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WHAT WAS A LIBRARY?

Libraries in Europe and elsewhere I hear are grappling with their roles for the future in the new light shed by the information age where information is available at @ the speed of light [1][1].

Here in Africa, we have to explain to our kids what libraries used to be – considering that Libraries in their present state or form are barely recognizable by some of us who came of age in the early seventies.

Let us ask ourselves again: What is a library?

A library is a place in which literary and artistic materials, such as books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, prints, records, and tapes, are kept for reading, reference, or lending. A collection of such materials, especially when systematically arranged could be referred to as a library, so could a room in a private home for such a collection or an institution or foundation maintaining such a collection.

A library could also be a commercial establishment that lends books for a fee, a series or set of books issued by a publisher or a collection of recorded data or tapes arranged for ease of use.

Why do we need libraries?

Frankly, this is one of those questions about which it is said: "if you have to ask the question, you wouldn't understand the answer"

I will like to talk about a few libraries which molded my life and to which I owe a debt of gratitude.

The first library I remember was in the early seventies in my house. My Dad a civil servant with the ministry of education had bought 12 volumes of very heavy books which I could barely lift – bound in beautiful red cloth-like material. These books I have never forgotten and being a very considerate human being I managed to appropriate just 4 of the 12 volumes to myself and that only after the demise of my Dad. I thus left 8 hoping that they shine light into the willing head, heart and mind of some fortunate child or teen. Those books became even dearer to me when in my adult hood through an internet search I realized they had not been written for people of my ilk. Being a child, I'd failed to notice the subtle racist innuendos.

So much for my first library which imbued in me a lifelong love for leisurely, unforced studying. Memories of my next library are shadowy. This was in my primary school in Benin-City. We had a library and all I remember doing there was watching a demonstration of how to make ice-cream. I remember the gentleman whipping egg with a whisk so thoroughly that when he turned the bowl containing the egg upside down, the whipped egg defied gravity! I don't recall ever going into that library for anything else!

My next library was the State library on the Oba Market road opposite what was then the Kingsway store. I remember the very kind lady in charge of the library Mrs. Oronsaye probably because she had a son at Edo College where I schooled or maybe her genuine interest in kids made us like her. At that library, which we went to on Saturdays, when we were on holidays, I do not remember reading much there but I remember the joy I got watching old Black and White Laurel and Hardy comedy sketches. Ironically in this age of cable TV and internet, I do not recall ever seeing another Laurel and Hardy movie. Thus when John Kerry and John Edwards were referred to as Laurel and Hardy, I understood! A tiny inconsequential facet of knowledge but important all the same.

Before continuing with the Libraries of my life, I will like to go back to the question "Why do we need libraries? I will drop one answer right here: "We need libraries to speed up globalization. .." and if you need to ask what globalization is.....

Back to the great libraries of my life.

We had a lovely library at Edo College. Here I would bury myself and read about the stars and the celestial bodies. I read books by Robert Moore? I could check his name up in one second on the internet but will leave it at that. All I know was that his last name was Moore. This writer did more to fashion my sense of being and my relationship with the universe than probably all the preachers of my youth. I got to know a universe which responded and could be predicted perfectly by the laws of mathematics and physics. Whoever created the world was worthy of adulation. I often times would get so completely lost in this outer world that looking at the pictures of the earth from space, and determining the position of Benin-City, I would peer down to see if I could actually see men on the ground scurrying hither and thither seeking to do things big or small, good or evil and wonder what could be so important to people so inconsequential as to occlude the greater meaning of life. (Bribe takers and perverters of social justice beware!!)

The words of Christ had full meaning to me after this truly enlightening experience: "Be anxious for nothing" I never have been.

There was another library at Okhoro road – just adjacent to Eghosa Grammar school – this was a very important library in my life. It was government owned. I read for my JAMB exam there and borrowed several Buffalo Bill cowboy books. There was also the great Library at the then University of Ife. Here I read for my degree exams, made photocopies of relevant documents, used microfiche to search for documents and…very importantly was able to get lost in books from a section of the Library totally unconnected to my studies. For instance I read comprehensively about Cecil B De Mille the Hollywood mogul, several volumes I must add (while my Laplace and Leibnitz functions stood impatiently by – tapping their feet no doubt, probably with their arms akimbo!) I went with Cecil B De Mille through the ups and downs of his life, attended his wedding to the very beautiful Mrs. De Mille, and went on holidays with them; Cecil was a very handsome man and maintained his very good looks to the end. He had a very long and evidently very loving relationship with his wife. It was sad in the end to see such a beautiful woman looking so old, with hardly a trace of the great beauty she once possessed. Mr. Demille on the other hand remained handsome. It was also sad to return to the dreary life of mathematical functions and complex numbers……

One of my most beloved libraries was the University of Benin Library. Though never a student at that great library, I would visit the library during holidays and perfected a means of bluffing my way into the library – a practice I started in my own university at Ife – for I could be counted never to have in my possession my student identity card. Why people should be kept out of libraries I have never known – similar in my view to keeping people out of Churches. Why are churches locked at night??!!

At the UniBen Library, I read mostly Electrical Machines and guess what? I discovered to be the best book on this: an encyclopedia! !! I do not remember its name and will not mislead my readers but reading this book, I discovered that my university lecturer had a less than complete knowledge of the subject of electrical machines – but that's another story.

I also at this library discovered one of the strangest books authored by any one. The book was "I must show you my clippings" and the author was Wopko Jensma. I suspected he was a white South African only because of a picture he had of a half naked white man sitting on a chair. It had to be Wopko! But Wopko to my West African ears was definitely an African name though I felt it should have been 'Wokpo'. Again, Jensma did not sound like an Anglo-Saxon name neither did it sound like a Dutch name – not to my West African ears anyway! I was intrigued by his writings which were decidedly anti-Apartheid in 1986; apartheid was to Africans what Osama bin Laden is to the west today! I loved him (Wopko) and hoped he was white in order for me to love him even more. Sadly some 18 years later 2004 to be precise in the summer, I made a search on Google for my old friend Wopko and confirmed he was white but had a history of mental illness and had simply walked out of the institution where he was held and was never seen again! Was I glad to have known him? Yes I was.

Why do we need libraries? I'll drop another answer right here: Libraries foster brotherhood. For if we study the same books, we may get to think alike and understand each other…


I was surprised that after I got a well paying job working on an off-shore rig, where I spent 14 days between tours, I found myself gravitating towards libraries on my off days!! There I was a young bachelor boy, financially independent – yet preferring to go to the library (the University of Benin one!) where I had perfected the art of sneaking past the centurions at its entrance. At that point, I'd found that books nay libraries were my inner temple and its portals the gateway to the information highway…….I knew this long before the information age and certainly long before the term Information highway was coined.

These days on visits abroad, I have walked past several libraries and looked enviously at people as they walked in and out and have made it one of my ambitions is to visit the British Library! Low ambition? Probably, but…. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest libraries. The collections include more than 150 million items, in over 400 languages, to which 3 million new items are added every year. We house books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, magazines, prints and drawings, music scores, sound recordings, patents and philatelic items.

Sneaking in is not an option. Not in these awkward times!! I thus plan to register properly, and thereupon make my grand entrance, and make the first section which captures my fancy the outer courtyard of my temple and proceed to adopt a row of shelves around which I shall do a lap of honor. If no one is looking, I shall plant a hurried kiss on a book. Any book and feigning short-sightedness will pretend to look closely at it - only, I shall be drinking in their smell.

Closing my eyes, I shall pick at least 5 books at random, and proceed gingerly to the nearest table and thereupon sit as quietly as I possibly can and opening the first of the 5 books, smiling, proceed to the content page and find out what I am about to know….

It is important at this point to note that Social and technological changes impact our understanding of literacy. Our challenge is to prepare our children for the new literacies (NOT illiteracies) of the future. And while we are at it, we must remember that the term 'Literacy' has been redefined and identify if we need to prepare ourselves as well.

Whereas Literacy was defined loosely as the ability to read and write, today, it is "the ability to locate, evaluate, use, and communicate using a wide range of resources including text, visual, audio, and video sources" (From the The Evolving Definition of Literacy)

Obi Akaraiwe (Don Kenobi); MBA, PMP: Author, Engineer, Nigerian, writes from Houston, TX. Email: [email protected]


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