Librarians Without Borders recently had the pleasure of catching up with David Dewane, Founder and Executive Director of Librii, an LWB partner program working towards opening its first library in Accra, Ghana. Dewane opened up about Librii’s humble beginnings, the research and thought that goes into an undertaking of this magnitude – in a foreign country no less – and how LWB was instrumental to the process.
You might be surprised – and, if you’re also a student, encouraged – to learn that LWB partner program Librii, the library “specialized to meet Africa’s information demand with educational services, high-end digital resources, and books” originated as a graduate student project at Rice University. “I was researching areas where physical space, people and information mingle, and what that means in the age of digitizing information,” David Dewane remembers. “The library was the typology where this should be happening, as the place where people and information come together.”
Dewane’s train of thought lead him to really consider the space of the library in the shifting wide web world. Who has access to information? And how do they get it? A breakthrough came when he concluded that “libraries are no longer just places where people come to get knowledge in a contemplative way; they are places where people come to make things.”
“It was such a radical idea!” Dewane adds. “And such a notion of the library as at one time being a collection of resources, but also the building that houses them. And beyond collection and building, a space – that libraries are spaces that serve the human desire for collectivity. I love the idea of the persistent desire for collectivity, despite the web making things less necessary for collectivity. Libraries are more crucial than ever.”
To aid in his library/space question, Dewane turned to the trusted source that all of us eventually seek out in the throes of a research question: a Rice University librarian. Soon Dewane brought together all his research into a plan for an actual library space. And then things aligned in his favor: a World Bank competition came across his path at that moment, allowing Dewane to gain a small development grant, but more importantly, some major interest in the project, initially titled Libraries Across Africa.
The idea was to develop libraries in India, a country Dewane was familiar with. But with the inclusion of the World Bank resources, and after researching important key factors including an analysis of language, ease of doing business, and freedom of press, African countries came to the forefront. Dewane explains that things finally came down to Ghana or Kenya, but confirms, “West Africa just felt right. It was a mix of intuition and objective subjective rational.” Africa, and Ghana in particular, also captured Dewane’s imagination with the continent’s narrative regarding the digital divide. “The expansion of fiber optics into sub Saharan Africa took place in 2009-2010 when the first cable landed there. It was mind blowing to realize they were just getting broadband!”
And that’s when it all conceptualized into the Librii we know today: a concept inspired by the prolific building spree of library hero Andrew Carnegie, who, between 1883 and 1929 helped create 2509 libraries throughout the world. But what Dewane admires most about Carnegie was his motive for helping communities obtain a library of their own. “This is a very clear and present model. It’s a massive scale, and hardly anyone ever talks about it. 2500 libraries over 30 years means opening a brand new library every five days! They were everywhere in the English speaking world, and in the Pacific Rim…Carnegie didn’t want to give food or medical aid, the basic aid philanthropy: he wanted to meet people halfway and provide tools to industrial people.”
The Carnegie Formula became the standard for communities requesting funds to build a public library. It required that they demonstrate the need for a library; provide a building site; come up with ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support the operation costs; and provide free service.
“Carnegie started listening more to librarians about how libraries should function: in the middle of the community, allowing people to access materials themselves, expand the collection to serve everyone – including women & kids – and give free service to all. One of the components for Carnegie building the library was that you prove that your community actually needed one. The Carnegie formula was how you built libraries. “
Once Librii decided on Ghana as the first locale for its library, LWB and Librii partnered up, with LWB providing key research into the potential library users. “The partnership is incredibly valuable and generated very helpful reports that Librii couldn’t have done in-house,” Dewane says. As Librii gets closer to implementation, develops a training regime for the on-site librarians, and works through the ethical concerns facing a new library, LWB’s support will be crucial. “We need help from librarians. People like knowledgeable, credible librarians.”
Still needed are more generous donations. Then Librii will be on track to pack up, ship, and open its first library in Accra, providing students and working adults with a space to find information, and strengthen the knowledge of the community.