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Turning libraries into digital hubs

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Jasmine Atieno @sparkleMine 

In 2018, following a milestone partnership agreement with Nairobi City County government, Book Bunk Trust embarked on the restoration of one of Kenya’s most iconic libraries — the McMillan Memorial Library on Banda Street, and its two branches in Eastlands; Eastlands Library in Makadara and Kaloleni Library in Kaloleni. 

This landmark restoration project involved both physical renovations of all three buildings, as well as the creation of digital possibilities that match those of the city branch. 

As such, Book Bunk created the libraries’ first-ever digital catalogue of items housed across all three branches, consisting of 137,705 items in total. 

The larger goal is to transform these spaces into centres of cultural leadership, heritage, public art, knowledge production, shared experiences and information exchange.  

Digitisation of the archive at McMillan Memorial Library began in November 2020, with the provision of public access to digitised archives as the main outcome of this project.

The four-month long project is supported by British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, and is delivered in partnership with African Digital Heritage Foundation and Built Environment Surveyors and Infrastructure Consultancy (BESIC) Group.  

A crucial segment of the project is the preservation of the library’s photographic collection, ranging from the late 1800s to the early 1950s.

This is necessitated by the accelerated deterioration of the photographic and newspaper collections housed at the library since the early 1900s. 

“Many of Kenya’s iconic libraries have suffered neglect for years and this project seeks to restore them.

We are also working to mitigate climate-related risks by digitising the most crucial segments of the archive, which document key moments that constitute our cultural heritage,” said Wanjiru Koinange, co-founder, Book Bunk. 

The most crucial segment of the newspaper collection being digitised (approximatelly 13,350 issues) includes reports of key historical events during Kenya’s struggle for independence such as the Mau Mau uprising, political assassinations, social and cultural developments, human rights movements and exploitative land acquisition laws.  

“Libraries have the potential to act as more than mere repositories, connecting us to the past in ways that help us question the present, as well as plan for an inclusive future.

Equitable access to information and the history that has shaped us is a crucial access point towards realising this,” said Angela Wachuka, co-founder, Book Bunk.

In addition to preserving the endangered archive and creating digital access, this work also informs the larger restoration project, which seeks to transform these spaces into accessible and safe community spaces, granting access to crucial services including public co-working spaces.

This project is also training a cohort of Nairobi residents on the management, promotion and care of collections through workshops conducted by African Digital Heritage Foundation.  

Founded in 1931

In June 2020, Book Bunk completed the physical restoration of the Kaloleni library, with similar work on the Eastlands branch in Makadara scheduled for completion in early 2021.  

“When we entered into the partnership with Nairobi County, there wasn’t an existing catalogue governing the process. So, we basically hired a team of interns.

With the team, we tried looking at the most fragile materials that we could focus on.

We got a list of 70,000 and from this, we got a list of 24,000, which we are currently prioritising,” said Wachuka. Most of the books from the collection are from the McMillan Libraries. 

“We are also focusing on collection that reflect the needs of the people,” she added. 

Despite that, the government acknowledges the importance of libraries in the achievement of Kenya’s vision 2030, there are only 62 libraries spread countrywide.

There is need to grow this number. Some of the counties that do not have libraries include Busia, Homa Bay, Kajiado, Kirinyaga, Lamu, Machakos, Nyamira, Samburu, Tana River, Tharaka Nithi, Turkana, Trans Nzoia, Vihiga and West Pokot.    

In summary

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