Public libraries struggling to uplift the reading culture

People read at National Library on Buganda Road in Kampala while below book enthusiasts search for books during the Uganda Society’s monthly book market in Kampala recently. Despite having more than 30 libraries in the country, most are poorly stocked and dilapidated. PHOTO by Andrew Kaggwa

What you need to know:

  • Although Ugandans have been labelled as people that do not read, the country is host to more than 30 public libraries spread out in different regions.
  • Most of their status, however, is wanting and could use urgent uplifting.

The relationship between Ugandans and reading is one authors always call out while discussing the state of written media or why the country’s history is largely undocumented.
Yet, even as the saying goes that ‘Ugandans do not read’, for years the country has been a host to more than 30 public libraries spread out in different regions, and the number keeps growing.
For instance, only in Kampala, the National library at Buganda Road and the one at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) headquarters at City Hall are highly known and mostly frequented by students revising for exams.
Others such as those of public universities, even when they are open to the public, terms and conditions around them matter since they are not bound by the country’s public library act.
Most of the people in Ugandan libraries are students either looking for a noise free space, while a few are researchers that seek specific books expecting to find them in these libraries.
The library at City Hall almost offers a service similar to the national one at Buganda Road and charges visitors Shs2,000 daily for access.
A facilitator who prefers anonymity says the Shs2,000 gives one access to their stock of books, computers and of course internet.

But one can also subscribe through packages of Shs30,000 a month and Shs80,000 a year.
The library at KCCA is very famous during school holidays especially as parents try to keep their children involved; “holidays are peak moments though outside them, there are many specific professions that come here,” he says.

Setting up auxiliaries
According to the Public Libraries Act of 1964, among many other duties, the National Library is expected to enforce the establishment of other public libraries which can be used to champion adult literacy and education through identification and stocking post-literacy reading materials.
The collection in the library is for reference and research: made up of a variety of reading and information materials including newspapers dating back to the 1950s, government documents from various ministries and departments, research reports, general reference books and books on Africa, especially East Africa.
But even when the National library was only established in 1964, public libraries in Uganda have been around since the 1920s. For instance in 1923, Sir Albert Cook helped open the Uganda Society, the country’s oldest library.
Uganda Society is custodian of some of the country’s rare collections some of which were previously kept in museums elsewhere.
“These are books by early travellers such as James Grant, Living-stone and Albert Cook whose entire book collection is at the library,” says Wartson Atukwatse, the programmes officer at the Uganda Society.
The KCCA library could be the friendliest one, established in 1955, it has a collection of books on History, Art, Social Studies, Technology and languages, among other topics.

At least 46 libraries and more than 100 community libraries across the country are working with the National Library in Mbale, Entebbe, Arua, Masaka and Wakiso districts, among others.
KCCA, too, tried to have library presence in most of their divisions such as Rubaga, Nakawa, Namuwongo and according to an official, even in places where they do not have presence, they have made relevant partnerships.
“For instance, in Kawempe, we have partnered with a youth centre,” the facilitator says adding that some of the libraries they are working with completely belonged to individuals that chose to partner with them.
But not all is well, according to a 2017 report by the National Library on the status of public libraries that year, only 17 of the facilities they run had electricity and just 11 had professional librarians managing them.
For instance the Masaka District library is now a shadow of its for-mer self. Josephine Nakafeero, a librarian at the facility, said last year they used to receive students from secondary schools, universities, journalists, teachers, researchers and people of different fields, but majority gradually shunned the place, leaving it struggling to operate efficiently.
“We used to receive more than 100 people daily especially during holidays but today we hardly get 20. And this is due to lack of new edition books, limited space and too much noise from businesses around,” she said
Nakafeero explained that the textbooks frequently asked for by stu-dents are those for Biology, Physics, and Chemistry for the A-Level, which are not stocked due to lack of funds.
While others have issues with restocking and funding—Atukwatse for instance, says that Uganda Society is solely sustained by sub-scriptions and mostly relies on well-wishers for restocking.
“The society has members from all walks of life, there are times people donate their archives or collections and that is how we re-fresh,” says Atukwatse.
The National Library cordinates book donations with agencies, KCCA on the other hand restocks but also takes content from well-wishers.
“Our restocking is periodical and usually guided by the demands of the clients,” says a KCCA staff adding that most of the times, they put emphasis on books that have been highly demanded but were not available.
The library receives donations from well-wishers but apparently they are rare since people believe KCCA has all the resources they need.
With the struggle to encourage a reading culture still raging on, libraries, the custodians for written content, should be uplifted to make this an achievable dream.


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