Introduction to public libraries
Zimbabwe, like many African countries, is going through a very difficult period in so far asthe provision of library services is concerned. There are many libraries that are consideredto be public libraries in Zimbabwe and the history behind their initiation differs from locationto location. The libraries also differ in size and quantity of books they hold.
The history of public libraries in Zimbabwe dates back to the period of the arrival of thefirst settlers who came into the country in the 1890s. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that the Bulawayo Public Library was founded in 1896 with an initial gift of 100 guineas from Cecil John Rhodes and that it is the oldest library in the country. The Gweru Public Library was founded in 1897 while the Queen Victoria Memorial Library, which is now known as the Harare City Library, was founded in 1902 around the same time as the Turner Memorial Library in Mutare. Changes in terms of library location and space, staffing, book acquisition and funding, have been witnessed throughout the entire history of the existence of public library services in Zimbabwe. The public library service has passed through different political and socio-economic eras that have impacted differently on the development of the services in Zimbabwe. The local municipalities within which they are found adopted some of the libraries, while some remained with their founding authorities.
White farmersÕ wives who started WomenÕs Institute (WI) groups initiated some public libraries. One of the objects of the WI was to start recreational facilities, such as libraries, in different farming communities. As a result, these libraries are still found in farming communities near the smaller towns of the country.
Factors which influence the present situation of public library service centre around several major issues:
- grossly reduced financial support to public libraries
- the reduction of library personnel as a result of cost-saving measures adopted by the government
- problems in the entire book sector
- high inflation levels in the country's economy
- the general situation prevailing in the country
In the past, the policy of local governments/municipalities was that libraries had to be set up as part of community service provision at the time that suburbs were being constructed. These libraries were constructed from the profits realized from beer sales. However, after attaining Independence, the government adopted a policy in which the beer profits were taxed heavily, leaving the local municipalities with few funds to improve the social services. Despite the outcry and protests by urban councils, the central government went ahead with the taxation of beer profits and, at the same time, reduced its own financial support to the urban councils. The effect of these policies was that many services were discontinued - for example, youth recreational programmes were severely cut and municipalities were tasked with the responsibility of building schools for their residents.
Usually where there is a need to decide which service is to be cut as a result of financial limitations, libraries and social services come top of the list. The effect on the public library service provision is that the financial support/grants from the local councils is getting less and less annually. This reduction affects the quality and quantity of books that a library can purchase and the salaries of the library staff members.
In the meantime, the macro-economic situation of the country is changing rapidly. The government adopted the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP) that was prescribed by International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Some of the conditions that were to be met for the success of ESAP included the reduction of government expenditure through the rationalization of government employees and recovering costs from services which were previously provided free by the government. Many posts were abolished and they continue to be abolished as the government has embarked on an economic empowerment strategy. The affect of this process on library services was dramatic, leaving many staff members living in the fear of their posts being axed at any time. Furthermore, those who retire or die are not replaced because the position is immediately frozen. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the morale of the library personnel at its lowest ebb. The workload of the few remaining staff members becomes very heavy and the quality of service is therefore greatly affected.
National Library and Documentation Service (NLDS)
Library services in Zimbabwe are regulated by an Act of Parliament passed in 1985 when the National Library and Documentation Service (NLDS) was established. The NLDS is tasked with the following responsibilities as stipulated in the Act:
4. (a) (i) to promote the widespread enjoyment in Zimbabwe of publications of an educational, scientific, cultural, recreational or sporting value;
(ii) to ensure, maintain and develop a high standard of library facilities;
(iii) to operate a documentation facility and an inter-library loan facility; and
(iv) to train librarians and ensure, maintain, co-ordinate and develop a high standard of librarianship;
(b) In relation to constituent libraries, to provide, maintain, co-ordinate and develop facilities for the consultation by and the free lending to the public of publications for reading, research, recreation and study.
The NLDS is headed by a Director and it is presently operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture within the department of Culture. The Deputy Director of NLDS is also the Chief Librarian of the National Free Library, which is in Bulawayo. It is interesting to note that the NLDS has been moved several times under different ministries and departments. Initially, it was under the ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture and within the Culture division. In 1989 it fell under the Sport and Recreation Council, only to be shifted to the Ministry of Education and Culture. These continual changes make it difficult to know the real place to which the provision of library services belongs, and indicate the level of seriousness with which the issue of libraries is considered.
In the past, the NLDS provided minimum financial support to rural libraries to enable them to set up library services in rural communities. The funds allocated to the NLDS have been reduced annually, making it difficult to continue supporting the rural school/community libraries.
National Free Library of Zimbabwe
The National Free Library was established in 1945, and in its early years of formation was a beneficiary of the Carnegie Corporation fund through the efforts of its first qualified librarian, Dugald Niven, after whom it was named. The name later changed to the National Free Library of Rhodesia (subsequently of Zimbabwe in 1980) after the National Free Library Act of 1970. The Library operates as a national lending library and a national centre for inter-library loans. The lack of adequate financial and human resources has, however, seriously affected the nature of services provided. The increase in postage charges has
particularly affected its postal services.
The Library boasts a book stock of 99,000 books; however, the majority of those books need replacement because they are old and worn out. New acquisitions are difficult because the Library's budget allocation is inadequate and erratic. The continuous fall in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar against major currencies also affects book purchases. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to make book purchases from countries outside Zimbabwe. Acquisition externally might have become a thing of the past. However, local publishing offers only a limited number of titles each year and the range is not adequate to meet the needs. The books are also of varying quality and are not durable for library use. It is difficult to improve the quantity and quality of production as almost everyone in the book sector is facing similar financial problems.
The Library therefore tries to find ways of seeking donations from overseas organizations such as the British Council and Book Aid International, which ship cartons of books which are no longer required in the UK. Ideally, the library should be able to send someone to the
United Kingdom so as to enable them to select what is relevant to the community they serve. However, owing to financial limitations, it is not possible to justify that expenditure. Mr Robin Doust of Bulawayo Public Library has assisted the library to a great extent by undertaking some selections on its behalf during his own personal visits to Book Aid International, UK. Nevertheless, donations of any kind should be a supplement to the library stock and not the sole source of acquisition. The position with regard to journals is even more serious.
The salaries of library personnel are very inadequate and are also eroded by the inflation level in the country. Generally, librarians are not well paid and vacant posts cannot attract qualified staff. Since 1991, there have been a number of unfilled positions and there is no hope of ever filling them because there is no money to provide salaries.
The Library charges a membership fee of Z$50.00 (US$1.30) to non-formal and college students while A-level students pay Z$20.00 (US$0.50). The library is patronized mainly by students and people undertaking formal and non-formal studies. The wish of the Library's administration is to have book-binding facilities within the Library to prolong the life of the books. Since the number of staff is greatly reduced, it is felt that computerization would provide a saving on human resources who would otherwise be performing labour intensive tasks such as lending and inter-library loan.
During the study visit to the National Free Library in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, there was an anticipated reduction of nine staff members. Everyone was unsure of their position and none knew who would be the next person to receive the notification of termination of employment. In a situation of such uncertainty, it is impossible for staff to provide a service, let alone plan for the future.
This scenario is replicated in many public libraries in Zimbabwe. The common situation is that most of the libraries are old and dilapidated. They are also in need of redecoration but the cost of redecorating is prohibitive, and the general state of most libraries in depressing. The number of library users has increased significantly and they impose a lot of pressure on existing facilities. However, some initiatives can be found where libraries have taken it upon themselves to fund-raise aggressively for their libraries. It is an uphill task, but one which sometimes bears fruit.
Bulawayo Public Library
One positive role-model of a public library that has tried to survive under difficult circumstances is the Bulawayo Public Library (BPL). As mentioned previously, it is the country's oldest library. The library has other branches in the city and operates a mobile library service, which goes to western suburbs of the town. The Zimbabwe Historic Reference Collection is for reference only and is a legal-deposit collection of local publications, used mainly by researchers.
The BPL has been through difficult times to the point of almost closing down its operations. The support it was getting from the Bulawayo City Council and the government had been reduced significantly such that salaries for the staff were difficult to sustain. The library embarked on cost recovery measures by charging for the services it was providing to its clientele. The services were made more attractive because the public had to pay, they have to see value in the service. The payment for services could be seen as another way of dividing serious users from those who are not so serious. However, as to be expected, there was a lot of resistance from users. The library can only be used by those who can afford to pay; it is possible that it no longer serves the community that needs the services most.
Examples of services provided and charged for are: the Internet; photocopying; book-binding; video and audio cassette hiring; access to red-carpet service where, through the payment of a certain fee, one is able to access recently published books in a very relaxing environment; access to reserve textbooks; payment for sitting down and reading in an area specially designated for students; and the inter-library loan system.
The library benefits from donations from other countries through such organizations as BAI and the British Council. Not so long ago the library received a donation of a mobile library that services mainly children from the high-density areas of Bulawayo city. The bus is very popular with the children.
Through public appeals the library was able to secure long-term pledges of support from private individuals and organizations. The services the library offers are going a long way towards making the library a self-sufficient venture. Binding of books within the library has substantially prolonged the shelf life of the library's book stock. The layout of books and their appearance on the shelves really strike one as one enters the library. All this is possible through a dedicated team of staff who have been with the library for a long time and weathered the storm. The personal dedication of the Director of the BPL must be commended. The case of the BPL clearly indicates that people are willing to pay for a service that they consider useful and important to them. However, because information has to be made available to the public, it becomes very difficult to decide whether to provide a free service and face closure, or to make people pay for the service and fund the improvements. The case of Bulawayo Public Library, considered against the present economic trends in the country, probably needs closer scrutiny by the legislators and society at large. Perhaps it could even result in an overhaul of the section in the NLDS Act which refers to 'free lending' of publications by the library.1
The success of the BPL cannot necessarily be replicated in other libraries for several reasons
- the most significant being the dearth of a dynamic, committed and visionary leadership with a catchment area of users who are able to pay for a service. Other librarians differ in terms of their socio-economic standing and social status, and the majority of users cannot afford even a small membership fee.
The local authorities, both before and after Independence, have provided public library services in urban areas. Municipal libraries serve the poorest members of the community and they cannot afford to charge the public except by subscription. Making the members pay for other services would definitely discourage the clientele and subscription fees have to be minimal. Students over-use municipal libraries for study purposes during examination periods.
In Harare, there are a total of 10 libraries in the former Black township areas, the main one of which is Highfield Central Library. Highfield has a total book stock of 28,000 books, while each of the branch libraries has about 9000 books. The Harare Municipal Libraries now charge subscription fees of Z$100 (US$2.50) per year for adults and Z$40 (US$1.00) for children and youths. In 1997 the nominal fee of Z$1.75 for adults had been increased to Z$50, and that for children to Z$25. The library had a book-binding facility; however, the book-binder was recently removed and posted to the training department of the municipality's vocational training programme.
The library now has to rely upon occasional student book-binders, but they are not as effective. As a result, the problem of worn out stock remains; the lack of finance means that replacement is not possible. The libraries do benefit from Book Aid International book donations and they send the librarian to the BAI annually. In Bulawayo, municipal libraries face similar problems. In 1999 the City Council has not been able to put aside any funding for library book acquisition. This is the most serious thing that has ever happened in the history of the libraries. Not a single book will be purchased during 1999 as a result of the financial constraints the council is facing. The implications of this state of affairs are very saddening. It compromises the standard of librarianship and the people's access to information, defeating the whole purpose of the existence of libraries. It also means that the libraries will end up just accepting donations of books that are not relevant to the communities they are serving.
The main library in the Bulawayo municipality is Mzilikazi Library, which manages seven branches. In the past, children used to subscribe at 25¢ per year but the subscriptions have recently been raised to Z$10 (US$0.25) and Z$20 (US$0.50) for children and adults, respectively. While the amounts sound very low, the increase is not within the capacity of many parents and this has affected the level of membership, which has dropped significantly for children. The total book stock for the eight libraries is 160,000 and there are 20,000 members. The libraries have a book-binding facility which helps to keep the books in reasonable shape and increases their shelf life. They also get donations from Book Aid International. In the past, donations had also been received from Aberdeen, the Scottish city twinned with Bulawayo, but these have ceased, probably owing to other problems such as shipment. The staffing situation has been affected by the wish of the local government to reduce staff. Three members of staff resigned in 1999 but have not been replaced.
The examples of Highfield and Mzilikazi give an insight into the situation in urban areas of Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, in an effort to combat the inadequacy of information in rural areas, other initiatives are being made, a few of which are outlined below.
Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP)
The history of Zimbabwe has been such that libraries were provided in urban areas as a service and as a right for the people. No similar provision was ever made for rural communities. Since independence in 1980 a quantitative expansion of rural schools has been made and the underlying principle of community participation has been embarked upon. Unfortunately, no qualitative expansion was made to match the massive expansion of schools in terms of providing libraries in all rural schools and providing adequate and relevant information to rural communities. Schools remained with serious shortages of textbooks and reading materials. Rural communities generally continued to lag behind their urban counterparts, despite the fact that 75 per cent of the country's population live there. This realization is one of the reasons that motivated the establishment of organizations such as the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP). RLRDP was founded in 1990 at a seminar attended by educationalists, information organizations and relevant government ministries.
The objectives of the organization are to help to establish rural information resource centres in rural communities, as well as to provide relevant reading materials identified by the rural communities themselves. These libraries are based mainly in primary schools with a few being found in secondary schools. The libraries are used by the school children, teachers, community members, school leaders and all interested parties around the school. Each person has a contribution to make to the library as the RLRDP encourages print and non-print methods of using information. Drama, poetry, singing and dancing are some of the mediums used to disseminate information on topical issues. Adult literacy tutors have been trained through co-operation with another adult literacy NGO and the Ministry of Education.
The RLRDP also engages in a gender and development programme. This was initially undertaken in conjunction with another NGO, the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN). The programme is centred on the dissemination of information to rural women. Cultural factors and practices, which tend to favour the boy-child, have invariably resulted in women lagging behind in accessing information.
Training workshops are held to equip both teacher and community librarians with basic skills to run the rural libraries. The Library Management Committees (LMCs) are also given training that enables them to manage the libraries effectively. They are taught how to develop their library constitutions and skills to network and source more information from other organizations. To date, RLRDP works with 200 member libraries and over 200 associate member libraries throughout the country. The organization works with donor partners who provide either financial resources or reading materials.
There is a contention that rural community libraries are 'in a basic sense, a rural equivalent of an urban public and school library service combined in one'.2 The rural libraries are open for use by all community members. There is community ownership since the library project is a community initiative that is only facilitated by the organization. This community ownership is crucial for the future sustainability of rural libraries. As opposed to traditional libraries, rural libraries are active and places for meeting by community members. Users sit outside or in the library and discuss topics of interest. The issue of the voluntary community librarian who is compensated in cash or kind by the community for the time spent in the library, is an interesting phenomenon. Some school authorities - for example, school development committees and LMCs - have agreed to levy school children in order to give an allowance to the community librarian. These examples differ within communities, some of which have purpose-built libraries.
A natural development has occurred in some districts where they have found it convenient to work in clusters of four to six libraries within the same geographical vicinity. The older libraries with which the RLRDP has worked are helping new librarians to start their libraries. There are various networking activities which the cluster networks undertake together as a way of encouraging each other. Where clusters exist, trainers have been trained to initiate and facilitate library development skills before the RLRDP steps in. The clusters in a district then choose two representatives who sit on the district networking committee which runs the affairs of the cluster libraries within that district. This is seen as the way forward in sustaining the library services in rural areas.
RLRDP has gone further and developed donkey-drawn library carts in order to access areas that are not easily accessible. Seven library carts are operating in Matabeleland North and South provinces where donkeys are in abundance. Another invention by the organization is an electro-communication library cart which is solar-powered and donkey-drawn. The purpose of this cart is to take audio-visual information to the libraries and communities. Video cassettes can be played for educational and entertainment purposes. The cart has the potential for a satellite dish to be installed, to access the Internet and use e-mail, to use a computer and printer, and have a telephone connection. In the future, such carts could offer a solution to teachers and other prospective students who want to embark on open-university learning through satellite television.
Other initiatives have been made in rural communities by a wide range of NGOs - for example, the Zimbabwe Book Development Council (ZBDC), the Africa Book Development Trust (ABDT), and the Edward Ndlovu Memorial Trust Fund. The ZBDC has received funding to support both urban and rural libraries with financial assistance to purchase reading materials from bookshops. The libraries are given a voucher for Z$2500.00 (US$65) and a catalogue from which they can select books. The scheme supports local publishing and also encourages local authorship. The RLRDP works closely with the rural libraries that are supported by the ZBDC and assisted in the identification of the 66 libraries that are involved in the initial phase of the programme.
The ABDT encourages communities to produce reading materials and they are supporting some libraries with reading materials. The NLDS has a mandate 'to establish new libraries at local, district and provincial level' (National Library and Documentation Act, 1985, Section 5.5). The programme is hampered by a lack of funds and inadequate human resources and transport. A number of libraries have been initiated by NLDS in Matabeleland South province. Through co-operating with RLRDP, some success has been realized in certain communities. The RLRDP also co-operated with the Edward Ndlovu Memorial Trust Fund in setting up some rural libraries in Matabeleland South Province. The Ministry of Education is still trying to set up district resource centres using funding received from the Netherlands government in its Better Schools Project of Zimbabwe (BSPZ). The idea is to have resource centres in every district, which are equipped with computers, fax machines, photocopiers and books. The centres are to be used by teachers and other community members.
The way forward
Information is a basic human right and it is a precondition to a developed community and nation. With information, people develop skills to improve their situations and they learn to make informed decisions and choices on issues concerning their lives. It therefore goes without saying that information has to be accessible to all citizens of Zimbabwe as opposed to a few urban dwellers. The question is what is the best strategy that can be used to reach the rural communities of the country, where the majority of people reside?
Efforts are being made in Zimbabwe towards fulfilling this need. Experiences need to be drawn from the successes scored by organizations that are already spearheading this work. NGOs that are already working at a grassroots level need to be supported financially so that they can cover more ground, where the need is already overdue. RLRDP already has in its files a total of over 5000 applications for help in establishing rural libraries. The numbers of applications continue to rise by the day. The situation needs to be addressed before communities despair completely. There is need to streamline the intervention strategies of the grassroots organizations involved in the provision of information and establishing rural libraries so that their activities are co-ordinated. The rural district councils need to take an active interest in the provision and support of rural libraries in their localities. This is already provided for in the Rural District Council Act (1985) which empowers rural councils to develop libraries in rural areas.
All stakeholders in the information and book sector need to come together and find ways of supporting each other in the endeavour of public library support. The training of Zimbabwean librarians has to take into cognizance the realities of the present situation where librarianship is changing its face to meet the dynamism of social changes. The question is how can the library profession/training be geared to meet the demand for information by the rural communities? Change in attitude has to come from the policy-makers, who do not seem to value the contribution of information, let alone the need to have libraries in rural areas as a priority in educational institutions and rural schools. The training of librarians also needs to include skills in creativity, public relations with the communities they serve, interpersonal and human relations, and fund-raising. The NLDS has already produced some guidelines for rural library service development and that is the framework within which organizations such as the RLRDP operate. RLRDP has even gone further to incorporate experiences from the ground and they have responded to these needs in many ways.
The question of maintaining the free service in public libraries needs to be addressed. It is necessary to define the issue of 'how public are public libraries?' in the Zimbabwean context. In Zimbabwe, rural schools are built from contributions by the communities. The same applies to the library structures because they are within the school premises and are therefore school/ community libraries. So can we say that the 'public libraries' in rural areas are free? NGOs probably have a bigger role to play in the future of public library service because the government has not been able to fulfil its role meaningfully. More resources are required. NGOs tend to do a more thorough job than governments in both monitoring and evaluation. Funds could be made available to those communities that are ready to build purpose-built structures.
For those already developed urban public libraries, the need to have computers that will keep them in line with modern developments in the global village is crucial. Gradually this computerization can be introduced to communities that are ready to use them and also to schools where electricity exists. Solar energy is one source of electricity that needs to be used to make new technology accessible in libraries.
Elizabeth Mamhene Chisveto
Rural Libraries & Resources Programme (RLRDP)
P.O. Box 439, Bulawayo
Tel.: +263 9 64910/75337
1 Zimbabwe. National Library and Documentation Service Act, No. 11 of 1985.
2 L. Hikwa, 'Promoting access to information, networking and skills enhancement: The case of the rural libraries and resources development programme (RLRDP).' In J. Chenje (ed.), Environmental Documentation and Resource Centre Networking: Southern Africa Workshop. Harare: IUCN, 1997, 113.
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