With Library Visits In Decline, Kenya Is Betting On EBooks And Digital Libraries To Revive The Reading Culture

The Government of Kenya has secured a $3.5million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Reader East Africa for the acquisition of equipment and digital books, as well as training for the Kenya National Library Service's digital library project.

Fewer Kenyans are visiting public libraries to search for information, due in part to the ease of access to information from the internet. Reading for pleasure has also become less common, with young people more likely to watch television or go online instead of reading a book.

The Government has matched the grant with a KES7.2 million investment that will cater for portal clearance charges, maintenance and training of librarians.

The project is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Libraries programme, which is piloting the use of mobile devices and Kindles in public and community libraries in Kenya. The devices are preloaded with a wide variety of content in local languages, including reference books, textbooks, fiction, nonfiction, storybooks, and other information.

KNLS estimates that library visits have decreased by as much as 65% in the past decade. The ease access to information through mobile phones means that people are far less likely to visit in order to browse or do research. The slow rate at which the books are replaced when they become outdated has also worsened the situation.

The internet alone is not enough for research, particularly for those interested in Kenya's past. KNLS is currently digitizing government reports, some rare books, sessional papers which date back from 1947 and old Kenya National Bibliographies, and making them available through its website as well as its network of public libraries .

The government hopes the digital plan will revive the culture of quality reading. Speaking at the launch of the project, Culture and Arts Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario announced that 61 public libraries will be equipped with 3,000 Kindle e-readers, each preloaded with 200 books. The libraries will also have access to 580,000 digital books, about 39% of the total Kenya National Library Services stock.

"E-reading will transform libraries and their clients by responding to the technological needs such as lifespan and portability", CS Wario added.

Compared with paper books that have a lifespan of about three years, Kindles averaging six years. They are also accessible to persons with disabilities, with adjustable formatting to make the text larger, as well as the option to read the text out loud.

The first phase of the project covers 10 counties - Nairobi, Meru, Muranga, Nyeri, Kiambu, Nyandarua, Nanyuki, Laikipia and Isiolo.

The second phase will cover 19 libraries in 15 Counties namely Kericho, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kakamega, Uasin Gishu, Siaya, Nakuru, Kisii, Bomet, Narok, Baringo, Kabarnet, Nandi, Bungoma, Migori and Kisumu.