Why Aren’t We Building Any Libraries?


There is an old expression. “If you want to hide something from an African, hide it in a book”. The insulting stereotype aside, books do not pull rank in the average Kenyan home. With advent of digital media, good old fashion reading is quickly going out of style.

As a result, it is rarely stated that Kenya until recent times housed unique book collections.  The British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) is one of the few left and has been around since 1960. It contains an enviable collection of books for those interested in humanities. The kind of information Google aggregates rarely trolls. I joined the BIEA library recently after a limit with Google. Google does not know everything.

It felt redeeming to acquire something as simple a library card. The library room was so quiet and I assumed a scholarly demeanour reminded of the labyrinth that was the University of Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta Memorial library. Rows of metallic bookshelves, in a crammed space, dusty hard backs titles that can only be scanned if you walk with your head tilted to the side hoping to run into a classic title or stumble upon some rare knowledge.

I grew up at a time when libraries were places of leisure for children and shrines for knowledge seekers. A quiet public place to reflect, ponder and gather new information. My uncle, Francis Otieno Pala, was the country’s Chief librarian and I developed an appreciation for these spaces early and nurtured the habit of life long reading. Kenya National Library Service buildings were hang outs where we could read some fine books especially the ones our parents could not afford. The only place one had a chance to read foreign comics like Tintin.

When I was in college, I spent my first year, working part time in the Uni library. The pay was dismal and pushing a cart, picking up books and re shelving them once students were done was in no way cool. But the access was incredible. I learnt how to catalogue, find rare books, which gave me an edge in exploring other libraries I would visit later. After college, I joined a small discussion group that kept a private library. The subjects were varied and I gained access to alternative reading mostly on Eastern philosophy and New Age topics. The joy of borrowing and reading any book I desired was to become a cherished privilege.


Reading for leisure is a forgotten pleasure, fading, swallowed and lost to our saturated information age. The public library is as endangered as the African elephant. In the digital era, libraries get slandered as a waste of space by those who never appreciated reading. The last library that I had membership to, is facing threat of closure. It was housed in a members club but questions about its diminished income generating potential have been raised and now there is talk of its “sustainability”, a Kenyan euphemism for any public entity that is incapable of generating profit for the vested interests.

In our time strapped world, a leisurely stroll to the library or leisurely reads for that matter are rare occurrences. Libraries at best are a place to chop and cram text just before a final exam. Books represent labor, regimented study and a burden one bears on the rugged long road to secure employment. Reading is serious business and the socialization around books has been very sterile. Books are not sexy. No book is considered worthy until it is turned into a movie. There are akin to instructional manuals to be thrown away after school and on a good day, recycled as jiko fuel.

The prevailing narrative is that their time is up and we could save a lot of trees if we condensed books into digital files, distributed e-readers and shared e-books. Digitization of books is touted as all about convenience and profits.

School boards would prioritize a school bus over a library any day. It is simple economics. You cannot hire out a library. Libraries do not bring income.

It is not just libraries that suffer. Public services are in rapid decline. The neighbourhood kiosk. The open market. Free theatre. The estate sports ground. Social halls. Public parks. Privatization of social services has become the norm. There is an urgent need to displace paper books with the next hot thing yet many children continue to grow up scared of reading.

Which is a crying shame. Libraries are not only about the books. They have a social function. A place to exchange ideas and gain knowledge for free. An open source learning facility for those who could not afford books. Where no one is denied the right to read for the simple reason that they could not afford to buy a book. In the long run, it is a lot cheaper to maintain a public library than to re educate an ignorant nation.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Thanks a lot man for the BIEA mention. I too had a similar childhood. When i was 9 years old, my dad introduced me to the KNLS in Kakamega and that was my best hangout ever. Visiting the place early this year, I almost shed tears. The children’s section was just a shambles.

  2. OP, May be I’m not reading sufficiently but this is the first article I have read in a long while that seeks to cover the wider issue of reading apathy aptly demonstrated by the death or rather decline of the library.

    I think that the library in recent times has basically evolved or rather devolved (an interesting point of debate) as a study space. Visit any library prior to examination periods & any reading/library enthusiast (unaware) would marvel at the significant number of patrons engrossed in their books, but alas that is simply a mirage. Few if none of the patrons are interested in exploring the library as a social space of intellectual growth & discovery beyond their time specific study requirements.

    It’s not only in Kenya that library membership is declining. In the UK due to financial cuts on social services several municipal libraries are closed or in the process of closing. And municipal libraries there have tended to be looked down upon as:
    1. A place where bored OAP’s congregate to read newspapers, periodicals et al.
    2. A place where children congregate to study & do homework.
    3. A place where ‘the poor’ come to use computers & access the internet for free.

    A visit to Nairobi’s prime McMillan Memorial Library is a sad affair. For one a historical building in a state of gradual neglect, a social space that is under utilised (perfect space for creative arts et al) & where historical books & manuscripts are left to rot, stolen & destroyed. The Nairobi county authorities only need to look at how Manchester’s main library was transformed to fit with the times. Although larger, both buildings are historical & occupy strategic space within their respective city centres.

    Library apathy represents wider social malaise, well maybe I’m over intellectualising. But as you rightly pointed out: ”It is not just libraries that suffer. Public services are in rapid decline”.

    ”Reading for leisure is a forgotten pleasure, fading, swallowed and lost to our saturated information age”.
    Well put, ironically despite the technology inspired information overload, ignorance does not seem to be on the decline.

    Finally an indictment to my hypocrisy, it’s been roughly 18 years since I renewed my KNLS card, although my local UK library card is up to date. But will surely join the BIEA library.

  3. dkabutei

    Growing up, my old man bought me storybooks. Not only did he make sure I read them but also had fun while at it. When he bought the daily , I was handed the kids sections and I would read him the short stories… ( that’s how I met you by the way- on print media hehe.. Man Talk and Crazy Monday.) He was creating a reading culture in us, my sisters and I.
    Gadgets have replaced the books. In place of libraries in town, there are booths for gaming. You will find kids and grown ups too (as old as 25yrs plus) spending hours in those booths. When they are not there find them on social media, the hash tag generation..
    Reading for pleasure is a culture that needs to be nurtured from a tender age. But how do we do it if we buy kids smartphones instead of books?

    • Well put. Parents are usually supposed to lay the foundation for good life long habits but with adults who haven’t cultivated good habits, kids miss out on a lot.

  4. Fantastic piece OP.Guilty of being a purely “academic-reasons reader” I now am cultivating a social and leisure reading culture ….well into my Thirties. It sure is never too late folks! My little girl, however, will definitely be inducted into the social reading culture as early as possible.

    • It is never too late to start. I watched my grandmother learn to read in her late 60s through the adult education “Ngumbaru” classes. Not to forget Kimani Murage who started school in his 80s. Set up the little one for the future. She will be better for it.

    • Igweta Murangiri

      That little girl will not escape my book gifting tradition :)– and even though I now own a kindle, bookshops make me very giddily happy. Never really explored libraries…its about time.

  5. Wanjjiku

    Digital books are good, but for me there nothing better than old fashioned page turning. When at a mall and I need to pass time, the first shop I look for is a TBC , and more often than not I end making an “impulse” buy. I have always loved reading books and I can attribute this to introduction book reading at a young age. Parents do play a big role in cultivating the reading culture.

  6. I now understand why you are such a brilliant writer. YOU READ. Tell all of those who are asking you if you offer writing lessons to READ. You cannot be a good writer without that. I do not know of anything better than reading. I really enjoy reading your blog and I used to be a huge fan of ‘Mantalk’. You are one the very best writers in Kenya.

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