Friday, April 20, 2007

So you want to establish a village library? (Part 1)

It is very hard to do harm by trying to establish a library. You, however, as an intelligent, advice-seeking human, want to do more than not harm. You want to be effective. You want your effort to leave a shadow, preferably one that lengthens as you grow older. Your children and their children should have something to be proud of. So here are my thoughts about how to be effective in helping to establish a village library.
I will say this only once: You are important. Of course, the people you are working with are important. But you are critical: if you were not, there would already be a library, wouldn’t there? I will say this many times: Think about why there isn’t a library, and whether you are truly prepared to be effective. Important as you are, establishing an effective library that endures will require years of your time. If you are not prepared to give that, then do not begin. Why waste everyone else’s time?
You may be wealthy enough to buy the time of someone else to manage the establishment of the library, or be working in a country where management already exists. But for most very poor African countries, let me assure you that promises of effective management by government officials are just promises. Again, we call upon the subjunctive: If they haven’t been able to get an adequate and regular supply of chalk into the school classroom, how will they be able to manage the library effectively? Worse, the promises are often not well-intentioned, but an effort to turn a library into a trough for feeding corrupt local leaders and officials. In that case, you may well be doing more harm than good. “Who would steal from children?” you might ask. Lots of people, is the sad answer.
Many aspects of establishing a library are easy. Perhaps the easiest is the infrastructure of the library: building, shelves, tables and chairs, books, desks and equipment. This is the turnkey library. It is the most satisfying part for the library entrepreneur. You get to cut a ribbon, watch traditional dancing and singing while sipping a lukewarm soda, make a speech, and share the photo opportunity.
First, the building. The idea of establishing libraries came after I saw how inexpensive it was to put up a mud-brick building in Burkina Faso. My wife and I build a small house, about 300 square feet, for about $3000. This is a very simple building, with a tin roof, a couple of metal shutters and a metal door. Very rustic; in fact, what we instructed the builders to do was build a house exactly the same as the home we had rented for a year, that had been build by a local railway worker as a house for his family when he retired. A small library, I reasoned, should not cost more than this, and indeed the first library we built, in Béréba, was slightly smaller than the house and cost less, since we used mud bricks instead of quarried bricks. Bricks, incidentally, cost 10 CFA each in southwestern Burkina Faso, or about 2 cents. Transporting the bricks costs as much as the bricks, an additional 10 CFA each. Each brick is about 6 inches high and 12 inches long. So how many bricks does it take to build a library? If the square of the building is 20 feet by 20 feet, and the height is about 15 feet, then you need about 2500 bricks, which cost about $100. A
building never takes longer than a month to build, so figure three people working a full month earning $100 each (triple the average income, but builders are skilled workers) adds about $300. The cost of the building thus is not where you think, the bricks and the sweat. The cost is in the tin roof (40 sheets for a typical building), the timbers (“Raise high the roof beam?”, but we could just call them long poles) for the roof, and the cement for the foundation (i.e. the floor; no village building has a proper foundation) and to plaster the interior and exterior walls smooth. The exterior has to be protected against the rain (and in Burkina Faso those who are short of money will just cement over the two sides of the building that face northwards, since the rains almost always come from that direction).

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