Where books really do change lives

Nicholas Clee
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 21st October 2010

London-based charity Book Aid International works with partners in sub-Saharan Africa to bring books to people who might otherwise never have the chance to experience what most of us do every day: the pleasure of curling up with a good book, writes Jacqui Scott But during a time when most of us are looking towards an increasingly digitised future, Book Aid International is having to think hard about how changes in the publishing industry might affect its ability to achieve its mission of increasing access to books to support literacy, education and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past 54 years we have provided more than 30 million books to thousands of libraries and resource centres in schools, refugee camps, prisons, hospitals, NGOs, universities and technical colleges as well as national, branch and district library services and more. We have been given most of those books by UK publishers. And the books don t just sit quietly on shelves either many have been used for mobile libraries reaching extremely remote communities by bicycle, motorbike, and even by camel and donkey!

There is no doubt of the influence of these books: when visiting our women's reading clubs project in Malawi recently, the women told me how the books we sent had changed their lives. Some were learning basic business skills, and gave us wine they had made using the instructions found in one of the books. They now sell the wine and bring in new income to their households. Many said that for the first time they had access to clear information about HIV and AIDS until then, they had often felt ill-informed and unsure of the reliability of things they had heard. Several said their home lives had changed for the better they were borrowing books for their children and were more confident with their husbands.
But what amazed me most of all about these women was the distances they travelled each week to borrow the two-books-per-week allowance some walked an hour and half each way every week, with their children on their backs and water or fuel for cooking on their heads. Just to get two books.
Here at Book Aid International we are following the changes in publishing with great interest. We support access to information wholeheartedly, whatever format it may come in, but digitisation may well threaten what we are able to do and could have far-reaching consequences for people in information poor societies.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, despite great advances in some areas of technology, like mobile phones, basic infrastructure is still lacking. For most people and many institutions, technology that we take for granted, such as computers and the internet, is far beyond reach. Expensive hardware and software, unreliable power, low internet bandwidth and lack of trained technical people all exacerbate this problem. Currently, only about 6% of the population of Africa has regular access to the internet, and those that do tend to be highly literate, high earners in urban areas.
The library model in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to struggle to provide access to books in digital format for a long time to come. Set-up and maintenance costs, training and paying staff to look after technology, as well as finding a new model for managing ereaders and digital books, present real difficulties.
If the publishing industry of the future decides that the most cost-effective and popular approach to publishing is through digital means, sub-Saharan Africa will lose out. Without the technology and infrastructure, how will the average African access the basic information they need for literacy and life? Or the books we all need to take ourselves out of ourselves for a while?
The technology gap between sub-Saharan Africa and the West is huge, and adding to what is already a serious crisis of lack of information could be crippling. It would be devastating if all the potential of the information revolution in fact resulted in more inequality in sub-Saharan Africa, not less.
In the meantime, we are providing half a million books a year to library partners, and additional support whenever possible, such as librarianship training, and grants for refurbishment and local book purchase. But for the first time, we have had a real shortage in the number of books being given to us by publishers, a reflection of the similarly difficult times in the industry. And we continue to face a difficult financial future, with squeezes on company giving and householder disposable income, so we are fighting for every penny we receive. We are very grateful for the books we have been given they have genuinely changed lives but continued support from publishers, particularly those in the UK, has never been more important.
Jacqui Scott is Head of Fundraising and Communications at Book Aid International, a UK registered charity. For more information contact 'jacqui dot scott at bookaid dot org, or go to www.bookaid.org.
This article first appeared in BookBrunch and Publishers Weekly's FRANKFURT FAIR DEALER.