Where are the Libraries?
Despite all the crocodile tears being shed by Nigerian ruling elites, about the abysmal reading culture and dismal education quality, the glaring fact is that they are comfortable with the current horrible situations. Nothing exemplifies this than the state of Nigerian libraries. I am not referring to various elite libraries like the presidential library, but those that should be available to the vast majority of our youth and poor Nigerians, who constitute the majority of the population. My recent experience and subsequent inquest reveal this much.
I was desperately in need of some literatures, but with dearth of functional and well-stocked bookstores in Osun State and quantity of work to be done, I had to make use of public libraries within reach, hoping to get more than I would need. Based on my previous experience with the local government library in Ile-Ife town, I resolved to approach the national and state libraries in the state capital, as the process of accessing a relatively better-equipped university library seemed cumbersome. As a reference, I was at the local government library (located behind a noisy motor park!) sometime in 2004, during a forced three-month closure of the university by the management, to look for study-friendly environment. What I met was terrible. Aside lack of any sign of books in the library, the place was simply inhabitable – dilapidated but dangerously dangling ceiling, patently dirty environment, etc. I could recall that I met two persons – a seemingly frustrated staff, and a co-student. Notwithstanding this experience, I visited the library again, hoping that something positive would have changed in eight years. Some things actually changed, but not to justify eight years of unprecedented wealth available to the third tier of government. Unlike before, the ‘library’ is cleaner with new furniture and repaired ceiling. Reflecting the connection between academic infrastructure and youth interest in education, the ‘library’ was fully occupied by, mostly, secondary school students – studying for final examinations. Thus, there is a progress from having a pen as a ‘library’ eight years ago, to having a school students’ reading room replacing a library. If, despite the huge resources at the nation’s coffer in the past thirteen years, it is this kind of ‘progress’ the nation should be making; then the country is in a mess.
I consequently had to move to the state library for help. However, I got more than I actually bargained for. The state library was full of completely outdated books, mostly for post-primary school students. My understanding is that school libraries should be adequately stocked of books to the needs of students, while community and public libraries should serve the public. Of course, precocious students, seeking knowledge that is more extensive may need to visit public libraries, for books or study, it is expected that such will be necessary when the school libraries could not offer this. Even for teachers, well-stocked school libraries should serve immediate use. This understanding is premised on my secondary school experience, where as a specialized science school (where Literature-in-English was not even part of the curriculum), the library was relatively organized such that we used to go to the library to get novels and literary works to read. We even had access to newspapers. This is just about fifteen years ago (Abacha regime). Of course, because of the generally backward nature of the military regimes, most of the secondary schools were ghosts of their former selves, with most of them not having the few privileges that we had in a School of Science (a former Advanced Level institution).
That almost two decades after, the situations have not improved, actually reflects the near stagnation situation the various capitalist political classes in Nigeria have put the country. It is worth noting that the current occupiers in the Osun State Government House recently allocated a capital vote of over six hundred million naira for the renovation of the house of assembly. Part of the vote included multi-million naira renovation of the house of assembly library. The governor needs to convince someone like myself that the legislators have no access to all the books in this world despite all the allowances for research, texts, etc, and with all the paraphernalia of their offices. As at the last time I checked, there were still official residences for the legislators and the “hallowed” chamber is not reported to be physically falling apart. One expects a so-called ‘progressive’ government to have seen a priority in renovating schools’ library system, over ‘renovating’ house of assembly complex. We do not need anybody to tell us that over six hundred million naira will do a good job in securing blocks of buildings with shelves of books, furniture, etc in schools. In fact, such amount will not only renovate the state library (located near the governor’s residence), but will also build new standard libraries in the six zones of the state. But expending money on libraries will presuppose that other school facilities will improve simultaneously. However, for a government that has conducted its education ‘revolution’ policy in the media than in the schools, these are not of immediate priority. These projects will not give immediate political leverage needed to boost the government’s ‘progressive’ imaging.
Moving ahead, I decided to make a final visit to the national library, located in the same state capital. If I was surprised of what I saw at the state library, then my experience at the supposed national library was to say the mildest, embarrassing. Unlike the state library, the national library was too small to be called a library, with capacity to accommodate less than thirty visitors. So unorganized was the library that there was even small shelf for religious pamphlets, while the main bookshelf was lacking basic books, talk much less of literary materials. For a federal government that spends almost a billion naira to feed the presidency alone in 2011, paucity of fund surely cannot be an excuse for not having standard libraries in every state of the country.
Public libraries, from my understanding should be able to serve the knowledge quest of every strata of the society. Public libraries should be places where governments’ rhetoric of total development of the people, and commitment to education improvement, are translated to realities. A well-organized and developed library system can serve as a tool for national development. This will mean that local, state and federal governments will commit resources to developing well-stocked public libraries. Developing public library system will not mean abandoning or trashing out specialized libraries like the school libraries, court libraries, departmental/agency libraries, research libraries, etc, most of which are currently in total mess. On the contrary, it will mean integrating these libraries into a complete, inter-connected library system, with public libraries serving as mini/ reference libraries for specialized libraries. With well-funded and well-organized library system, it will be possible to support and develop our local authors; not necessarily by encouraging mediocrity; on the contrary, bringing out the best out of them. This will mean that management boards for running libraries will comprise of democratically chosen members of authors’ association, teachers’ unions, academic unions, community representatives, parents’ representatives, students, etc, from local levels up to the national level. These boards will have well-established and publicized processes for selecting books for libraries. Such will include taking applications from authors and requests from the public, among other criteria. This is a good approach to avoid nepotism and promotion of mediocrity, which the current system live on – as governments only welcome books that protect their interests.
From this process, it will be easy to promote genuine writers and authors, while also developing generations of readers. From this, it will be easy for government to genuinely promote reading culture, and engage many youths in active intellectual work. For instance, with properly functioning libraries, teachers will have access to books on how to improve their work. Education policy makers will have no excuse of not knowing what is going on. Furthermore, it will create generations of critical minds who will have access to information and will be able to ask questions about the running of society. Even on a minimal level, governments, especially at local and state levels can undertake activities like reading, quiz, essay and debate competitions, amongst students and youth in schools and communities. Debate, reading and press clubs can be easily established in schools and communities. Without being immodest, this will have positive impact on quality of education, and quality of school leavers. In fact, in saner climes, public libraries have sections for children with such services as story telling, games, reading competitions, etc, with a view to grooming generations of reading youth. In fact, mobile library systems have become popular in other countries, offering lending services, with a view to reaching the rural and distant communities. With provision of other youth centred facilities like community sport facilities, it can be easy to take many youths away from vices (this however, is no excuse for the non-provision of jobs for youths). Of course, developing library system is not the solution to problems facing education; however, it is a vital aspect of its development. For instance, developing school libraries will raise the questions concerning the quality and quantity of classrooms, laboratories, workshops, sporting facilities, teaching and non-teaching staff, etc. in schools, which for serious and forward looking governments, will be seen as part of the integrated process for educational development.
However, looking closely, it is clear that Nigerian ruling elite at all levels are only using the issue of education for propaganda and media stunting purposes – they care less about the standard of education, talk much less of developing total being. To most politicians, the problems of education are simply insoluble, except when they need to use one token effort like distribution of free books to some students, construction of one mega classroom, etc. to get media attention. An immediate example is the much publicized ‘summit’ on improving reading culture organized by the presidency more than a year ago, where some students (mostly from elite private schools – possibly owned and run by government lackeys) were gathered, alongside some undiscerning ‘educationists’ and writers, as public relations stunt for Jonathan and his presidential campaign. A year after, not only has nothing happened to the ‘reading culture’ campaign (which most media organizations publicized as the first of its kind), funding for education has not improved across the board. The example of the completely broken down library system reflects this much. Nigerian ruling elites, based on their commitment to neo-liberal, neo-colonial policies of privatization, commercialization, deregulation, public private partnership, among other anti-poor policies, do not believe that public education should made available for the majority of people. Indeed, an illiterate society is a plus for treasury looters, and self-serving political class.
Despite the huge poverty rate in the country – itself an outcome of the anti-poor capitalist orientation of the Nigerian ruling class – it is insane to be promoting the idea of commercialized education. To Nigerian ruling class, education is a commodity that must be bought and sold in the market for those who can afford it, and not a tool for development. It is no accident that a former president and his business cum political partners preferred to commit resources (stolen from the nation’s coffer) to build multi-billion naira private library, while public libraries are in tatters. Is it accidental that the same president and his deputy felt comfortable establishing private universities while public educational institutions are in total ruins? It is convenient for a sitting president Jonathan to seek and accept bribe (of a church!) from government’s corporate contractor, but same individual could hardly enforce laws that compel private businesses to commit part of their profits to education fund. If you think this is limited to federal government alone, then you are mistaken. A closer look into the education policies of state governments reveals a clear contempt for public education. Yes, you have state governments that will claim to be distributing books to students or organizing some form of book fair, literary festivals. These gestures, aside being piecemeal (and in most cases elitist), are merely acts of politicking rather than being part of a holistic developmental plan. Otherwise, how will you have government distributing free books but blind itself to real work of developing education infrastructures, including libraries. It is not accidental that pass rates in all secondary school final and entrance examinations have been hovering averagely below 30 percent.
All this shows the anti-development, backward nature of Nigerian ruling elite. Just take any area or sector of the polity, and the reality will stare you like monster in the face. Underlining this nature of Nigerian ruling elite is their defence of the profit system that ensures unmitigated wealth and profit for the politicians, their businesses and business associates; who together constitute less than two percent of the population but consume up to 80 percent of our wealth. This point underscores the need for a critical mass of youths and working people organized in unions, associations and communities, to take up governments and politicians at all levels of governance, with a view to compelling them to commit public resources to public education and social services. The education workers’ unions and student groups must organize campaigns around issues affecting education and future of youth. Ultimately, the labour movement must champion the building of a working and poor people’s party, built on the strong foundation of egalitarianism and commitment to mass public work, to liberate political power from the hands of current anti-development but neo-colonial set of political rulers in Nigeria.