At our regional workshop on strong and sustainable library fields in Sub-Saharan Africa, Djalo Iaguba representing the Guinea-Bissau Association of Librarians, Archivists and Documentalists, shared the story of how librarians there engaged with the UN Development Programme to put the country’s libraries, in a difficult state after repeated wars, on the right path.

In the below interview, Djalo shares more about Guinea-Bissau’s experience.

What was the situation three years ago that prompted you to take action?

To talk about the situation 3 years ago, we need to look back to the period before independence. In this time, that Guinea-Bissau went through a long war of liberation that ended with the proclamation of independence in 1973. So, in a context where everything was being built, there was the adde challenge of needing to replace the infrastructure destroyed during 11 years of war. This on top of the organisation of state administration, the creation of institutions to structure society, and the building of the nation itself.

In 1998/1999, the country was once again faced with a sad politico-military conflict that lasted 11 months, resulting in a tragedy that destroyed several economic, social and cultural infrastructures.

Among the buildings destroyed were the libraries, archives and documentation services which, during the war, were used as military bases, resulting in the destruction and looting of a large part of the documentary collections, equipment and materials.

The Public Library and the National Historical Archives, which were under the supervision of the National Institute for Studies and Research (Institut national d’études et de recherche-INEP), were the hardest hit, having lost more than 30% of their documentary holdings.

Some 34 public and community libraries and information and documentation services were destroyed. There were vast collections in a variety of formats: textual, cartographic, iconographic, filmic, microfilmed, sound and electronic.

Most libraries, archives and information services closed their doors after the conflict, and the few that resumed their activities found themselves faced with precarious facilities, insufficient holdings or a complete absence of these, constituting a major obstacle to social progress and economic and cultural development.

After the war, therefore, libraries and the national memory were faced with serious problems. With the government powerless to restore the national memory, the Guinean Association of Documentalists, Archivists and Librarians (AGDAB) had only two choices: to continue down an unsustainable path of deteriorating libraries and ruined collections, which meant accepting the threat to the existence of the profession of librarian and archivist, or to try to change the course of events by facing up to the challenges of reconstruction in support of the government with the help of partners.

At the same time, needs are growing at all levels, following people’s basic aspirations, but the means to satisfy them depend on financial resources. In this context, and in the face of persistent political and social instability linked to the weight of financial difficulties, AGDAB felt obliged to act with greater urgency by developing a project to “safeguard and preserve the historical and documentary heritage of Guinea-Bissau”. This began in 2022, and includes the partial rehabilitation of infrastructures, the acquisition of equipment and the renovation of the Library and the reading sector. The principles of the project are the enhancement of memory and the preservation of herita

More specifically, what role did libraries play in the government’s public policy?

After a century of colonisation and 50 years of independence, Guinea-Bissau remains underdeveloped in terms of library policy and public reading. Unfortunately, economic difficulties combined with a very turbulent political situation have not made it possible to realise the importance of libraries in the process of economic, cultural, social and political development.

With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Guinea-Bissau’s independence on 24 September 2023, there is every reason to believe that the country is beginning to find its rightful place in the concert of nations. The legal foundations for a genuine national library are already a reality, even if the mechanisms for its full operation remain a challenge.

To say that there is only one truly national public library in Guinea-Bissau, or one funded by the state and managed by state employees, may seem incredible, but it is the sad cultural reality of Guinea-Bissau. The authorities have never recognised the vital role of libraries in the development process. The country does not yet have a national reading plan, and these are actions that AGDAB intends to take with the government in the near future.

How did you plan your response?

Our response came first of all from a diagnosis carried out on the situation of libraries and the historical documentary heritage in different phases of the history of Guinea-Bissau, published in a book under my direction by the publisher “Lisbon Internacional press”.

The conclusions of this study highlight the enormous difficulties in terms of infrastructure, equipment and qualified staff in the library sector to meet the challenges ahead. The political changes and fratricidal wars that have taken place throughout Guinea-Bissau’s recent history have had a negative impact on libraries and have made it impossible to implement genuine policies in the library and reading sector.

This is why, faced with this situation, the AGDAB, as a key partner of the government in this sector, has decided to intervene in the project aimed at saving the national memory infrastructure from ruin.

Given the complexity of the situation and the scale of the project, we have mobilised a number of national and international players and partners, including the government, civil society leaders and international organisations such as UNDP and UNESCO. The project was launched in 2020 and the first phase ended in December 2022. The project’s 4 main areas of focus are: the rehabilitation of the National Library and Archives’ internal infrastructure, the acquisition of equipment and reforms to the legal framework, and the start of the computerisation and digitisation process.

When did you realise the potential for collaboration with international organisations?

Given the lethargy of the few existing libraries in the country and the lack of government funding to guarantee the functioning of libraries, AGDAB discovered the potential of United Nations agencies in funding operational development aid activities.

As a result, the association has adopted advocacy strategies to draw the attention of UN agencies to the contribution of libraries to various aspects of the vision of the UN Agenda 2030 and the SDGs as essential public institutions that have a vital role to play in the development of all levels of society.

The UNDP, in turn, recognising the role of libraries in the process of economic, social and cultural development, felt the need to create forms of collaboration with AGDAB to advance the overall UN 2030 Agenda. The shared vision of goals that include libraries in national international development agendas stands out.

What have you done with them? What was the basis of the partnership?

The basis of our partnership with international organisations is the trust that has been built up and the awareness of the enormous financial difficulties faced by the government of Guinea-Bissau. The National Public Library and the Historical Archives, the epicentre of the national memory, were where AGDAB concentrated most of its support. Despite AGDAB’s efforts, the library sector is still facing great difficulties and, in order to overcome them, a great deal of support from international organisations is still needed.

What impact do you think this partnership should have?

We are proud to be involved in the process of rebuilding the National Public Library through such an innovative partnership with the UNDP. In addition to providing material resources, equipment and the recovery of endangered heritage, we have been able to carry out legislative reforms in the library and archive sector.

Today, thanks to this partnership, young students, researchers and the general public have had access to memory and broadband Internet for 3 years, which was unthinkable before the AGDAB project.

Prior to the project, Guinea-Bissau had no specific legislation governing the organisation and operation of national archive and library services. In general, the normative structure was built from little or nothing. Today, the National Library and Archives benefit from legislation adapted to the current context.

Do you think that this kind of collaboration could be set up in other countries?

Yes, I think this is an inspiring example that can be used by other countries.