DASHED HOPES AND DREAMS OF A GHANAIAN LIBRARIAN

DASHED HOPES AND DREAMS OF A GHANAIAN LIBRARIAN

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I was lucky, very lucky, to have tasted, felt and experienced public librarianship when it was at its zenith during President Nkrumah’s time. Call it the golden age of public libraries, if you like.

I saw and benefitted from the book-box and mobile library services, even at the time that I was in the Middle School in rural Logba, near Hohoe. Those were the days when people took great pride in reading. And when the reading culture was deliberately inculcated in children and the public libraries were public libraries. Sometimes, one is overpowered by a strong feeling of nostalgia for the golden age of public libraries.

Regrettably, public libraries have since fallen on evil days and their fortunes have now reached their nadir. The place is now administered by a bunch of amateurs and non-professionals and nobody seems to care. The adults have abandoned reading and so public libraries are no longer vibrant or appreciated.

During the time of President Nkrumah reading encouraged the formation of many debating, literary and social clubs. Successive governments since Nkrumah have, unfortunately, neglected public libraries to the extent that no political party in the 4th Republic will even mention them in its manifesto, let alone improve upon them. Governments do not talk about them in their public and policy statements. The number of public libraries remains basically the same as President Nkrumah left it.

Indeed, some of the important and much patronized libraries like the Kaneshie Children’s Library have disappeared. Public libraries have now become the victims of lack of political will and the “no money” syndrome. Interestingly, governments of Ghana find money to do a lot of frivolous and unnecessary things but when it comes to building, equipping, renovating or refurbishing public libraries they claim, in fact insist, that there is no money.

Even during this “free education” period public libraries are scarcely mentioned or given any appreciable attention. One would have thought that this is the time to position public libraries to support and energize the efforts of our schools and distance education providers.

Our children have inevitably become victims of the non-reading culture. This situation has been compounded by cynicism and ignorance. I have met some politicians, government officials and “educated” men and women who tell me that we do not need public libraries because we are in a digital era! These people have forgotten that books are produced and supplied in different formats, including digital (e-books) and printed books.

It is the duty of a good public library to acquire and store these varied forms of books for use by its clientele. It needs money to do that though. In the USA and Europe where digitization and computerization are at their height the public library is still valued, appreciated, held in high esteem and properly funded!

It was in this uncertain atmosphere that I became the Chairman of the Ghana Library Authority Board in 2009. The Authority was perceived as a deprived area and few people would want to chair its Board.

The expression “as poor as a church mouse” was replaced with “as poor as Ghana Library Authority mouse” In fact, between 2001 and 2008 the Authority was an orphan and operated without a Board.

To be a Chairman of the Board was considered by many people as a lost or forfeited opportunity to land other lucrative political appointments. Sitting allowances of Board members were scanty and were paid in arrears or were not paid at all.

It is unbelievable but true that the 2015-16 sitting allowances of the previous Board have not been paid. When I assumed office as Chairman I met a demoralized staff, a neglected and understaffed/underfunded establishment which has not had a Board for almost eight years. But that was not my biggest challenge.

My biggest challenge was the insensitive and unresponsive, sometimes, hostile attitude of government officials and politicians towards public libraries. It appeared they completely shut their ears and mind to the problems of the library. They were unmoved and impervious to any plans or suggestions to uplift public libraries.

The well rehearsed “no money” syndrome was pervasive and consistent. The Ministry of Education under which the Authority operated contracted many foreign loans and grants but none was spent on the Ghana Library Authority. Annual budget allocations were not honoured except for the payment of Staff salaries.

The annual budget allocation for capital development was in most cases nil. Occasionally, some money was provided by GETFUND to buy new books. GETFUND also initiated the construction of Wa, Ho and Sunyani Regional Libraries. To the best of my knowledge, Ho and Sunyani libraries are yet to be completed even though the Sunyani one is partially occupied. The Wa Regional Library was completed and commissioned in 2016 or so; thanks to the personal interest and efforts of the CEO of GETFUND.

The strategy was to uplift and enhance the status of the public library and make it more relevant and useful within the context of a National Library system. The National Library idea has been there since 1962 and preparations were made to establish it by law in 1966 but the military coup disrupted the process. With the help and encouragement of the Ghana Library Association, I intensified efforts at establishing of the National Library. The odds were stacked against us so we did not succeed. Even the mind of the library fraternity was split on the issue.

A National Library would have served as a focal point of the nation’s library system. It would have provided leadership to libraries in Ghana and would have collated and harmonize their dispersed and scattered collections digitally and would, therefore, have facilitated the much desired information networking.

It would have served as a one-stop shop for information search, retrieval and dissemination and would have reduced wastage and duplication in the acquisition of library materials. It would have provided leadership in research, digitization, library education and training. It would also have come handy in implementing the Right to Information Law and promote distance education.

Unfortunately this national library idea, which has been implemented even by some African States, was not appreciated by post Nkrumah governments of Ghana. All proposals submitted and bills drafted to establish the national library have been aborted. The establishment of a national library remains a mere hope and unfulfilled dream.

We wanted to provide a good children and mobile library service. Admittedly, our adults had lost it so far as reading was concerned. There was need to save our children from becoming victims of the non-reading culture. I dared to put forward my views on the issue but the politicians and government officials either did not see the need for it or, at best, received it with nonchalance.

The cynicism of some of them was glaring and not in dispute “We are in a digital era so instead of building and promoting public libraries why don’t you buy computers for the children.” Such unguarded statements were made as if the contents of printed books and e-books were different and separate. What these cynics must know is that we are in an era where the modern public library must of necessity combine and blend the traditional and digitized library in order to survive and remain relevant.

My idea of a stand-alone children and mobile library was, to some extent, quite innovative. It was greatly influenced by interactions I had with the user and environmentally-friendly children library systems of Singapore and the Scandinavian Countries. The idea was to start from Accra and gradually extend the concept to other parts of Ghana.

The 26A Patrice Lumumba Road Library was conceived as the Focal Point for the Children and Mobile Library System. It was supposed to be an information hub that could give and derive strength and power from other children and mobile libraries nationwide.

The need for children libraries in Accra is overwhelming. Formerly, there were children libraries located at Kaneshie, Osu, Teshie-Nungua Estate and the Central Library between the Supreme Court and the Bank of Ghana. All of them collapsed except the Central Library and Osu ones. Meanwhile, the population of Accra has more than quadrupled.

The idea was to restore and revive the Kaneshie and Teshie-Nungua Estate libraries. Build a new library to serve Nima, Mamobi/New Town/Kokomemle, Airport Residential and 37 Military Hospital areas. Another library was to be located at Adenta to serve Adenta, Madina and their catchment areas.

Predictably, we could not cross the “no money” and bureaucratic hostility barriers. So far as government funding for these projects were concerned our ideas and efforts died at birth. But during these difficult days the Ghana Library Authority received assistance from GIFEC, SSNIT, the French and USA Embassies, Huawei Corporation, Dr. Plonski’s Books for Africa and the Daily Graphic. The Rotary Club also offered to renovate and refurbish the Osu children library. GIFEC was the star benefactor. These overtures from private and semi-autonomous governmental organizations gave us hope that all was not lost.
Instead of depending on government for non-existent help or fold our arms in despair, we decided to venture out and diversify our approach to library development. I became keenly aware of the fact that the private sector could be a willing partner and ally in developing public libraries, especially children libraries. We explored this area with zeal and hope.
The first big opportunity came with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of SSNIT. Someone (name withheld for now) whispered to me that SSNIT was sponsoring projects to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It was not too difficult to approach SSNIT because the Director-General had a soft spot for libraries and at any rate it was already giving some assistance to the Authority albeit in an uncoordinated fashion.
This issue was discussed by the Board and it was agreed that we should “cast the net.” I submitted a draft proposal to the Board which was discussed and approved. We submitted the proposals to the Director-General of SSNIT and then crossed our fingers. We undertook persistent follow-ups and they in turn kept assuring us that our proposals were being considered. I sympathized with Mrs Eva Amegashie (Head of Corporate Affairs of SSNIT) and her staff who liaised between the SSNIT Board and the Ghana Library Authority Board because they had to contend with my frequent visits and “harassment.”

Finally the happy news came. On 22nd July 2015 SSNIT sent an approval letter to the Ghana Library Authority. An amount of $3.9 million (not cedis) was allocated to the project. It was certainly unprecedented in the history of Ghana that a semi-autonomous government body would fund a library project with such a huge amount.

Almost immediately SSNIT set up a Company, Trust Lib. Ltd, under the chairmanship of Mr. Daniel Kwabla-King to execute the Project. The Project Consultants were Urban Development Consortium and the contractors were Zaproze Ghana Ltd.

The execution of the project was delayed for a few months because somebody laid claim to the land on which the project was to be built.

We were rescued by President Mahama and his Chief of Staff who intervened and on 12 May 2016 restored the land to the Ghana Library Authority. That intervention was a rare display of sense of justice and fairness which the Library Board appreciated very much. The Minister for Education, Prof. Jane Nanaa Opoku Agyemang, cut the sod for the Project on 15 July 2016.

By January 2017 when the Board was dissolved the library building had been completed. It was left only to be furnished and equipped. You will see this magnificent, elegant and ultra-modern library building at the Airport Residential Area, on Patrice Lumumba Road near the Gold House in Accra.

You cannot miss it. It is an understatement to say that I am terribly disappointed that almost four years after the library building was completed it has not been furnished and open for our children to use.

This is a typical case of ”So near and yet so far!” The opening and operation of the library has remained a dream and a dashed hope! Will it ever be opened for use by our children or government may decide to use the building for something else?

You know in this Ghana anything can happen!
The Board undertook another impressive project adjacent to the main Accra-Dodowa road around Frafraha/Amrahia area. This project was funded in its entirety by a private Ghanaian company (name withheld for inability to obtain permission).

The project was estimated at about Ghc6million. Again the participation of a private company in providing library infrastructure was unprecedented.

But it proved beyond doubts that private companies and individuals are willing and ready to partner the Ghana Library Authority to develop public libraries in Ghana. The project consists of a library building and three 2 storey staff bungalows.

It is a beautiful and imposing project strategically located to serve areas beyond Adenta. The library building was successfully completed and we were negotiating with the Company to help equip and furnish it when the Board was dissolved in January 2017.

The library is yet to be opened for use almost four years after completion. The area from South Legon through Adenta to the new settlements on Dodowa road has no public library. This new library was meant to partly solve the reading problem of the area. I am afraid the children in this area will have to wait for unknown period to have access to a library. Has the library building become a white elephant? Is it another dashed dream and hope?

This is the concluding part of the article published on Wednesday September 16, 2020 issue of the paper.

BY KOSI KEDEM

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