be equipped and maintained. Even now, the PLB is hitting a problem in the decentralization of its endeavours. Some district authorities (for example, Mbale District Council) have refused to take charge of the public library service, perceiving it as an additional financial burden. When the issue of decentralization was raised, PLB anticipated this problem and the result it would have. It resisted handing over the libraries to district authorities until the Government Act, 1997, came into force.
The human resource aspect: there are few graduate employees working in public library services in Uganda. Kigongo-Bukenya pointed out the folly of this policy: 'one can state with certainty that Uganda made a faulty start. The first Chief Librarian to be appointed was inexperienced and had no political base, which, ironically, mattered at that time'.1 There is generally a poor impression of, and low status of, librarianship as a profession in Uganda, and hence there is a lack of qualified staff in the public library service. Lastly, the political climate in Uganda has had a role to play in the problems enumerated above.
A country which has been at war from the time of its independence may never have an opportunity to plan certain social services like library services. People therefore are apathetic to the usefulness of libraries, and this affects the potential for financial support.
Status of public library services
In view of its prime mission of 'empowering the public with information so as to enable them make informed decisions and participate in social, cultural, economic and political developments of Uganda through facilitating the provisions of the relevant library services', PLB has had few activities in place.
It has 21 static library service points, indicated in the table; PLB Headquarters is divided into three departments: Technical Services, Library Services and Administration, all aimed at making it easy to manage public libraries in Uganda.
Appreciating the need for library services in the rural areas, where the majority of Ugandans live and work, PLB designed a project for rural library services. Places identified included Zigoti in Mubende District, Ibanda in Mbarare District, Kapachorwa in Kapachorwa District and Nakaseke in Luwero District.
The project called upon rural communities to co-operate with PLB by providing a building, the personnel to run it, and the furniture. However, it was only in Mubende and Luwero districts that the rural communities showed immediate interest, and Zigoti Entertainment Centre in Mubende District and Nakaseke Multi-purpose Library were initiated. Progress in Ibanda to create a rural library is now in its advanced stages. Later, when the Multi-purpose Community Telecentre (MCT) project Ð funded by UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union and the IDRC Ð came, Nakaseke was earmarked and was taken over by this project. Five countries in Africa (Mozambique, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and Senegal) were selected to benefit; however, it is, so far, only in Uganda that it has been implemented. The library at Nakaseke now has telephone, fax, e-mail and Internet connections and services in addition to traditional library services. Its success is due to the training workshops that involve the already trained users, who develop their skills as trainers of trainees.
Of all the services that are used in Nakaseke MCT, the library services come top, followed by computer services (Internet search, word-processing, data-processing, etc.); communication services are least used because the communication lines are always on and off. Records indicate that, when the project began, 40 people registered for the services and now the number is 80. The first 40 people were trained and are helping the new users. A related project has also been initiated by the IDRC called the ACACIA Initiative (Communities and the Information Society in Africa) at Nabweru in Mpigi District.
Changes taking place in the public library service
The control of public libraries in Uganda has been changed since the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda and the enactment of the Local Government Act, 1997 came into force. Under this Act, the Public Libraries services have been decentralized to the district and urban authorities.
In this Act, the Second Schedule, Part 2, No. 7, specifies that districts will 'aid and support the establishment and maintenance of [public] libraries in their districts'. It further states in the same Schedule, Part 3, No. 1(h) and No. 23, that the urban authorities will 'establish, acquire, erect, maintain, promote, assist to control with participation of citizens', and 'aid and maintain whether by grant of money or otherwise the establishment and maintenance of libraries . . . and make presentation to local authorities or public bodies'. Hence the position now is that the PLB will continue to maintain its supervisory/inspectory roles, pending attempts to forge the Central Reference Library into a national library as to date there has been no national library, this role at present being played by Makerere University Library.
Recommendations for improvement/development
1 Government will not succeed in its modernization programmes without regarding information as a key player in socio-economic development. That is why as a matter of urgency it should consider making sizeable budgets available for public libraries; it should also take an interest in library development. Books, videos, tapes, etc., have to be purchased for public libraries. Without this kind of support, any talk about libraries is just words.
2 If the process of decentralization of public libraries is to succeed, it should be completed in all the districts. There should also be accompanying sensitization programmes for the district leaders to understand the role that information plays in socio-economic development. Many people, including leaders, do not take anything to do with libraries seriously; after all, many of them have very poor reading habits and therefore cannot appreciate the use of such facilities. Existing public libraries should be handed over to local authorities only after serious sensitization of district leaders through the use of workshops, etc.
3 An Act of Parliament, whose Bill is yet to be drafted and be presented for debate, must cater for the Central Reference Library (where PLB is located) to become the national library, with the status of a legal-deposit centre, so that the national availability of our information resources can be guaranteed. It should also make the national library a centre for the International Serials Data System (ISDS), and a centre for setting policies and standards for decentralized public libraries.
4 There are no established public information resource-sharing networks in Uganda and no indexes to point where existing resources are to be found. The Central Reference Library at the headquarters of PLB should as a matter of urgency start to compile a bibliography of materials available in all the public libraries. This will provide the foundation for a national bibliography to be prepared, which would facilitate effective resource-sharing.
5 While it is trying to deal with the decentralization process, government (through PLB), district local authorities and international charitable organizations should identify funds on an annual basis to resuscitate mobile, postal and book-box library services. Library buildings require refurbishment and book stocks must be renewed. Until this is done it will be difficult to promote the use of public libraries, readership and literacy in Uganda. Meanwhile, PLB and the district local authorities that are interested in public libraries should diversify the scope of public library services to include many of the new technologies so as to supplement the traditional services that PLB has been encouraging.
6 There is no unity and solidarity among library and information personnel in Uganda. If funds were available to enable a professional association to get off the ground, workshops could be held to bring personnel together periodically to discuss issues on libraries. This could bring about a change in attitude among librarians and their public. To date the profession has failed to inform government, and the people, what a library can mean to the development of the country's economy.
7 Since there are a number of interested groups, government should diversify the services of Multi-purpose Community Telecentres and allow them to be expanded to cater for the needs of their users. Teachers and students, who will not be able to reach these services very often, could be given special consideration. For example, special services could be created to cater for them, allowing them to prepare lessons and assignments, etc., and also borrow material like video-tapes, etc. Plans to work with specialized institutions in certain fields could be initiated Ð for example, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) could be a node for MCT services on agriculture; Mulago or Nakaseke Hospitals could be a node for information on tele-medicine; and so on.
8 Lastly, PLB could also consolidate its library services in institutions like prisons, hospitals, refugee camps, military camps and in public transport facilities such as railway and bus stations so that the people will be able to benefit from the fruit of public library services, especially to the disadvantaged groups mentioned above.
FEMRITE: Uganda Women Writers Association
Plot 147 Kira Road
P.O. Box 705, Kampala
Tel.: +256 41 543943
1 I. M. N. Kigongo-Bukenya, 'Combating Illiteracy in Uganda through the Public Library Services.' In Michael Wise and Anthony Olden (eds.) Information and Libraries in the Developing World London: Library Association, 1990, vol. I, 124.
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