The Development of Community Libraries in Zimbabwe

In order for a developing country to achieve economic growth, it is vital that it should give full attention to the needs of its outlying communities, which are frequently ignored because of their economic and social deprivation. However, it is often these very communities that contain the seeds for growth and development. Communities in both rural and urban settings need information resources to enable them to develop to their full potential, and this can be achieved by making sure that they are provided with adequate library facilities that can act as conduits for the necessary information provision.
The development of community libraries is of fundamental significance in any country, as they are part of the human and financial capacity necessary for economic and social transformation. Having access to information is an essential requirement for a community because such access brings about much needed improvement in social life and thus less dependency on the central government. What community libraries provide is basic to the survival of rural people who otherwise do not have ready access to sources of information. The rural areas in Zimbabwe, in particular, have always lagged behind in both infrastructure and economic development, and this has led to the current situation where rural people, despite being the majority, remain marginalized.
Prior to Zimbabwe’s independence, libraries were viewed as the preserve of the small white population, and it was only they who had access to well-stocked libraries. However, soon after independence, the incoming government decided to correct the imbalance. In 1981, a library consultant, William Alison, was appointed to examine the state of libraries in Zimbabwe. In essence, this involved examining the user profile of people who used library facilities in the population at large. In his findings, he noted that 90 percent of the population lived in rural areas and had no access to libraries. He then recommended that priority should be given to developing library services in rural areas and disadvantaged communities.
Encouraged by Alison’s findings, the government went a step further in 1982 by commissioning the Swedish Library Commission to carry out another feasibility study. Their brief was: “To consider the present state of library services and their prospective development and financing, with regard to the cultural, social, economic and technical development needs of Zimbabwe.”
Emphasis was given towards the establishment of a Documentation Centre in Harare and a Culture House in each of the fifty-five rural districts of Zimbabwe. In Sweden there are well-developed community libraries that reflect and encourage the cultural heritage of the local area, so they envisaged that community libraries would be built on a similar model in Zimbabwe. Each Culture House was expected to serve as a focal point for community, social and cultural activities, with a community hall where annual agricultural shows would be held, a museum displaying artifacts depicting traditional values and folklore, an arts and crafts workshop, and a library. Students, school leavers, teachers and other user groups would use the library as a place for leisure reading. This was a very noble idea meant to address the information needs of deprived rural communities. While the National Library and Documentation Service (NLDS) Act of 1985 had planned for the fifty-five districts of Zimbabwe each to have a Culture House, none have been built since the prototype Murehwa Culture House was opened by the President of Zimbabwe amid much pomp and fanfare. Among interested organizations, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) sponsors book purchase schemes whereby rural libraries get reading material with local content, and the Zimbabwe Book Development Council (ZBDC) has made inroads into rural communities by promoting a reading culture whereby they provide school and community libraries with vouchers, using the Book Fund Project to purchase locally published books by Zimbabwean authors, thus helping these authors and nurturing indigenous languages.
Other organizations that have facilitated the establishment of community libraries in Zimbabwe include: the Edward Ndlovu Memorial Library Trust, operating in Gwanda district, Matebeleland South; the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP), operating in the Matebeleland provinces and the Midlands; the Rotary clubs; the Herbert Chitepo Library Trust, which is national in outlook; and the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN), which provides an information service
Following the collapse of the Culture House project, non-governmental organizations took it upon themselves to spearhead the development of community libraries. School development committees, parent-teacher associations, rural and urban councils and other organizations have driven the development of library and information facilities in disadvantaged communities throughout the country. pertinent to women’s issues and gender. The Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme, which is a community based not-for-profit non-governmental organization formed in 1990 with the objective of establishing and developing community libraries and information services to empower the rural population, has to date played a crucial role in the development of community libraries in Zimbabwe. The National Library and Documentation Service (NLDS), working through the National Free Library, have facilitated the establishment of 41 school/community libraries. However, these libraries are only located in Matabeleland South Province. It is the Rural Library and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP) that is credited with development of most community libraries.
According to Obadiah T. Moyo, the Secretary General of RLRDP, the organization has assisted in the establishment of “300 rural community libraries, 10 donkey-drawn mobile libraries and 130 book delivery bicycles. They provide an extension outreach service in areas where proper roads are not available. About 105 rural libraries have access to computers.”
RLRDP works through partnership with rural communities when setting up resource centres. RLRDP member libraries operate from either a primary or secondary school; they also serve as community libraries in that they cater for youth groups and communities at large. It is important to note that RLRDP uses donkey-drawn mobile libraries, two of which have Internet facilities that are powered by solar panels. It has managed to penetrate remote corners of vast districts and provided information in support of formal education, computer literacy skills, work to combat HIV/AIDS, and issues to do with gender equality and development. It is very clear that the areas that are
covered have benefited immensely, as they have been provided with facilities to train and develop expertise within their communities.
Donkey-drawn mobile libraries were first conceptualized and developed by RLRDP in the Nkayi district of Zimbabwe in 1995. It is a very important initiative that has attracted world attention, and has been recognized and commended by the World Summit on the Information Society, which indicated that access to information leads to sustainable development. The RLRDP also promotes community libraries by providing relevant reading materials, sponsoring debates in communities about issues and problems affecting daily life, providing the means and mechanisms for continuing education for everyone in the community, and pooling resources to benefit the wider spectrum of the community through networking activities. All these tasks have proved successful as they reinforce a sense of collective responsibility for the community libraries that have been established.
The further development of community libraries will depend, by and large, on the government’s willingness to support and embrace library and information services development in its national plans. In Zimbabwe, a country currently with a poor human and financial resource base because of the current economic meltdown, all efforts to develop community libraries now need concerted efforts through the co-operation of all the important stakeholders. It will also be necessary for writers, publishers, booksellers, libraries and librarians to co-operate so that community access to information is broadened. This co-operation will form the basis for sustainable use of these community libraries in all parts of the country.

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