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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Libraries and Cultural Priorities in Africa

Elizabeth Matare
Assistant Librarian
University of Zimbabwe


This paper examines the unique cultural role that libraries perform in African societies. Historically libraries in Africa have been influenced by the colonial powers. The libraries of the colonial era existed primarily to facilitate the provision of educational entertainment and recreational needs of the European settler population and to acculturate the Africans. As Amadi (1981) puts it "...libraries remain essentially token agencies symbolic of the colonial mentality...". (1) Amadi further argues that colonial brainwashing resulted not only in acculturation of Africans but in social discontinuity. Pre-colonial Africa had generated, stored and disseminated information through verbal, ritual, legends, myths poems and ceremonies. This oral tradition was substituted by the printed word, which remains one of the primary means of disseminating information whether transmitted through newspapers, books or, other forms of graphic materials.

Amadi also assets that American libraries exist to meet the needs of Americans, British libraries exist for the British, while African libraries, because they are both American and British have neither an African clientele nor services. It is indeed surprising that more than thirty years after independence many African countries are still struggling to develop librarianship so that it can match or reflect the social economic and political conditions which prevail in Africa.

In Africa almost all countries are committed to the notion of national development and are therefore seeking consciously to bring about fundamental changes in the lives of African people, change which will extend to the political social as well as economic spheres. They are seeking to achieve this change, whilst at the same time seeking to preserve as much as possible of the distinctive local cultures. Michael Wise (1985) argues that African librarianship has the immense potential to pull Africa out of the cultural crisis caused by decades of colonialism and misdirection.

Probably the most important long term and certainly the most rewarding task, despite its difficulties will be the fostering of the role of libraries in the structuring and restructuring of an African culture. Jesse Shera reinforces this in her statement "The library is one element in the total communication system by which a society is held together and a culture is created and maintained" (2)

At the present moment representative populations may mislead information needs considering the literacy rates in Africa. The heaviest users of the libraries are the people with higher levels of formal education, the people who make the most use of other "legitimate" cultural media. It is the elite among Africans who tend to be the most vocal in championing African ideals despite damaging allegations that African elites are victims of cultural imperialism observed through the Western Education they received.

These readers are not representatives of the whole community. This suggests that what the Western educated men say about African culture may not be true. It needs the involvement of African elders still socializing in the African culture if the truth about the different cultures and subcultures in Africa are to be understood. Such understanding is the diagnosis leading to the panacea for cultural information needs in Africa.

The other problem lies in the fact that there's a conflict between making available information which the people want and the culture which the librarians educated in the vein of the dominant culture think that the people need. The librarians isolate themselves from the readers. They have failed to develop a symbolic relationship with the African society because the people do not identify themselves with the libraries. Those who are illiterate find libraries irrelevant to their needs. Mchombu sees the need for Africa to have librarians who are dedicated towards the development of libraries that will satisfy the information needs of the society "libraries are not for librarians, library buildings are not for books and other media stored in them. Libraries are for people."(3)

The users of public libraries in Africa look on them mainly as a service of supply of non-fictional material of textbook type, for study and formal education. Their cultural role is secondary.

A.R. Thompson (1981) with reference to cultural diversity in Africa claims that "...each group is likely to possess its own vernacular language, its own pattern of religous beliefs, its own moral and aesthetic, values and its own distinctive clusters of social institutions customs..."(4) Because of the multi ethnicity nature of the African society, a lot of problems are created for the librarians who are responsible for the selection and collection development policies. Information needs of such different societies can never be the same. Most libraries acquire materials in the official languages. In Zimbabwe the official languages are English, Shona, Ndebele and this means the other indigenous languages are not represented on the literal scene. This problem is linked to the lack of a strong indigenous and autonomous publishing industry that will be instrumental in developing local literature without bias or prejudice. The lack of a sound or viable publishing and book marketing industry forces librarians to consider outside markets in order to meet the library's information needs. This sentiment was echoed by Dr Kenneth Kaunda who also lamented that the best books must come from overseas, an attitude shared by the majority of the elite in Africa including Librarians of course (Mchombu 1990) Librarianship has failed to adapt to African conditions because Africa suffers from economic backwardness, political instability and continued exploitation because of neo-colonialism. The library profession does not operate in a vacuum but it is linked to other political economic and social problems. Librarianship has been handicapped by the continued wars in Somalia, Burundi, Liberia and Zaire. In Africa libraries should instill the need for development rather than the dependence and greediness syndrome.

The economic situation in Africa has also impinged upon the development of libraries in Africa. The library development is not regarded as a priority in national development and this is evidenced by the dwindling budgets which are allocated to libraries as compared to national defence and health. The UNESCO charter of 1980 describes information as a basic right after food, clothes and shelter. However the provision of library services in Africa is mainly concentrated in the urban areas as opposed to the rural areas still languishing in deprivation. Most of the funds allocated for library development have benefited the urban areas more than the rural areas. African librarianship will only adapt to African conditions if national governments give greater priority to the development of libraries as opposed to militirization.

Libraries in Africa are also affected by international aid and donations. It is important to distinguish between tied and untied aid with the former being aid with no strings or conditions attached. The later involves certain conditions which will be set by the donor. The dependence of African libraries on tied aid creates the problem of embarking on library development programmes which are irrelevant to the people. Mchombu(1984) puts forward an alternative framework of action; the development of our libraries through our meagre resources without external aid.

The donor agencies have a tendency of withdrawing from financing a particular project and this is a serious problem for African governments. On the other hand books which are donated to the African libraries lack cultural relevance and they have an Eurocentric bias. In Zimbabwe, the Murehwa culture house is a good example of a library that has failed to meet the information needs of targeted clientele because the bulk of the books are donations.

Libraries in Africa are failing to develop their collections in line with needs of their communities. That is why Nyerere argued that "...the first problem we have not solved is that of building sufficient self-confidence to refuse what we regard as the world's best...and to choose instead the most appropriate for our condition"(5) He further argued that it is impossible for Africa to expect the West to develop it but only to develop itself from meagre resources.

There is a dire need to improve the training and education of librarians in order to make it relevant to the African conditions. The library and information science curriculum should include teaching oral tradition and audio-visual materials and technology. The library training offered abroad has proved to be equality irrelevant because students are often compelled to take courses which were designed for a totally different information environment.

In Africa the library profession ranks low as compared to engineers and doctors because the profession is still developing. Zimbabwe established a division of Library and Information Science after independence. The Zimbabwe Library Association is still in its infant stage of development. The professional bodies in Africa lack cooperation and this has influenced the structure of services provided by the libraries. The librarians are introverts because they do not actively participate in politics.

In the area of organization of knowledge and its retrieval the International Conference on African bibliography voiced concern at the lack of African classification schemes. The Western classification and cataloguing rules are used in most African libraries but they are irrelevant to the needs of Africa. In the first place, Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme, UDC and Bliss, LC all reflect cultural, imperialism. It seems African librarians haven't bothered to develop classification schemes which are relevant to the needs of Africa. The Standing Conference of African University libraries (1980) identifies the need for a definitive schedules for the classification of African history, languages and technology. Africa needs classification Schemes which take into consideration the diversity of the African culture. Africans need to think beyond DDC, UDC, LC and AACR which smack of cultural imperialism.

"We could learn a lot that would be of great value in this undertaking...if only for a moment we could think beyond our shallow DDC's, SEARS's lists and Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules"(6)

The public libraries in Africa should play a vital role in social-economic development. It is important for the public libraries to provide basic or physiological needs, ecological self-esteem or self actualization. In Africa it is only the younger people who have time to use libraries. The libraries should provide information in the appropriate formats and this will mean that drama, song and dance are important for the people. The public libraries should also embark on community information services as a means of eradicating, alienation and deprivation in African societies. It seems as if African librarianship has failed to fulfil its responsibility for the informational life support and needs of all people in a complex multi-ethnic society.

"Librarians are so concerned with library routines that they will meticulously file main entries, create added entries and worry about the classification tables and then claim to have no time for work in the community" (7)

Mchombu (1984), advocates for an African librarianship which mirrors the social economic and political conditions in Africa. He argues that the pattern of information work in Africa is determined by poverty rather than affluence. The nature of information work differs remarkably from the Western world. There's greater need to involve the African librarians in the process of socio-economic development. The anatomy of poverty in Africa should be the key determinant of the objectives and philosophy of librarianship in Africa.

The other problem to be considered are the existing social factors and their implications on libraries. The education offered in African schools fails to sustain one's reading habits. This education system in Africa according to Ajayi Crowder offers little opportunity for innovation, experimentation and objective analysis. The education system in Africa fails to complement reading. It is important to reorganize the educational research as a means of developing one's intellectual capacity. As Thompson further explains that "...this will depend upon the ability of African educationist and decision makers to analyse their own situation..."(8) The kind of education a person receives will determine that person's use of libraries in the future.

Africa has a high illiteracy rate and this makes it impossible for people in the rural areas and the urban towns to appreciate the value of libraries. The absence of strong book development councils is a great weakness for Africa. The book development councils should promote the reading habit and strive to strike a harmonious balance between production, distribution and consumption of reading materials. The presence of book development councils enables libraries to adapt to African conditions.

In conclusion I would support Mchombu's assertion that the way forward for African librarianship will be closely linked to the fortunes of Africa. The libraries and librarians are custodians of the African culture because they are responsible for storing and producing the materials when needed. The public libraries should store stories, narratives drama, reproductions of rock paintings and regalia or real objects which will be of great value to the present and future generations. The libraries in Africa, however need to be revisited and reorganized so that they can contribute immensely to the full or all round development of Africans.

"Libraries are a source of power this power deriving principally from the fact that libraries are storehouses of knowledge and the repositories of the records of mankind's achievement...They are instruments of social and political change. And as the guardians of freedom of thought they are the bastions of liberty."(9)

African Governments should embark on programmes that are relevant to the people. The post independence era has seen expansion of libraries in urban and rural areas. It is important for librarians in Africa to play an important role in the process of repackaging information. There's a lot of literature concerning legislations like Copyright Acts, Legal Age of Majority Act and others which need to be reinterpreted in a simple format like drama, song and dance. The libraries and librarians can succeed in promoting even peace, unity and development even though politicians have failed.

Finally university libraries in Africa should play a vital role in the development of libraries in Africa through promoting research which furthers the need to advance the knowledge on African librarianship. It is important that the highest institutions of knowledge be instrumental in supporting the development of an African oriented body of knowledge on African librarianship. Budding librarians should publish their professional contributions that will be accessible to the people of Africa not Europe.


  1. Amadi, Adolphe O. Western Tradition and Colonial Brainwashing, London : The Scarecrow Press, 1981 p. 205

  2. Ibid p. 206

  3. Patridge, W.G. Low Budget Librrianship : Managing Information in Developing Countries , London: Library Association Publishing Limited, 1988 p. 8.

  4. Thompson, A.R. Education and Development in Africa ,Harare : College Press, 1981

  5. Ibid p. 14

  6. Mchombu, K.J. On the Librrianship of Povery in : Library Training in Eastern Central and Southern Africa , Bonn : DSE, 1982 p. 137

  7. Ken, G.W. Libraries in Developing Countries , London : McGraw Hill, 1981 p. 43

  8. Thompson, A.R. Education and Development in Africa , Harare : College Press, 1981 p. 43

  9. Ken, G.W. Libraries in the Developing Countries , London : McGraw Hill 1982 p. 24.


  1. Amadi Adolphe O. African Libraries : Western Tradition and Colonial Brainwashing London : Scarecrow Press 1981.

  2. Benge, R.C. Cultural Crisis and Libraries in the Third World London : Clive Bingley, 1976

  3. Benge, R.C. Libraries and Cultural Change London : McGraw Hill, 1982

  4. Ken, G.W. Libraries in the Developing Countries London : McGraw-Hill 1982

  5. Mchombu, K.J. The Relationship poverty. In Library Training in Eastern Central and Southern Africa Bonn : DSE, 1982.

  6. Mchombu, Kingo J. Which way African Librarianship. Paper Presented at 56th IFLA General Conference, Stockholm, Sweden 18-24 August, 1990.

  7. Patridge, W.G. Law Budget Librarianship : Managing Information in Developing Countries London : Library Association Publishing Limited 1988.

  8. Rogers, A. Robert The Library in Society, Littleton (Col), Libraries Unlimited Inc., c1984.

  9. Thompson, A.R. Education and Development in Africa Harare : College Press 1981

  10. Wise, Michael (ed) Aspects of African Librarianship : A Collection of Writings London : Mansell Publishing Limited, 1985