Libraries facilitate the creation of literate environments and promote literacy by offering relevant and attractive reading materials, particularly for poor and underprivileged communities.
In recent years, however, public and school library systems in the country have undergone severe challenges, including dilapidation of facilities, outdated machinery, lack of innovation and a poor supply of books.
The plethora of challenges has been exacerbated by the country’s decade-long economic meltdown.
Most local libraries are not equipped to cope with the requirements of the new information age.
Consequently, the ability of local libraries to offer services that bridge social, political and economic barriers as well as reach marginalised communities has been seriously curtailed.
Getrude Chinyuku, a librarian at Lord Malvern High School in Harare, painted a grim picture of the state of school libraries during a panel discussion held recently in Harare featuring Zimbabwe’s top librarians drawn from educational institutions and city council libraries in different parts of the country.
“We need help in school libraries because they’re so basic to a child’s education. We don’t have minds in our libraries today.
Our libraries are not electronic — we don’t have computers. Children cannot access information on computers because we’re poor. We’re really stranded,” said Chinyuku.
According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and Unesco’s Public Library Manifesto of 1994, “. . . the public library is a living force for education, culture and information and is an essential agent for the fostering of peace and spiritual welfare through the minds of men and women”.
But a key problem with local libraries is the absence of locally relevant reading materials.
The dearth of material in the local publishing industry and high cost of locally published books means that libraries often stock books whose content is out of touch with local realities.
“We, as Zimbabweans, don’t publish much. If we did so, our libraries would have more local content. Most of the publications in our libraries are from the West. We need to publish more locally and make our work accessible to people through libraries,” said an official with the Zimbabwe Libraries Association (ZLA).
Head of Harare Municipal Libraries, Farai Madondo, revealed that the city council’s ten libraries which service medium to high-density suburbs were now forced to rely on book donations due to lack of funding.
Madondo said that the city council had in fact stopped purchasing books from local booksellers and relied mainly on book donations to replenish its stocks.
“The library buildings are now in a state that is not good due to underfunding so we have a real task on our hands. We’re just a public library that services the community. We cater for people from all walks of life,” said Madondo.
“In terms of budgetary allocations, libraries are always last to be considered whether it’s school, academic or special interest libraries. There is non-performance by the bodies responsible for taking care of libraries, especially the National Library and Documentation Service which is supposed to be the overseer of library development in Zimbabwe,” said TG Bhowa, national chairperson of the ZLA.
Bhowa said that no national policy currently exists to guide the development process of libraries which resulted in the lack of coordination and synergies among the countries’ libraries.
“The various libraries are operating in different directions without coordination, synergies or networks. As a result, when you talk of university libraries they are strong because they are coordinated but when comes to schools and public libraries, service delivery is almost non-existent,” he said.
Bhowa criticised librarians for a lack of innovation which he said had developed into a dependency syndrome characterised by book donations.
Participants in the discussion also criticised politicians and policymakers for not prioritising the needs of libraries.
The paradox is that though Zimbabwe has a dilapidated library structure which is marked by the absence of reading materials, the country’s literacy rate was recently ranked as highest on the continent.
“What we’ve in Zimbabwe are illiterate literates. People can read but only so that they can function, and not to broaden their intellectual horizons,” said Thando Sibanda, a local journalist.
Overall, local libraries have generally failed to live up to the demands of the information society needs which makes the services they offer obsolete.
“Libraries have not been innovative enough to compete with the increasing options for information consumption. The advent of digital media and satellite television and video games have negatively impacted on the value that we place on a library,” said Lovemore Chimange, a technologist in Harare.