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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 004-108-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Mobile Libraries
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 108
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Provision of school library services by means of mobile libraries - the Zimbabwe experience

Robin W. Doust,
Bulawayo Public Library, Zimbabwe
E-mail: bpl@telconet.co.zw


One of the major problems in providing good quality education in developing countries is the high cost of library services to schools. Many third world countries are caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating educational facilities resulting from the devaluation of local currencies coupled with inflationary trends in the overseas countries from which they buy books.

Such a problem exists in Zimbabwe, where school libraries in primary schools are almost non-existent, and where they do exist, usually consist of donated books which are often totally unsuitable for the children who are expected to read them. This is a very dangerous situation, since children who meet badly stocked libraries with out of date books not only fail to find usable reading materials, but are also led to believe that libraries in general are boring places, and they are thus permanently discouraged from reading for pleasure.

A further problem lies in the fact that the importance of trained library staff has not yet been recognised in Zimbabwe, and school libraries, where they exist at all, are almost always run by a teacher, usually from the English teaching staff, who gets no additional pay for the work and is expected to do it in their very limited spare time. There is thus a general reluctance for teachers to spend adequate time running the library, and this fact, coupled with a total lack of funding for the purchase of books has greatly inhibited the development of school libraries. In the current financial year, 94% of the Ministry of Education budget will be used to pay staff salaries - only 6% remains to maintain and build new schools, provide textbooks, exercise books, library books and to generally develop the education service. Needless to say, this is not enough, and library services are one of the first to be quietly forgotten.

This problem surfaced quite early when the Bulawayo Public Library started a mobile library service in 1978 - the first in what was then Rhodesia. Initially using a converted bus, which was the only available vehicle at the time, the service was provided to a number of shopping centres and old people's homes in the former European residential areas. The Public Library operates as a subscription library, as are all libraries in Zimbabwe today, and originally served only European readers, with a separate and well funded service being provided by the Bulawayo City Council directly to the former African residential areas. The Public Library does receive a large grant from the City Council each year, but is an independent body run as a co-operative by its members, although it works closely with other libraries in the city to provide the widest possible coverage of service.

When the mobile service started, a number of requests were soon received from local primary schools to provide direct services on a weekly basis for pupils, and several schools began to receive a service. Later, as the service became more popular, a number of mobile service points were replaced with fixed libraries, and additional time became available in the mobile timetable. This was shortly after the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980, and it quickly became apparent that there was massive demand for school library services in the African residential areas where the Library had not previously operated. In some cases this came from older areas where the City Council's Municipal Library Service did not yet operate, and in other cases it came from newly built residential suburbs, where many new schools were under construction.

The opportunity was taken to greatly expand the school library portion of the mobile service, and when the Library was able to add a second mobile to its fleet as a result of a donated vehicle from The Netherlands in 1996, a huge expansion in the schools service resulted. The Library now has two purpose built bookmobiles, which replaced the earlier converted buses, and one (originally used by the North East Scotland library Service, and donated in 1993 by Bulawayo's twin city, Aberdeen) is now used entirely by schools. The other vehicle, a larger, DAF, vehicle previously in use by the North Brabant Provincial Library Service, provides both adult and children's books.

At the present time a total of 37 schools receive a weekly library service using the two available bookmobiles, and approximately 3,700 children have access to the library service as a result. In addition, a waiting list of additional schools has built up which cannot at present be satisfied, but the Library is currently negotiating with a Netherlands provincial library authority for the possible acquisition of an additional vehicle, which may enable the service to be further extended.

Our experience in Bulawayo has been so entirely successful that I feel that other developing countries may be able to benefit from it, and I therefore propose to go into the financial aspects of the provision of a library service to schools by means of mobile libraries in rather more detail.

Due to the very serious lack of funding provided for the Bulawayo Public Library, we have been totally dependent on overseas donations for bookstock for the past ten years, and although we purchased the first mobile library vehicles from our own funds up to 1984, the vehicles currently in use were also sourced as donations. However, for the purposes of financial comparison I will assume that full commercial prices for books and secondhand vehicles will be payable. I am fully aware that libraries in the developed world would never consider the possibility of used vehicles, but the financial restrictions imposed on libraries in the developing world are such that it will often be a case of a second hand vehicle or none at all. In Bulawayo, our first vehicle, an elderly bus, ran successfully for six years before being replaced by a more modern converted bus in 1984, which was used for nine years before it was replaced by a used vehicle from Scotland. The Scottish vehicle and the more recently acquired DAF bookmobile from The Netherlands are both still in regular and reliable service, and it is clear that the life expectancy of a good used mobile library, if properly looked after, can be significant.

Other savings can be made in the provision of books, since the use of a mobile vehicle enables a single stock of books to service many different schools. Our small Bedford mobile serves 19 schools and has shelving for about 3,500 books. We provide a bookstock of approximately 5,500, of which 2,000 are out on loan at any one time. Books are returned at each school visited to replenish the shelves ready for the next school, and there is a very heavy turnover of books. In comparison, to provide a library of 2,000 books at each of the 19 schools visited by this vehicle would take no less than 38,000 books, while the cost of providing rooms and furnishings for 19 different libraries would be an enormous additional expenditure.

On the debit side is the fact that because the Bookmobile only visits each school for about an hour each week, the library is not available for study or research use at other times. Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this, but these schools would have no library service at all if it were not for the mobile service and the vast numbers of books borrowed on the service (about 72,000 per vehicle each year) make it clear that good use is made of it.

A further area of economy lies in the staffing implications. Each Bookmobile carries a staff of two, of which one is a qualified and experienced librarian and the other an experienced junior assistant. Due to the necessity to collect user fees, considerably more work is involved than in a free library, but the staff of two handles loans of around 6,000 books per month. If separate libraries were provided in each school, at least 19 separate people would be involved in running the services, none of whom would have any proper training or knowledge of books and literature. If the cost of a reasonable allowance for the work of these untrained library administrators is compared with the cost of the two full time staff on the Bookmobile, there is not only a dramatic saving in expenditure, but also a better service to users due to the specialised training and experience of the full time Bookmobile staff.

Against the manifest advantages of offering a schools library service by means of mobile libraries there must be weighed the cost of fuel and maintenance for the vehicle. In Bulawayo, these costs amount to about Z$1,500 (US$75) per month, so the cost is by no means excessive. Even depreciation of a vehicle over a reasonable six year life would amount to only US$3500 per year, or less than US$300 per month, which is a small price to pay for the massive educational advantages which accrue from the service, and is probably little more than the cost of cleaning and maintaining 19 separate library facilities in different schools.

Of course, economies of the scale outline above can only be realised by a mobile service operating in a town or city, and I believe that the use of bookmobiles in the cities of a developing country offers greater scope for cost effective service provision than the provision of a similar service in rural areas. Whilst we are all aware that library services are terribly important in rural areas, it is also a fact that, increasingly, rural-urban drift is concentrating populations in urban areas, and it is much cheaper to provide a city library service than a rural service. In the case of the mobile library service, distances to be covered are much reduced, thus reducing fuel consumption, and roads are usually tarred, with consequent benefits in maintenance costs. In addition, many more locations can be visited in a single day, bringing the benefits of the service to many more users. I am aware that this is a rather controversial way to look at a mobile library service in a developing country, but I am also aware of the many published accounts in which attempts to provide rural library services by bookmobiles have foundered due to high running costs and the short lives of the vehicles due to the harsh terrain over which they operated. In Bulawayo, we have been operating such a service successfully for twenty years now, and I am convinced that such services could offer a way forward for the development of library services in many urban centres in which finance for the proper development of multiple school libraries is totally lacking.

In the final analysis, the whole problem of library services in the developing world comes down to the cost of the service and the need to make it as cost effective as possible. In Bulawayo, because of the way the Library is constituted, we have to charge user fees, which provide over half the total running costs of the Library. Almost all the users of our Bookmobiles are children from low income African families living in the high density housing areas. We charge Z$22.50 (about US$1.50) for a child to borrow one book per week for a year, and such is the importance attached to literacy that we cannot cope with the demand which exists. The income which we receive from each Bookmobile is sufficient to pay most of the direct running and staffing costs of the vehicle, and the service is largely self supporting financially in its daily operation.

The fact that we are able to provide a service to so many children through our Mobile Libraries, and, indeed, a whole range of other services such as an internet and e-mail facility, a study textbook loan service, a Braille book service for the blind, video and talking book loan services in addition to a full range of conventional library services is very largely due to the help which we receive from the international community, and I think it is appropriate that should end my paper with a sincere thank you to the many foreign organisations which have helped my Library over the past few years. I would like to think that we are a good example of what can be achieved by the recycling of otherwise unwanted Library materials from the developed world. Our mobile libraries were donated from Scotland and The Netherlands, we have computers donated by UNESCO and the United States Information Service for our INTERNET service, books donated by Book Aid International in London and the World Bank Volunteer Service in Washington, and whilst I have personal regrets that our government and city councils are so backward that they do not understand the importance of libraries and are very reluctant to fund them, I remain very grateful for the help which we do receive from outside the country which has helped to develop the Bulawayo Public Library into one of the best libraries in Zimbabwe - thank you.


Comparative costs of fixed and mobile library service for 19 schools

					Mobile Service		Fixed Service
Capital cost of used Book-
mobile (including transport)
against cost of 19 new 
library rooms in schools                 
(Z$20,000 each)               		Z$450,000  		Z$  380,000

Cost of bookstock (5,500 on
mobile vehicle against 2,000
in each of 19 schools) @ an 
average cost of Z$50 per book		Z$275,000    		Z$1,900,000

Annual cost of staff (2 full
time on mobile against 1 
part time in each of 19 
schools earning Z$1,000 per 
month)                         		Z$  95,000   		Z$  228,000

Fuel and maintenance on 
Bookmobile against cleaning
and decorating 19 library 
rooms at $50 per month (per
year)                      		Z$  18,000     		 Z$    11,400
                              	   ---------------  	      ---------------
Total expenditure  			 Z$838,000  		 Z$2,519,400
                             		 =========   		 ===========

Exchange rate: approximately Z$16=US$1


  1. BULAWAYO PUBLIC LIBRARY. Triennial Reports 1975-1995. Bulawayo: The Library

  2. Robin W. Doust "Mobile Library for Bulawayo" Zimbabwe Librarian, Vol. 11 Nos 1+2. Jan-June 1979

  3. Robin W. Doust "Mobiles on the cheap". Library Association Record (UK) Vol. 87 No. 5 pp 178 & 189.