African Students & Community Members Co-Design their Library
Proposing to build a modern world-class university library in rural sub-Saharan Africa raises many questions, and offers many opportunities for innovation. Going beyond bricks and books, how can a library play a role in alleviating some of the more pervasive issues of rural poverty in Africa? What kind of resources and services could a library provide to a population that has so many basic needs unfulfilled and lacks so much infrastructure? And who is qualified and equipped to meet this challenge?
Envisioning the Library and Resource Center for African Rural University
By Patty Seybold
A collaboration between an international architecture firm, an all women’s rural university and a social innovation NGO seek to answer these questions and meet this challenge.
Creating a vision for a new library and community resource center is a collaborative effort. For the African Rural University (ARU) in western Uganda, the collaborative design process has been underway since early 2013 and has culminated in a Campus Master Plan with partner MASS Design Group. The first phase will be focused on the new University Library and Community Resource Center.
The 80-acre campus on which the University sits is shared by a number of sister institutions: Uganda Rural Development & Training (URDT), its Vocational Institute, the URDT Girls’ School, a Demonstration Farm, and a number of businesses that are run by students, graduates, and staff. Members of all of these institutions engaged in participatory design sessions held from 2013 to 2016. They asked themselves: What IS a University library in the digital age? What should it contain besides books and computers? And how can such a library best serve the people in the surrounding communities—many of whom are still illiterate and living as subsistence farmers with few paved roads, scarce and erratic electricity, and water that must be carried and boiled.
All the stakeholders agreed that the new library/resource center should serve not only students, faculty, and staff of all the co-resident institutions, but also interns and graduates working in the field, as well as the University’s REAL customers: the community members, farmers, entrepreneurs, and government and civic leaders in small rural villages scattered across the countryside.
Providing Resources for Rural Transformation
Some interesting needs were articulated. While these requirements may seem odd for a library, they make sense for an academic institution designed to graduate women who specialize in rural transformation and grassroots integrated development in Africa. They include:
Agricultural Resources: Samples of seeds, plants, food products, and other agricultural assets; and a lab for analyzing nutritional content, soil samples, and so on.
Cultural Assets Collection: Curated collection of household, farm, and industrial tools used over the ages by local tribes, along with explanations of the functions they served and how their designs were optimized for local conditions.
Multimedia Resources: Repository of multimedia assets (cataloged video, audio, and photos that URDT/ARU has created or acquired, including radio programs and video documentaries); a lab for editing and producing multimedia programs. Access to movies/documentaries for learning purposes from any Internet-connected device.
Curated Data Sets: Easy to access, current data sets for use by all constituencies from Ugandan sources such as the National Land Coalition, the Uganda Local Government Authority, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Gender, the National Agricultural Advisory Services, etc.
Curated Field and Research Reports: Students and faculty envision the creation of an evolving Directory/Wiki of faculty/staff/student/visitor-curated sources. Every time someone finds or publishes a valuable data set, research paper, or journal article, they add a link to it and provide annotations about why this information is useful, how to use it, and any cautions about context or accuracy.
In terms of requirements for the bricks and mortar building, participants specified:
No stairs or elevators—use ramps to move from floor to floor for handicapped accessibility
Solar-power with lots of electrical outlets for recharging phones, tablets & laptops
Lots of working computers, tablets, & printers
Flush toilets on each floor & baby-changing facilities
Shaded outdoor seating & student-run café
Project rooms, meeting rooms, conference rooms, assembly hall
Distributed, Mobile Access
Since the University Library is designed to be a resource for rural government officials, farmers, entrepreneurs, and young people, participants agreed that all of its digital collections should be freely available and easy to access to all via mobile phone using the local cellular networks. Local access to needed government and agricultural resources will alleviate the need for people to travel 5 hours over bad roads to the capital in order to access the information they need to do their jobs. Community-based teams will be able to access the library’s digital resources and to share them.
A New Chapter Begins
With the creation of the African Rural University Library and Community Resource Center in the western Ugandan countryside, we see new possibilities for the contribution of modern information technology to help people live and work sustainably in rural Africa.
Many experts believe Africa is poised to leapfrog development challenges using technology for a healthier, greener, more prosperous future for its citizens. A rural University Library and Community Resource Center would be a central access point for critical information sharing and knowledge transfer between all parties who interact with the institution.
Patricia Seybold is a member of the African Rural University Council and a long-time supporter of African Food and Peace Foundation. Last year, ARU recognized Ms. Seybold as a Woman of Distinction for International Women’s Day. Ms. Seybold is also the CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group and an internationally acclaimed best-selling author, as well as the author of her own blog Outside Innovation.