The library lives still

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

For my friend, Uzo Onyemaechi, the Millenium librarian. Biri kwe!

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a lovely piece in Guernica magazine, Why Are You here?. It is a sobering commentary on what passes for education in Nigeria.  Hear Adichie:

“It is not surprising that parents do not want their children to attend university in Nigeria. Many students themselves would leave if they had the opportunity. About ten years ago, I left after almost three years at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, not so much because of the conditions, which were not good, but because I no longer wanted to study medicine. Now, the student complaints are sadly the same—the classes are overcrowded, no books in the library, no computers, no chemicals in the lab, lecturers force students to buy handouts which are just recycled outdated textbooks, incessant lecturer strikes elongate programs, exam schedules are often haphazard. Private universities are increasing in the country, many of them affiliated to churches, many of them expensive.”

Adichie’s piece is fascinating reading. Lately, I have been reflecting on what used to be the hub of learning in every institution – the library. Once upon a time we had to go to the library, the house of books for knowledge and entertainment. Now, ideas and entertainment come to us wherever we are. Our leaders persist in building houses of books still and they are despondent that increasingly few people come to visit the temple of books. The world is changing. Traditional libraries are dying everywhere for different reasons. In Nigeria, academics and rulers entrusted with the sacred rite of educating beautiful children have made off with the funds meant for education and deposited them and their children abroad for personal safekeeping. There is a hot place in hell for them. It is the eternal shame of my people that the only libraries that ever functioned for the children of my generation were libraries founded by white folks. When they left, the libraries were mulched by thieving termites and locusts.

This is a huge shame. I would not be here today without the library of my childhood. I salute the Catholic priests for the gift of reading. They did many wrong things to us but they certainly gave us an eternal library of ideas that many of us carry with us everywhere we go today. As a little boy growing up in Nigeria, I travelled the world in books. The walls of my school’s library fairly throbbed with the power of words. I loved the library and it was one place where you could find me, basking in the smell of books. I remember the few distractions that kept me from the library of my childhood. There were girls. Then there was the coming of television to the same village. The library suddenly started getting stiff competition.

Advances in media technology are forcing libraries to go to people rather than for people to go to them. Distributive, push, rather than pull. I would argue that the custodians of libraries all over the world did not see the internet revolution coming. When they did, they remained complacent, convinced that it would be a passing fad.  Attempts at reform have been half hearted; it is not enough today to simply install a bunch of desktop computers in a library and christen it a “media centre.” When librarians bother to examine how today’s children live their lives they would understand why funeral dirges keep humming in the ears of their dying libraries.

The other day, my daughter and I went to a newly built library in our community. It is a beautiful library, well thought out, spacious, with meeting rooms and couches for reading. It is welcoming, warm and nurturing, with art adorning its walls. As we walked the halls, I asked her what she thought of the library, she shrugged: “Seems like a waste of space. All of this would fit in my laptop.” When I recovered from the shock of her words, I wondered if anyone had ever thought of including a student in the design team. I thought of my daughter doing her homework on her computer, along with her colleagues on Skype.  I thought of the way she puts together her papers and it occurred to me as I came up with the decision tree, increasingly, the traditional library is no longer part of the equation. The library is going the way of the post office.

Many institutions now have media centers, staffed by media specialists, a happy medium of analog books and digital media that tries to make the point that both can co-exist peacefully. The march to the current dispensation is stalled only by the denial of the powerful. These are incredibly stressful times. They are also exciting times to be alive. Let us dream of the possibilities. What will schools look like in the future? Leadership involves charting society’s changes and forging an appropriate communal vision. Ideas live. Books are dying. What will a library look like in 20, 30, 100 years? Who is today’s librarian? The library lives in all of us.