Building Back Better for Libraries in Africa: An Interview
01 December 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted old and created new challenges for the library field, but also opens an opportunity for change, if we can seize it. We interviewed Damilare Oyedele of Library Aid Africa to find out about his organisation’s work to understand the situation and design a way forwards.
1. How has the COVID-19 Pandemic affected Africa in general?
It has really affected the economic growth of various countries. A lot of people lost their jobs, families were left in shock, uncertain of how to cater for their needs. This really affected the wellbeing of the people.
In particular, schools, public offices and other public spaces were closed, and movement restrictions were introduced. All systems, from academics, aviation, business, etc felt the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. Of course, all these are necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
Nonetheless, I believe that the swift and efficient precautionary measures and responses put in place by governments and health agencies in various African countries played a major role in curbing the spread of the virus, and give us a better chance to build back better.
2. What about its libraries? How well have they been able to continue in their work?
Libraries as public spaces were closed. This brought a new dimension into library services delivery on the African continent. Librarians and library users had no other choice than to explore e-library services.
However, for too many, this was not a possibility. They were unable to offer services remotely, while a larger number of libraries still were not able offer services at all, because they lack the infrastructure and to a larger extent the capacity to offer such services— especially public libraries. This risks making libraries disconnected from their users. As such, the global pandemic has exposed, or should I say it has further necessitated, the need for improved budget allocations, infrastructure development, and capacity development of libraries and librarians.
3. What motivated you to set up the series of #LibraryPrepares conversations, and how did you organise them?
Based on our approach at Library Aid Africa towards advocacy for libraries, we realised that a lot of libraries across the continent were closed and are not also offering services electronically. We understand that this is not a new thing, but the pandemic has provided an impulsion to re-think and re-invent library services delivery on the continent.
We deduced that for us to have an inclusive strategy to engage policy makers and stakeholders to prioritize library development, we need to know what challenges librarians and libraries themselves are facing, and work with them to develop a call to action and guide that will educate librarians on how they can position themselves strategically to attract the support they need to improve library services delivery.
So, we started with our Virtual Consultation on Post COVID-19 Library services delivery on June 24th 2020. We organised the consultation online, inviting speakers from various libraries and access to information space to discuss and proffer solutions to these existential issues. We also facilitated feedback and data collation from the participants through surveys after each session. Also, during the virtual consultation sessions, conversations and discussion were focused on collating data from speakers and participants.
Through this interaction and data collecting tools, we were able to pin-point the root causes of the state of libraries on the African continent. These were categorised into 3 major things: Library Leadership Role, Moving Libraries Digital, Emerging Skills and Training for Library Professionals.
4. How wide a range of people were involved?
The virtual consultation came at a time that libraries in African countries are in search of a platform that will facilitate experience-sharing and cross pollination of ideas and innovative practices. This therefore provided an opportunity for a wide variety of libraries and librarians to participate. During the virtual consultation sessions, we had participants from over 20 countries, reaching over 600 viewers per session. These are librarians working in school, academic, public, institutional and other libraries. We were able to bring together library stakeholders to address key and pertinent issues affecting library services delivery in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.
5. Did anything surprise you during the conversations that you organised?
Oh yes! A lot of surprises. It became obvious that libraries on the African continent are facing similar challenges, but these are specificities to the narrative in their respective countries— capacity development, inadequate infrastructure, policy reforms and implementation, adoption of innovative approaches, access and provision of e-library services among many other challenges. However, this further affirms the need for an inclusive approach as libraries build back better.
6. What has the result of this work been?
Outstanding results! I was amazed at the quality of the conversations we had and the participation in the virtual consultations. Most importantly the data we collated. We have seen that a new breed of librarianship is about to unfold on the African continent. Librarians who are ready to take on responsibility, take initiatives, and explore innovative approaches to offer library and information services.
As an organisation, my team and a group of external consultants analysed the data we collected from conversations and survey questions during the virtual consultation, and developed and launched Library Services Delivery in Africa during and after COVID-19 Pandemic: Call to Action & Guide for African Libraries & Librarians. The document provides a step by step approach for libraries and librarians as they prepare to re-open. The call to action can be accessed here: https://bit.ly/38vAlu2
7. You talk about the importance of leadership – can anyone be a leader?
Over the years, I have learnt to understand that leadership is about taking responsibility, and this comes with a lot more responsibilities, obstacles, disappointments, sleepless nights, failures, very few wins, commitment and consistency, but also possibility — I believe these attributes are essential for anyone who aspires to be a leader.
It appears that leadership of an organisation will determine the growth trajectory of such an entity. This also extends to the partnerships, collaborations, projects, team commitment and delivery in such organisations. So in this context of libraries, there are a lot of responsibilities on library leaders to create an enabling environment that will embrace and promote innovation and co-creation in libraries, as well as Youth Co-leadership – which will in turn improve library services delivery on the African continent.
8. Who else will need to be involved in order to deliver progress?
To deliver progress for libraries in the wake of the covid 19 pandemic, strategic partnership and stakeholder engagement is more important than ever. This has been one of our thematic thrusts at Library Aid Africa. Over the years, we have explored partnerships and collaborations with local and international organisations to collectively drive innovative progress targeted at creating awareness and also support for the revival of libraries in schools and communities.
In addition to library organisations and institutions, it is imperative that they begin to facilitate youth co-leadership and intergenerational dialogues on the best possible way library services can be improved to serve the contemporary needs of the African community.
9. Where do you hope to be with this work in a year’s time?
Well, this question is more about looking into the future (smiles). With the current partnerships we have built with various library stakeholders on the African continent who have currently adopted the Call to Action, we believe that the result will position libraries as major stakeholders for nation-building, thereby providing avenues for policy reforms, improved infrastructural development, capacity development and youth co-leadership in library and information science space on the African continent.
10. Do you have any recommendations for libraries elsewhere in the world?
My recommendation for libraries elsewhere in the world is that they should create spaces and an enabling environment for youth co-leadership. Our world is changing, and libraries’ roles are also changing in our contemporary society. This calls for an inclusive process to build the future of libraries, to which partnerships, collaboration, stakeholders engagement and youth co-leadership are critical for success.