Ghana - Ho Regional Library, photo by Alikem Tamakloe

Libraries and Literacies

Typically, when asked to imagine a library, what would you say the average person thinks of? Books, right? And that’s fair. Despite some libraries going paperless or teaching middle-class America how to butcher a hog, the fact remains that most libraries in most parts of the world still center on the traditional book-lending model.

This is not to say, however, that these libraries do not offer programs of their own to help fulfill community needs. Often, these programs are education and literacy-focused – a focus that dovetails naturally with the traditional concept of a library, providing a space and an expert to facilitate learning. While education and literacy are key to moving people out of poverty, perhaps we need to expand our understanding of literacy as we expand our conception of a library.

Mobile Technology and Basic Literacy

All too frequently in the development community, technology is used as a panacea: “If only each child had a laptop, they could all successfully complete primary education!” and so on. Examples of this abound – in Rwanda, the One Laptop Per Child project came under fire for providing nearly 1,200 laptops for students while failing to consider how these laptops would even get electricity. In Kenya, the government’s new $600m program to deliver 1.3 million laptops to students fails to address the very basic concerns of how these laptops will be used in classrooms.

Technology is many things; one thing it cannot be is a solution in itself. In Africa, cell phone use is on track to outpace literacy rates. There are two distinct issues that arise from this: first, though technology has developed to become easier to use for people who cannot read, the most technology requires some degree of basic literacy. Second, in order to get the best use of technology, not just basic literacy issues must be addressed, but different kinds of literacies are required.

What do we mean by different kinds of literacies? In this case, we are talking about things like Information Literacy (the ability of people to know what information they need and where to look for it) or Technology Literacy (the ability to know which technology platform will solve a problem and the ability to effectively use it to problem-solve). There are any number of literacies (depending on who you ask); one thing they all have in common is critical thinking skills – the ability to consume, analyze, and synthesize information to problem-solve – which for most of us are not innate, but learned.

Libraries and the Mobile Dilemma

It’s an easy thought exercise: imagine telling a person to build a house who has never lived in one, let alone built one before. You could gather all the materials needed, but the house will never get built. The knowledge of how to build a house is not innate for most of us; it is learned. We don’t just put people in a room full of books and expect them to learn to read; while it might happen, giving them a defined space and a facilitator will make literacy happen much faster.

It’s much the same situation with mobile technologies. If you haven’t encountered a mobile device before – if you have never used a computer, let alone used the internet to search for a job advertisement – the knowledge of how best to use the device to suit your needs isn’t going to be handed down from on high. This kind of literacy, like all literacies, requires a facilitator. There has to be a space for people to learn to use the technology, and libraries are a perfect fit – outside the classroom, what space is most associated with literacy?

It is crucial to make these considerations when we are thinking about the contribution new technologies can make to community building efforts. The space to educate and the person to facilitate are just as important as the tools themselves, and must be incorporated into these plans from the beginning – without them, laptops are about as useful as a hammer lying in the dust.