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Public Libraries in Africa in the Digital Age

All illustrations by Lauren J.E. Bird

iAfrika Digital conducted an online survey to understand the current public library landscape in Africa, and to inform the development of iAfrika, a digital service for public libraries on the continent. The results of the survey are presented in this report, which is also available as a download that includes more detailed appendices.

Executive Summary 

Public libraries in Africa are navigating an increasingly digital world. More and more people are accessing digital sources of information such as social media, like Facebook and Twitter, or online encyclopedia, like Wikipedia. While libraries retain their core roles in providing access to information, promoting literacy and offering spaces for community engagement, they recognise a changing landscape. In an increasingly digital and connected world, public libraries in Africa show a clear desire to attract non-traditional users, provide digital services and demonstrate their societal impact. 

As community information hubs with links to educational and other institutions, public libraries in Africa are well positioned to capitalise on opportunities that the digital age presents. But there are challenges: cost, the limits of what individual libraries can achieve, and how to demonstrate the impact and social change that libraries can drive. iAfrika is a potential solution for public libraries to navigate this changing landscape. 

iAfrika is a digital library service that provides access to cultural and historical information in African languages. It is optimised for African cell phone users with basic devices and limited amounts of data. Many important aspects of African culture and history are not readily available online and in African languages. iAfrika offers digital skills training to empower Africans to record and share their cultures and histories in their own languages, on the Internet.

iAfrika has the potential to attract new library users, to promote digital skills and community outreach, and to support literacy in various forms (reading, digital, information). It promotes individual libraries whilst harnessing the collective power of libraries in achieving their goals and increasing their social and developmental impact.  

Overview

iAfrika Digital conducted an online survey to understand the current public library landscape in Africa, and to inform the development of iAfrika, a digital service for public libraries on the continent. iAfrika trains Africans in digital skills to enable them to record their histories, customs and culture in their own languages, which are then made available to the general public as part of the iAfrika digital library service.

Given the limited scope of the survey, it is by no means conclusive. However, it offers valuable insights into the library sector in Africa and the ways in which new digital services, like iAfrika, might help libraries to navigate an increasingly digital world. The survey asked African public librarians to: 

  1. Reflect on the current roles of public libraries in Africa 
  2. Consider which additional roles public libraries might play
  3. Comment on how African public libraries are positioned to navigate an increasingly digital world 
  4. Think about the main priorities for African public libraries in the digital age

This document presents the results of the survey, including details of the respondents. Survey respondents also commented on the benefits and challenges of the iAfrika project as a solution to navigate this changing landscape. 

Survey respondents

The survey had 205 respondents including directors, library managers, librarians, library assistants and other staff. It ran for a period of two months and was advertised through the mailing lists of LiASA (Library and Information Association of South Africa) and IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) mailing lists. Respondents answered multiple choice questions, could choose more than one answer and could also write their own responses to the questions, captured in the “Other” category.   

Respondents by region 

The greatest number of respondents were from southern African countries followed by those in East Africa. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the number and percentage of respondents per region.

RegionNumber of respondentsPercentage per region
Southern Africa12962.9%
East Africa5426.3%
West Africa2110.2%
North Africa10.5%
Total number of respondents205100%
Table 1. Number and percentage of survey respondents per region

Respondents by country

The highest numbers of respondents were from South Africa (100), Kenya (45), Zambia (20) and Nigeria (13). Table 2 provides a breakdown of the number of respondents by country.

CountryNumber of respondentsCountryNumber of respondents
Botswana2Namibia1
Burundi1Nigeria13
Côte d’Ivoire2South Africa100
Egypt1South Sudan1
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)1Sudan1
Ethiopia1Tanzania3
Ghana4Uganda4
Kenya45Zambia20
Lesotho1Zimbabwe4
Table 2. Number of survey respondents per country

Survey Findings

The roles of public libraries in Africa 

Survey respondents were asked to consider the roles that public libraries currently play in Africa. Key amongst these were promoting literacy and providing access to information, including in people’s own languages. Respondents also saw libraries contributing to sustainable development, and as spaces for facilitating interaction and community engagement. Figure 1 presents their detailed responses.

Figure 1. Bar graph showing the current roles played by public libraries in Africa 

A total of 77 or 38% of respondents identified other, more detailed roles that public libraries currently play. These were analysed and grouped into seven broad themes as listed below.

What else could African public libraries be doing? 

Survey respondents were asked to consider additional services that public libraries in Africa could offer. Significantly, for the purposes of the survey and the iAfrika project, 81% of respondents highlighted that African public libraries could provide access to information in people’s own languages. Three quarters of respondents (75%) also felt that they could provide courses and ways to create local, African content. This suggests that libraries have the potential to act as centres through which people can develop digital skills and generate content for – and about – Africans, in their own languages. A detailed breakdown of responses is presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Bar graph showing the additional services African public libraries could provide

A total of 49 or 24% of respondents listed further services that libraries could offer. These were analysed and grouped into five broad themes as listed below.

Opportunities for African public libraries in the Digital Age

Survey respondents were asked to consider why public libraries in Africa are well positioned to play a role in society in an increasingly digital world where everyone is using Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and other digital sources of information. Figure 3 shows what respondents saw as the opportunities for African public libraries in the Digital Age. Key strengths of libraries include their position as valuable community information hubs as well as their existing links with educational and other institutions. There is great potential to capitalise on these opportunities with digital services, which can be used for community engagement, increased access and the development of new digital resources. 

Figure 3. Bar graph showing reasons why public libraries are well placed to play a role in society in an increasingly digital world

A total of 51 or 25% of the respondents listed other reasons why public libraries in Africa are well placed to play a role in the Digital Age. Many of these responses elaborated on the reasons outlined above (e.g. libraries support education, are information and community centres etc.). Detailed responses were analysed and grouped into the seven broad themes listed below.

Priorities of public libraries in Africa in a digital world

Survey respondents were asked to reflect on what African public libraries should prioritise in an increasingly digital world and their responses are presented in Figure 4. Understandably, literacy remains a priority. However, it is clear that libraries need to attract non-traditional users,  provide services through digital channels and demonstrate the developmental impact that they have in society. These are priorities that iAfrika addresses. 

iAfrika is based on a theory of change that focuses on improving literacy and providing digital access to content in local languages. It is aligned to various social and development agendas including the South African National Development Plan, the African Union’s development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.  

Figure 4. Bar graph showing priorities of public libraries in Africa 

Addressing the priorities of African public libraries in Africa in a digital world

Survey respondents were asked how their organisations were addressing the priorities of African libraries in a digital world. They identified a range of activities and services to respond to the above-mentioned priorities and these are presented in Figure 5. Chief amongst these was  providing access to the Internet, computers and relevant information – including in people’s own languages – that could help them in their everyday lives. While it is encouraging to see that some libraries are providing access to African language resources, the responses suggest that there is scope to consolidate these efforts. 

Figure 5. Bar graph showing the ways in which libraries address their priorities in an increasingly digital world

A total of 58 or 28% of the respondents suggested other ways that their libraries addressed their priorities. These were analysed and grouped into four broad themes as listed below.

Challenges in addressing the priorities of public libraries

Survey respondents were asked to indicate the main challenges that they encountered when addressing their priorities. They highlighted cost, the limited impact of individual libraries and how to demonstrate the social changes that they can drive  (see Figure 6). Through a single digital platform that contains multiple African libraries and languages, iAfrika provides a cost-effective service that promotes individual libraries whilst harnessing the collective power of libraries in achieving their goals and increasing their social and developmental impact.

Figure 6. Bar graph showing the difficulties African libraries encounter in addressing their priorities

A total of 45 or 22% of the respondents suggested further challenges that their organisations face when trying to address their priorities. These were analysed and grouped into four broad themes as listed below. They include issues around working collaboratively, how to navigate the digital realm, and a lack of resources and capacity. iAfrika addresses these challenges by providing digital skills training, developing new digital resources and facilitating collaboration between people and institutions.

Thinking Digitally – Future African Libraries

Digital resources provided by public libraries in Africa

Survey respondents were asked to indicate the digital resources to which their organisations provide access. European language dictionaries, legal information and journals were amongst the main resources while African language dictionaries and archives were slightly less common. Figure 7 shows the percentage of libraries that currently provide access to digital resources including the specific types of resources. Interestingly, little was offered about family and clan histories, which is a popular topic on iAfrika. 

Figure 7. Bar graph showing the percentage of libraries that provide access to selected digital resources 

A total of 47 or 23% of the respondents indicated that their organisations did not offer access to any digital resources. 

iAfrika: a digital service for African public libraries 

Part of the reason iAfrika Digital conducted this survey was to present the iAfrika concept to African librarians and to get feedback on it. iAfrika is a digital library service that provides access to cultural and historical knowledge in African languages. It provides training to librarians and people from local communities so that they can record and share this knowledge on the iAfrika website. iAfrika is optimised for African cell phone users with basic devices and limited amounts of data. 

iAfrika process

The project is based on the iAfrika Digital theory of change. iAfrika offers positive outputs and long-term societal changes such as:

  • Developing literacy and digital skills
  • Recording and improving access to relevant knowledge
  • Promoting local languages and knowledge
  • Supporting social inclusion and cohesion
  • Contributing to a knowledge society / economy

Potential challenges that iAfrika might face

Survey respondents were asked to consider potential challenges that iAfrika might face, which are shown in Figure 8. 

Figure 8. Bar graph showing potential issues and challenges that iAfrika might face

Key concerns were the reliability of community-generated content and the cost of the service, both for library users and the libraries involved. This has informed iAfrika’s pricing model to ensure that it remains a cost-effective service that can be taken up by public libraries in Africa.

The nature of community-generated information means that there are often multiple, and sometimes conflicting, versions. For example: 

  • Who is the rightful chief? 
  • Which branch of the traditional church is the correct one? 
  • How is this custom correctly performed? 

In many instances, there are variations on how customs are carried out. There are also multiple versions of the past that are mobilised for different reasons at different times. This prompts readers to acknowledge and assess different sources of information, thereby stimulating improved information literacy. A variety of perspectives contributes to a diverse knowledge resource: inclusive in its approach and representative in the materials it offers. 

Potential benefits of iAfrika

Survey respondents were asked to comment on the iAfrika project and the potential benefits it offers public libraries in Africa. Their responses are presented in Figure 9. The project provides improved access to relevant information but also has potential to attract new library users, to promote African languages and community outreach, and to support literacy in various forms (reading, digital, information). Respondents largely confirmed that major aspects of the theory of change could be realised through use of the iAfrika platform. 

Figure 9. Bar graph showing the potential benefits of iAfrika

A total of 23 or 11% of the respondents listed other potential benefits of the iAfrika project which included supporting social and development goals, enhancing the visibility and profile of libraries and promoting reading. 

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