OPINION | Challenges of improving Nigeria’s dilapidated public library system

“Roughly 40 percent of adults in Nigeria and 27 percent of youth are illiterate. That’s according to a 2015 UNESCO study,” said Femi Oke, host of The Stream on Al Jazeera, as she introduced last week’s show on Nigeria’s dilapidated public libraries.

“I’m thinking how many amazing authors has Nigeria given the world?” she added later. “The list goes on and on and on. Why is there a disconnect between the literary canon and how many illiterate Nigerians there are? That doesn’t make sense for me.”

“Experts fear those numbers will only rise if the country doesn’t address its deteriorating functional public libraries,” said co-host Malika Bilal. “Advocates say libraries are an ‘equal opportunity leveller’ and play an important role in the promotion of reading habits, but say the current condition of the Nigeria’s library system does not encourage reading. They say lack of leadership, underfunding, and poor maintenance has produced libraries full of outdated materials and left the buildings themselves in shambles.”

This summary was echoed during the show, both by the guests and The Stream’s lively social media community.

“Funding got cut down drastically and that changed things,” Nkem Osuigwe, director of the Anambra state Library Board, told The Stream. “Because of that, new books were not coming in, chairs got old, legs fell off, shelves were and still are falling down. How will you feel comfortable in that kind of environment to read?… When the libraries don’t look welcoming, what do you expect? No one wants to take his or her child there.”

But Osuigwe pointed out that the quality of the existing libraries was not the only issue, pointing out that Nigeria had more than 300 public libraries – for an estimated population of 180m. “It doesn’t work at all,” she said.

She added that it’s important to look at the wider picture of publishing in Nigeria. “It’s not just a matter of, ‘There are no books on the shelves.’ We used to get donations from Book Aid International. But you find they will give you books but those books don’t really talk about you. There is a global body of knowledge but you find out that you still have to domesticate some concepts, some ideas so that children will understand them.”

Funmi Ilori, the founder of iRead Network Africa, added. “We have a lot of beautiful books here in Nigeria but not many of them are targeted to young children… We need a lot of focus on this new generation of children.”

In response to the crisis, Ilori has started a mobile library, delivering books to schoolchildren hungry to read. “Even though we tell the children they can only have one book a week, the children are pleading to say, ‘Can we have two? Can we have three books?’”

She makes the children review what they read. “The children are not as interested in reviewing the book, as much as they want to read the book, but part of the goal is not for them to only be readers but also be writers.”

The Stream also discussed the importance of teacher training and the challenges of digitisation in a country where access to electricity, let alone computers or the internet, can’t be taken for granted.

Last month, the Speaker of the House ordered the Committee on Basic Education and Services to work with the Federal Ministry of Education on finding solutions and report back to the House within eight weeks. In addition, Nigeria’s National Library recently announced it is working with Norway to digitise its book collection.

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