Newke (1995) defines libraries as "repositories of knowledge or storehouses of written records of civilizations in various forms of the information package ... the elements of a library are books ... libraries play informational, recreational, research, cultural, educational ..." roles (46). Amadi (1981) elaborates "libraries in Europe and America exist to meet the cultural and information needs of their communities, but African libraries are both British and American." In most parts of Africa, this model is inappropriate since African libraries are products of the Western model of librarianship, and therefore cannot play the role of information providers or storehouses of African cultures and traditions rooted in the oral tradition.
Of the 1,129 libraries in Africa, 797 are public libraries, 266 are in higher educational institutions, 51 are in schools, and 15 are national libraries (IFLA 2003). African governments do not have the luxury of building different types of libraries in each community, resulting in most rural communities having little or no access to library resources and services. Moreover, even if rural communities have physical access to some library services such as reading programs, it is likely that they cannot make full use of the materials available due to high rates of illiteracy. According to a recent study, the current adult literacy rate in Africa south of the Sahara stands at 71 percent for males and 53.7 percent for females (UNESCO 2007). In many countries, such as Benin, for example, the literacy rate is much lower, 47.9 percent for males and 23.3 percent for females (CIA World Factbook 2007).
One of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) mission is to empower people through the free flow of ideas by word and image, and by access to information and knowledge (UNESCO Homepage). Access to relevant information is crucial to the economic, political, and social well-being of any community. Unlike Europe or North America, access to information in Africa, where it exists, is concentrated largely in the urban areas. Sturges and Neill (1998) state that information is very important in rural development, and should be tailored to reflect the culture and needs of a particular group or community. In the South African context, Wakelin and Simelane (1995) point to the importance of information provision in capacity building and empowering communities, and argue that lack of access to information is one of the structural causes of poverty. Mazie and Ghelfi (1995) agree that information is critical for people, businesses, and communities in both urban and rural areas. However, they noted that rural areas are at a disadvantage because of their remoteness from urban areas, the centers of information flow, which makes it difficult for rural areas to access information and translates it into useful knowledge. (8)
The idea of delivering library services to rural Africa is well-intentioned, but as it is based on a Western model, thus services do not meet the needs of African communities. Arguments about the state of libraries in Africa and calls for ways of improving existing libraries and their services are not new. However, recommendations and solutions suggested by library scholars so far have been based on the Western model, emphasizing literacy and books, ignoring the importance of the oral tradition in Africa. The UNESCO Seminar of 1954 on development of public libraries in Africa favored literacy and argued for the need for public libraries, stating "Throughout Africa people are being helped by mass education programmes to emerge from illiteracy and ignorance, and they need continued access to suitable publications, stimulations of their reading interests and expert reading guidance to sharpen their new skill into an effective instrument of self education" (14). Library scholars continue to share this view today regarding the Western model of librarianship. …