Imposing Libraries: The Establishment of National Public Library Services in Africa, with Particular Reference to Kenya

Diana Rosenberg

floral device Introduction

The national public library services of East, West and Southern Africa saw their beginnings in the era of Africa’s political independence. Thirty years later, these library services are generally in decay and disarray; they are placed low on national lists of priorities, and government funding is made grudgingly, if at all. The public library movement in Africa cannot be deemed a success.

Librarians in Africa usually cite the lack of government support — leading to poor collections, to inadequate physical facilities and resources, to low salaries, to lack of trained staff — as the reason for the failure. But this does not answer the question of why governments fail to support. Others have given the wholesale transplanting of the British public library to Africa and the continued dependence on this Western model, without thought for the needs of African users, as the cause [1]. There is some truth in this, but it does not explain why national public library systems became a part of the independence package in so many African countries, and why national, as opposed to decentralized, systems were chosen. The British model, faithfully transplanted, would have produced decentralized public library operations.

An understanding of the historical dimension is important. One cannot ignore the legacies of the past. Capabilities and requirements must always be considered against the perspective of circumstances and institutions inherited from the past. Everything works within an inherited framework, which is more difficult to change than it might appear. An in–depth analysis of the origins of national library services may go some way to enabling us to understand the subsequent history of public libraries in Africa and will provide a base on which realistic suggestions for improvement and change can be made.

Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) is a typical example of those African public library services set up at the time of independence, during the 1950s and 1960s. The report recommending a centralized state supported public library system for Kenya was made in 1960. Kenya gained independence in 1963; the Act establishing Kenya National Library Service was passed in 1965 and gazetted in 1967. The mandate of KNLS was to promote, establish, equip, manage, maintain, and develop libraries in Kenya as a National Library Service. Based on a strong central library, it aimed to develop public libraries first at the provincial or area level and then at the district or branch level, while maintaining postal services to individuals and block borrowing to institutions. But by 1990, only eight out of a possible 42 district libraries had been established; the postal service had only seven members; block borrowing by institutions was almost non–existent; mobile libraries were more often than not grounded. For its stock development, KNLS relied on donations; even the money voted for local purchases was rarely available [3]. It was hoped that KNLS would be the ultimate answer to the provision of a library service for the country [4].

There were, of course, libraries of a public nature already existing in Kenya prior to KNLS. These had begun during the earliest days of British rule and had grown up separately around different racial and religious communities; the major ones had been given local and central government support. A library service for Africans, run through the East African Literature Bureau (EALB), was one of the last on the scene, approved in 1950. Opinions differ as to the connection between KNLS and the earlier libraries. One view is that “Kenya National Library Service is the direct product of East African Literature Bureau and East African Library Association.” [5] The present writer argues that the public library service movement was created by African nationalists, leading to the establishment of EALB. It was then the East African Library Association (EALA) which urged in 1958 the replacement of EALB with statutory library boards in each of the three countries of East Africa. Thus Kenyans had already made plans, in anticipation of the British decision in 1959, to make grants for the development of national library services. Another view is that “before independence, [public library] development in Kenya was fragmented and often undertaken to the benefit of the privileged few” and that KNLS “was started from scratch.” [6] This view is supported by a second scholar who argues that EALB foundered through lack of support and “the development of a modern public library service in Kenya ... can be said to have started [in] 1959” with the offer of aid from the British Government; that “the sixties can therefore be said to be the beginning of librarianship–as we know it today in Kenya.” [7]

All the writers acknowledge the debt of Kenyan libraries, especially in the public sector, to outside influences: the developments in West Africa leading to the establishment of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) library board; the publication in 1949 of UNESCO’s Public Library Manifesto, which affirmed the role of the public library as a “living force for popular education;” the subsequent UNESCO seminars on the development of public libraries in Africa; the work of the British Council in developing public libraries in Africa; and the aid provided by the British government. But the outside influences are seen as supporting an already expressed need by Kenyans for a public library system. However these analyses only stand up to examination if it can be proved that Kenyan Africans in general or the newly elected government of independent Kenya did indeed express a desire for a national public library system and support for its establishment.

floral device Kenyan Support for Public Library Services

On the face of it, it may appear that KNLS did grow out of the African Library Service of EALB and the pressures of EALA. Thus the last director of EALB could say of KNLS, “This is the happy culmination of the Bureau’s policy in the library field, as the Bureau’s library activities were always regarded as pioneering efforts which would eventually expand into national library services. The foresight of those who set them up and who for many years provided the only public library services for Africans in East Africa has been justified.” [8] But the EALB was essentially set up as a mechanism of welfare and control. The East African Governors’ Conference in 1944 discussed the role of the African in peace–time East Africa and the importance of guiding his intellectual development. Elspeth Huxley was invited to draw up a scheme for the provision of reading matter for Africans. Her report stressed how important it was for the government to take the initiative of providing good and desirable literature; otherwise the gap would be filled by the bad and undesirable literature of the native press. It was out of her recommendations that African public library service was born. This is not surprising. The idea of library colonialism has been well documented and it is generally agreed that the library in colonial Africa was used to support the requirements of the mother country [9]. Throughout its existence, European control of the African library service was maintained. Only one member of the advisory committee in Kenya was an African; the book box libraries were generally under the control of the municipal African affairs officer, the district commissioner, the community development officer, or the information officer, all invariably European until just before independence. For the European, expenditure on African welfare was to be limited to what was absolutely necessary and if possible the African should finance it himself. These attitudes are displayed in the choice of books for the service: EALB was charged to provide useful books, rather than the social sciences preferred by the educated African. In 1952, the EALB librarian stated “I note that the books read were those dealing with government and politics. I suppose this is inevitable. I feel however, that we should be doing more good if we could persuade Africans to read, a little more, books of information and useful knowledge.” [10] In the event, by the time that KNLS was established, the services of the EALB had more or less disintegrated and there was nothing left to be absorbed into the national development programme. In fact the director himself said, “we start from scratch and the Library Board ... [has] the exciting prospect, together with the exacting responsibility of building a National Library Service from the beginning.” [11]

Nor is the role played by the EALA really a reflection of African opinion on public libraries. The EALA of this time represented European rather than African views. In 1961 there was only one African member. Until independence, EALA acted almost as a branch of the British Library Association and was colonial in its outlook. The chairman’s speech to the conference in 1958, supporting the plans for public library development, exemplified this attitude: “Frustration and bitterness may be caused by a hold up in the provision of a library service. ... We have started to educate the peoples of East Africa. ... Can we dare afford not to (spend more on completing the task)?” [12]

Nor did the use made by Africans of the services of the EALB evidence a strong desire for a centralized public library service. The director of EALB, writing as early as 1963, describes the services as “experimental.” [13] The first director of KNLS recalls only two people who used the services to advantage — one used EALB books to pass a university entrance examination and the other obtained a B.A. degree by supplementing his correspondence course with books from EALB [14]. He concludes that “the service did not make a great impact on the country” [15] and that the “1950s were uneventful from the point of view of library development.” [16] Although use increased once EALB started to support the development of static libraries in the late 1950s and the postal service proved very popular, the book box libraries, the core of EALB service, never even achieved the minimum use expected of them. EALB considered “a regular issue of at least 50 books a month in a library centre would justify provision,” [17] but this total was rarely reached.

The idea of setting up a national public library service did not win much support from the Kenyan governments, either before or after independence. In July 1961, the “post–election” government, with its strong African representation, rejected the Hockey Report and the Colonial Office aid that came with it for setting up a library service, because of other pressing commitments. A revised scheme reducing expenditure by the Kenyan government to £4337, around a quarter of the original proposal, was put forward for consideration the next year [18]. Hockey reported how difficult it was to get a hearing in Kenya for his proposals, [19] and the British Council frequently lamented the fact that newly independent Commonwealth governments in general overlooked “the importance of a soundly based library service to their further development in all fields.” [20] In Kenya it took five years from the submission of the Hockey Report until the act establishing KNLS was passed by Parliament. Even then evidence of commitment is hard to find. KNLS was passed from ministry to ministry: in 1965 Social Services and then Education; in 1966 the vicepresident’s office; in 1967 Natural Resources; in 1972 Co–operatives and Social Services. The annual reports of the KNLS board lament the lack of commitment shown by the government. The amounts of money voted for the running of the service were negligible: up to 1968, only £9000 per annum was awarded, a care and maintenance sum. The amounts were then gradually increased, reaching £80,000 in 1973. However this was still far from the annual expenditure of £512,000 estimated as being necessary for even a modest development of library services [21]. In fact the Kenyan government was committed to extending formal education and did not accept the connection between that goal and the establishment of public libraries, despite the exhortations of librarians. The pleas by the KNLS board in its report of 1971 that “there is an obvious link between formal education and public libraries” fell on deaf ears; and a remark by the influential politician and minister Tom Mboya that “scholarships for librarians, when engineers are needed, are a waste of time” reflected current opinion on the importance of public libraries to development in Kenya.

It is worth noting that whilst plans for setting up a national public library service went ahead at the top, there were other views and trends present. Libraries of a public nature in Kenya, apart from the library services of EALB, had always arisen to satisfy local, communal needs. In this they mirrored the development of public libraries in Britain and America. Once it became clear after 1960 that Kenya would win independence with an African majority, African District Councils (ADCs) began to take a direct interest in setting up libraries. The movement started with Kiambu in 1959, followed in 1961 and 1962 by Nyeri, Embu, and Kilifi, and in 1963 Kisii. Eldoret Municipality in 1961 was the first of the local government authorities to start a library service for its residents. The Ruringu Memorial Library (Nyeri) was started by African initiative. In 1962 it was reported that ADCs in nearly every province were requesting libraries [22]. Although support, somewhat grudgingly, was given to these libraries by EALB, the growth of a public library movement through local initiative, with local authority support and meeting local needs, was killed by the plans for development at the national level. An interesting correspondence took place in the 1960s over the relevance of national library services to East Africa and shows that the idea was not necessarily supported by librarians. A correspondent from Uganda felt that a centralized service was not relevant. “The main duty of librarians in East Africa is to set out to learn what society wants and then to try to satisfy that want in terms of a library service specially designed to meet the country’s needs, fit ideally to our own environment....” [23] Later a Tanzanian developed that point: “What is really needed is a low–cost widespread library service.... Thus libraries can be set up in community centres and the national organization help in running them. Finally small libraries should become part of the national library service.” [24] In fact, in Uganda, from 1964 to 1966, a decentralized type of library service was tried. However, it was abandoned in favour of the more accepted formal pattern of the national library system, with its bureaucratic structure of headquarters, branches, etc. [25].

floral device The Impact of Decolonization Strategies

If the setting up of KNLS cannot be explained as a result of Kenyan pressure and support, then it becomes necessary to look at the impact made by outside forces: the British colonial government, the British Council, or UNESCO. It was a letter from the secretary of state for the colonies, in September 1959, inviting the submission of public library projects to be aided by the British government, which started the process which culminated in the establishment of KNLS. This letter invited both long term proposals for assistance towards the development of national libraries and early assistance towards the consolidation and extension of existing library services. Buildings, equipment, including book vans, stocks of books, and staff training could be included. In their submissions, the governments of East Africa requested the appointment of a libraries development organizer to assist each government to prepare plans for a national public library, help put into operation any approved plans and initiate staff training programmes. The report that Hockey produced was the basis of the act that established KNLS.

The British government, throughout the period Kenya was her colony, had shown a distinct lack of interest in the establishment of a public library system, whether national or local. Sometimes grants were given once a library service had been established, but on the whole such libraries were expected to maintain themselves through donations or subscriptions. Even as late as 1958, when the secretary of state for the colonies was asked whether he would grant funds to allow the library services of EALB to be maintained and expanded, he replied: “Much as I appreciate the value of this service, I am afraid it is unlikely that funds will be available to enable it to be further expanded during the current colonial development and welfare period.” [26] Enthusiasm was only shown during the setting up of a network of information and reading rooms as a part of the propaganda drive against Mau Mau. These proved so successful that more were established after the end of the emergency in non–affected areas. The avowed propaganda intent of the rooms led to their stocks consisting mostly of government reports and pamphlets, with some reference books. All this is understandable when public libraries are viewed as agents of communication in society, with the control of communication also being a function of the state. It was not in the interest of the colonial state in Kenya, where the dominant social class, the colonists, aimed to rule and exploit the other classes, to encourage access to and the free flow of information. What, then, made the British government change its mind?

The British government had by the second half of the 1950s already accepted that the policy of multi–racialism as a way forward in Kenya was failing. In advance of the Lancaster House Conference of 1960, it had admitted that full independence under African majority rule was inevitable. Its policy was now to ensure the continuation of British influence after independence and to encourage the new rulers to maintain colonial structures. A stable social and economic structure was essential. By the time of independence Kenya was on the way to becoming part of the world capitalist system. Through the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, the Land Registration (Special Areas) Ordinance of 1959, and The Registered Land Act of 1963, African communal land tenure was reformed. Land consolidation, with registration of individual land titles and safeguards for private property, was introduced. These reforms allowed the wealthy to purchase additional land, and the transfer of capital into the hands of indigenous farmers was thus begun by colonial policy [27]. Likewise the process of trade union incorporation by the state in Kenya started before independence. Collective bargaining, ensuring a stable structure of industrial relations, began during the 1950s. The 1954 Carpenter Committee overhauled the wage structure for the urban worker. In 1962, the Federation of Kenyan Employers, the Kenya Federation of Labour and the Kenya government signed an Industrial Relations Charter. Thus self–government and majority rule did not end heavy dependence on Britain. “In some ways this dependence increased and it is difficult not to believe that the colonial power expected this dependency to keep her former colonies closely aligned to her, both politically and economically.” [28]

Provision of a centrally controlled public library system was part of the decolonization strategy. It would encourage the ideas of democracy and responsible citizenship and at the same time give the state a monopoly on the supply and control of information. Dr. C. Hill, in announcing the new measures to the House of Commons in 1959, did not hide the fact that the new policy to aid the development of public libraries in a number of colonial territories was not wholly altruistic. The purpose of the measure was “to increase the flow of British books and periodicals abroad.” [29] Sir Bruce Hutt, administrator of the East African High Commission, also reflected this change of mind and saw the value of libraries as a civilizing and westernizing influence, when centrally controlled, in a speech he gave to the East African Library Association in 1958: “ [There is a] need for some central authority which could promote public library development. ... Some people [who] felt that provision of lending services for a country which was still largely illiterate a waste of time and money. That attitude of mind was changing and people were beginning to realize that East Africa could not go ahead with the development of its resources without a parallel development at the same time in the minds and characters of its people.” [30]

The British Council’s role in the development of national library services was as an implementer rather than initiator. It may be true that the British Council “has laid the foundations, at least in part, of many public library systems in the developing world.” [31] But this has always been at the behest of the British government, who provided the money and stipulated the types of development to be carried out. The Council’s involvement was a response rather than a policy in itself. Thus the work in developing public library systems in the Caribbean and West Africa was stopped in 1948 by the Colonial Office. It was only resumed again when the Colonial Office called on the British Council to assist it in developing library systems in Kenya, among other colonial territories. It was through the Council’s public library development scheme that the British Council librarian, Sidney Hockey, was posted to Kenya as library adviser. However, his terms of reference were clearly stipulated by the British government [32].

UNESCO is noted for supporting the idea of library planning and national public library systems; its seminars and conferences during the 1950s and 1960s in Enugu, Ibadan, and Kampala were crucial in popularizing this idea in Africa. However, the inception of the idea owed much to the British government. The second world war brought a new urgency to the study and application of the principles of economic planning in the industrialized free enterprise economies of the West, and the U.S. and U.K. both adopted centralized physical planning and controls over economic activity. These ideas were extended to national library planning and the latter became an issue of discussion among American and British librarians. The McColvin report of 1942 in U.K. saw the lack of central government control as hindering the development of a truly national library service with all authorities offering comparable standards, and the later Roberts report stressed the same point. Thus Edward Sydney’s statement in 1964 was within the Anglo–American library tradition: “For countries emerging from colonial rule one conclusion was found inescapable; only a nationally provided and organized service could solve the problems today. Such countries could not wait for the slow, tortuous, and uneven progress of local initiative and local resources; the need was too urgent and too imperative.” UNESCO believed libraries to be a “good thing,” but this belief stemmed from the influence of Western liberal thinking. The formulation of UNESCO’s library programme relied much on the active role played by British and American librarians. Although the desirability of shaping public libraries to the local needs of their societies was recognized, there was little experience or knowledge of how to do it. Therefore national library systems with a central libraries administration, national advisory committee, a central planning function, state grants, and state supervision of public libraries was the favoured approach. It was felt that developing countries should build from scratch and avoid the mistakes of older countries. The approach of the British government was therefore both supported by UNESCO and in line with their own approach.

floral device Conclusion

Kenya National Library Service was therefore a creation of the departing colonial state. It did not have its roots in Kenyan society. Rather than being an exercise in nation building by indigenous forces, the public library system was a part of the state structures left behind by the departing colonial power. The UN had not helped, since admission to that body required acceptance of these artificial structures. It is therefore not surprising that, taking Kenya as typical of most countries of Africa south of the Sahara, public libraries in Africa have failed to grow and develop symbiotically with society, and that libraries have not played a significant role in the social development thinking of African governments. It is not possible to change history and, from the historical point of view, we should not expect these governments to support the development of national library systems which were not of their making. Instead, the future of public librarianship might rather be in the abandonment of the national systems and in the encouragement and creation of libraries according to need and initially at local and community levels.

floral device Acknowledgements

Much of the material in this article is drawn from Diana Rosenberg, “The Colonial State and the Development of Public Libraries in Kenya prior to 1965,” (FLA thesis, Library Association, 1984).

floral device References

1. P. Sturges and R. Neill, The Quiet Struggle: Libraries and Information for Africa (London: Mansell, 1990), pp. 69–95; A. Olden, “Constraints on the Development of Public Library Service in Nigeria,” Library Quarterly 55–4 (1985): 398–423.

[2 S.K. Ng’ang’a, paper read at Moi University, Faculty of Information Sciences, 2 August 1991.

[3 C.K. Wambugu, “The Kenya National Library Service: What It Is,” Maktaba 5–2 (September 1978): 56–63.

[4 F.O. Pala, “Kenya National Library Service: Its Plans and Achievements to Date,” Seminar on Public Libraries and National Development (Nairobi, 1972).

[5 J.S. Musisi, “The Development of Libraries in Kenya,” International Librarianship Today and Tomorrow (New York: Saur, 1985), pp. 125–142.

[6 Wambugu, op. cit.

[7 J.M. Ng’ang’a, “Development of Libraries and Librarianship in Kenya, 19001967,” in Library Training in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa: a Reader (Bonn: DSE, 1982), pp. 102–109.

[8 East African Literature Bureau, “Annual Report, 1963/64.”

[9 C. Stilwell. “Community Libraries: A Brief Review of Their Origins and Nature with Particular Reference to South Africa,” Journal of Librarianship 21–4 (October 1989): 260–269.

[10 East African Literature Bureau, letter dated 28 April 1952, to DC, Transnzoia (File L/ST/K/4).

[11 S.W. Hockey, “The Public Library Service of East Africa,” EALA Bulletin 7 (1966): 14–17.

[12 East African Standard, 15 December 1958.

[13 C.G. Richards. “The Beginnings of Public Library Services in East Africa: the EALB’s Contribution,” EALA Bulletin 4 (1963): 3–5.

[14 F.O. Pala, “A History of Kenya National Library Services,” Inside Kenya Today 16 (1972).

[15 F.O. Pala, “Kenya National Library Service....”

[16 F.O. Pala, “Kenya National Library Service,” in A.B. Wallenius, Libraries in East Africa (Uppsala: Almquist, 1971).

[17 East Africa Literature Bureau, File L/SC/K/6. 18. East African Standard, 19 July 1961.

[18 East African Standard, 19 July 1961.

[19 S.W. Hockey, “Public Libraries Development in East Africa,” EALA Bulletin 1 (1962).

[20 British Council, “Annual Report, 1964/65.”

[21 L.H. Aresvik, “The Future Need for Library Investment in Kenya,” in Seminar on Public Libraries and National Development (Nairobi 1972).

[22 East African Standard, 20 July 1962.

[23 G.W. Serwadda, “In My View,” EALA Bulletin 5 (1964): 1112.

[24 M.H.A. Jaffer, “Libraries in the Revolution: What Sort of System?” EALA Bulletin 10 (1969): 58–60.

[25 Sturges and Neill, op. cit.

[26 Hansard, 30 January 1958 (written answers to questions).

[27 W.P. Ochieng’, “The Post–colonial State and Kenya’s Economic Inheritance,” in W.R. Ochieng’ and R.M. Maxon, An Economic History of Kenya (Nairobi: EAEP, 1992), 259–272.

[28 R.M. Maxon, East Africa: an Introductory History (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1989).

[29 Hansard, 22 June 1959, columns 833–834.

[30 East African Standard, 13 December 1958.

[31 D. Coombs, “Spreading the Word: the Library Work of the British Council” (London: Mansell, 1988).

[32 G.M. Roche, “Library Development World–wide: the Role of the British Council,” in Proceedings of the 53rd IFLA Council and General Conference, Brighton, 16–23 August 1987.

[33 J.S. Parker, UNESCO and Library Development Planning (London: Library Association 1985).

floral device About the Author

Diana Rosenberg is Dean, Faculty of Information Science, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.

© 1993, Diana Rosenberg.


Rosenberg, Diana. “Imposing Libraries: The Establishment of National Public Library Services in Africa, with Particular Reference to Kenya,” Third World Libraries, Volume 4, Number 1 (Fall 1993).