The cost of reading in Kenya

Literacy is the most sought after aspect here in Kenya, and the latest move by the Kenya National Library Services  (KNLS) is the brick wall that we did not see coming, and I will tell you why.

Kenya’s need for an improved education system, and access to this human right saw to the establishment of the public library in 1965. There are sixty public national libraries across the country with an estimated number of over seventy five thousand members today.

When it was established, the mandate of KNLS was:

To promote, establish, equip, manage, maintain, and develop libraries in Kenya as a National Library Service.

However as from this April, the rules and regulations governing use and access to these libraries have changed, and this concerns me because I am not only a member, but I have been taking part in school outreach activities to encourage reading among school going children.

I will share two of the new rules that directly affect access and use of the library and they are:

  1. Entry is free to the public (before entry was free to members, and anyone who wanted to use the library had to pay a fee of twenty shillings-but they could not borrow books)
  2. To borrow or lend a book: adults pay twenty shillings for each book and can check out only two books within a period of 14 days. Children pay five shillings for each book they borrow.

I applaud the library for making the library free for all to access. This means that any Kenyan citizen or resident can walk into a public library and read or spend time doing research there.

However, my main concern is the book loan fee.

Previously, the annual membership fee for adults was: Kshs. 300 for registration, and annual renewal fee of Kshs. 100. This also meant that a member could borrow as often as she/he could after completing the two books they had checked out.

But, I also know the state of public libraries in Kenya. I took these pictures in April last year, of the Kisumu library:

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Poor lighting, cramped spaces, dilapidated bookshelves, and insufficient books were some of the reasons why I felt that the library need renovation.

And in January this year, thanks to donations from the American embassy- I found the American corner with shelves of books that I could not have my fill of.

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Before I could read half the books on one shelf, I was informed of the new rules and I had to pay Kshs. 40 to borrow two of the books that I wanted to read. When I asked about my annual membership- I was told, “that has been scrapped off.” I have not been to the library since- and sometimes I forget and find myself walking down that street, only to stop and turn like someone who is lost.

This book loan fee is neither economical or cost effective.

For example: If you are a fast reader, it means you can make at least two trips to the library and that would be around Ksh. 80 (this is currently twelve shillings less the american dollar), but if you add the transport costs for each trip- it becomes more than the previous member registration fee.

Times are tough now, and unemployment is not even the only cause for a Kenyan’s worries- when it costs roughly five dollars to secure two meals a day- and this is on a very good day.

On the other hand, it’s good that anyone can walk into a library to read- but what of space?

The libraries are not spacious, even the three floors in the Buru buru branch in Nairobi is not enough for all the members- and you meet people sitting on floors as they read and constantly have to tip toe so as not to step on anyone.

It is not easy to maintain a library. I have my personal library and dusting and always going through my books is a chore- and though this new move is solely for the upkeep and maintenance of public libraries, I am not for it. Readers will have to seek other options, and ebooks are slowly picking up in Kenya too. There is the need for quality literary fiction, and the library has masterpieces of literature that readers who cannot afford this fee will never read.

The way I see it, there should be a membership fee that is solely for borrowing books- because most Kenyans are living from hand to mouth, that whatever they get goes towards their basic needs, and to encourage the same for reading, is to slowly extinguish the reading culture.

Instead, there should be a fee to be paid once- and this can guarantee a member access to at least five books within the 14 day period. It will be more of a long-term investment, and it means that school pupils, university students and newly employed people can borrow books to read at their convenience.

The libraries should incorporate ICT through provision of online journals and employ qualified librarians to assist in the management of the library.

It is often said that you cannot please everyone, but when it comes to these new rules- all it needed was more dialogue and feedback from the members and I believe that this new cost is already costing us strong minds.

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