Last November I had the chance to sit with a group of 20 librarians, technologists, NGO workers, and ministry representatives in Accra, Ghana for a discussion about models of accessing information and the potential role of public libraries to power development objectives.
Participants shared anecdotes about recent or current development projects that involve partnerships with public libraries. Ibrahim Inusah, from the Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS) spoke of a project where GINKS and a library collaborated to develop an in-library resource center for fisherman. Unfortunately, GINKS is no longer in regular contact with the library and could not say if the resource center continues to operate.
Aaron Kuwornu shared his experience implementing a Public Library Innovation Project (PLIP) in partnership with NGO Savannah Signatures at his library in Tamale, located in the northern region of Ghana. The project focuses on ICT training and leadership skills for youth. Implementing the project and partnering with an NGO was a learning process, according to Kuwornu. In fact, they had to switch implementing partners. But the relationship with Savannah Signatures has led to rapid implementation of program activities, as well as spin-off activities. Savannah Signatures now hosts monthly technology salon discussions at the library, each one focusing on a different emerging technology and open to all community members.
The most common theme of the discussion was the need to reorient that status of the library, to make it reflective of the times. The technologists and NGO representatives readily offered their service for libraries, saying “just ask us for ways to make it relevant.”
An ongoing challenge in Ghana is the need for repackaged information. High illiteracy rates and linguistic diversity mean that any one information product has to be adapted for different audiences. Community radio stations are frequently employed to work around these issues, but libraries can also have a place in helping citizens access and understand information from a wider variety of sources.
Everyone agreed that, if modernized, public libraries can act as hubs for information related to livelihoods, health, and could even become centers of distance learning. All participants expressed concern, though, that many public libraries may not have the capacity to go into partnership. There was also agreement that NGOs can sometimes be difficult partners, as evidenced by the PLIP experience in Tamale.
The participating NGO representatives and technologists clearly saw opportunities for partnership and the potential value of public libraries. Kafui Prebbie from TechAIDE shared his organization’s approach to working with NGOs and partners: start with a stakeholder analysis and move to clearly outlined objectives. Understanding stakeholder needs and then making sure stakeholders understand how an initiative will meet those needs are keys to success for tech programs, a strategy that Prebbie said is transferable to libraries.
The representative of Esoko, a software company that has developed a mobile platform for disseminating agricultural information to farmers, spoke about the similar concept of information dissemination between the Esoko platform and public libraries: using networks and contacts to get to thousands of people. As he said, the infrastructure exists in public libraries, libraries just need to be linked together with development projects. “At the end of the day, it’s the country that benefits.”
One participant went so far as to suggest that donor agencies should require that certain projects partner with libraries. In a follow-up discussion about whether or not participants felt that was a realistic expectation, some felt that some donors are interested in partnership but a library partnership requirement might limit projects. Others said that instead of waiting for donors to specifically include libraries in solicitations, libraries themselves must reach out to donors so they understand the value of public libraries and the role they have and can continue to play in connecting citizens with the information they need to improve their lives.