Libraries and systemic development work

In an earlier post I referred to the development approach known in the development literature as “transformational aid” (Riddell 2014), and which in our context of LIS I prefer to call systemic aid (Lor 2019, sec. 12.7). This involves interventions aimed at improving the overall functioning of a larger system, in this case the system of communication in science and scholarship, rather than addressing an isolated problem area. In this blog, I highlight another example, namely Lubuto Library Partners. (Disclosure: I serve on Lubuto’s Advisory Board.)

Lubuto is a US-based non-profit organization, exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)3 of title 26 of the US tax code, and has a regional office in Lusaka, Zambia, where it is also registered as a non-governmental organization. Lubuto was founded in 2005 by Jane Kinney Meyers, a professional librarian with several decades of experience in Africa. “Lubuto” means enlightenment, knowledge and light in Icibemba, the language of the Bemba people who reside in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


I like to tell students about Lubuto. The organization embodies several key principles that make for sustainable reading and LIS development. One of these is reflected in the organization’s name: partnership. This is discussed in Elizabeth Cramer’s chapter, “Partnering in international library development: Lubuto Library Development Project, Zambia Library Service, and Zambia’s Ministry of Education” (Cramer 2017). (Lubuto’s name was changed to Lubuto Library Partners after Cramer’s chapter was published.) Many well-meant library development projects fail ultimately because the project initiators neglected to consult with the leaders and authorities in the local community, the area and national administrators responsible for education and libraries, and the professional organizations of educators and librarians. In some cases, energetic outsiders have ignored the local library profession or treated its members with a disdain fuelled by perceptions of their shortcomings and lack of success – perceptions uninformed by an understanding of the obstacles librarians in many developing countries have to face. Ignoring local professionals  may work in the short term, but if these groups are not treated with respect, consulted, and given a sense of ownership, the prognosis for the project is inevitably poor.

Lubuto sets LIS development projects a good example, in that the organization has over time developed excellent relations with Zambia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education, with the Zambia Library Service, and with the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of Zambia, whose head serves on Lubuto’s Zambia Board along with other influential persons in arts and culture in Zambia.

Systemic versus band-aid approaches to LIS development

One of the most important and visible forms of LIS aid has taken the form of donations of books, journals and other materials to developing countries. Regularly we read heart-warming reports in the library media of well-intended projects in a community or school in the USA or elsewhere to collect books “for Africa”. Typically, this is an outcome of a visit to a poor community by a librarian or teacher, or of a letter home from a young aid worker, who is appalled at the lack of a school or community library there. Back home, a book donation drive is launched. Various problems have to be overcome. The materials should be (but are not always) critically evaluated for selection to prevent the dispatch of books that are out of date, in poor condition, in the wrong languages, etc.; the donation has to be transported to the recipient community; and that community has to have some scheme in place to manage the donated material. In fact, considerable local resources have to be deployed to receive and process the donated materials – resources which might have been put to better use.  Even if all these challenges are overcome, the long-term prospects for continued use of the asset thus transferred are bleak unless good prior preparation has been done and the various stakeholders in the community willingly take ownership of the project. Since books go out of date, there has to be some means of replacing worn and outdated items. From a systemic point of view, donating large quantities of books to a developing country, even if they are of good quality, can have unforeseen and harmful unintended consequences, for example by inhibiting local book production and reinforcing donor dependence.

It is important to bear in mind that the development of LIS is intimately intertwined with the development of local languages, literacy, reading and the book industries, including the publishing of books in local languages and the distribution system for books and reading matter. For example, lack of books in local languages is an obstacle to library development, but in Africa many factors affect local publishing. In my book (Lor 2019, 715–17) I illustrated this by means of the following diagram:

Illustrates factors affecting book development in Africa

Why few books are published in African languages

Ideally, therefore, to promote books, reading, and libraries, as many as possible of a range of interrelated factors should be addressed at the same time, and in a coordinated manner:Factors affecting reading, book and library development in Africa

In addressing the development of literacy, reading, and libraries, starting with libraries is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horses. Rather, initiatives in all the sectors depicted in the second diagram should be coordinated. That is why I particularly appreciate Lubuto’s work, in partnership with the Zambian education ministry, in developing learning resources in Zambia’s seven indigenous languages. Lubuto also created a digital repository on which out-of-print books in twelve Zambian languages can be accessed. Many of these titles had been found uncatalogued in the pamphlet files of the US Library of Congress. Their renewed availability serves as an example of the repatriation of African cultural heritage.

While Lubuto’s model libraries are intended to stimulate the development of libraries in Zambia and wider afield, Lubuto is involved in more basic socio-economic development work, focussing especially on children not attending school and at-risk youth, thereby tackling the very basic factors that affect literacy, reading and library development. An example is Lubuto’s participation during 2016-2018 in the DREAMS programme, funded by a DREAMS Innovation Challenge grant, focussing on keeping adolescent girls in secondary school and AIDS-free. DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AID-free, Mentored, and Safe. It is sponsored by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

A Lubuto flyer describes a Lubuto programme in Nabukuyu village in the rural Monze district of southern Zambia, where child marriage is driven by poverty and limited educational and economic prospects for girls. Project activities include “makerspace” events for skills training to increase the financial capacity of mothers and female caregivers, enabling them to keep their daughters in school; facilitating meetings of community leader to develop community-led solutions to the problem of early marriage; and provision of comprehensive scholarships to enable adolescent girls to attend secondary boarding schools.

Some librarians may wonder whether such activities do not take us too far out of the library. In my view, public and community librarians need to spend more time outside their libraries, immersed in their communities. Lubuto’s participation in the DREAMS programme is a thought-provoking example of libraries actively intervening to address society’s systemic challenges. Libraries are part of society. They thrive best when societies thrive.


Cramer, Elizabeth. 2017. ‘Partnering in International Library Development: Lubuto Library Project, Zambia Library Service, and Zambia’s Ministry of Education’. In International Librarianship: Developing Professional, Intercultural, and Educational Leadership, edited by Constantia Constantinou, Michael J Miller, and Kenneth Schlesinger, 131–43. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2019. International and Comparative Librarianship: Concepts and Methods for Global Studies. Global Studies in Libraries and Information 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter/Saur.

Riddell, Roger C. 2014. ‘Does Foreign Aid Really Work? Background Paper to Keynote Address’. Conference paper presented at the Australasian Aid and International Development Workshop, Canberra, February 13.


About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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