The history of libraries in Zimbabwe is sketch but word has it that in Africa libraries have existed for the past 6,000 years or so. It is on record that many Egyptian scholars, priests and kings had accumulated books for personal knowledge and power during ancient times (Plumbe, 1968 in Alema, 1994). It is a fascinating history that lack tangible evidence on the development of libraries in Africa. Several documents traced the development of libraries in Africa from the colonial period pointing the coming of Western civilization.
Zimbabwe has a poorly documented history of the development of libraries with a good number of publications noting that library development was an initiation of colonial settlers. The library system developed catered for the settlers and the education system was developed to espouse the learning process for the settler’s children. This imbalance persisted for a long time which later gave birth to the conception that libraries are a preserve for the white. Welford (2009) noted that, “Prior to Zimbabwe’s independence, libraries were viewed as the preserve of the small white population, and it was only they who had access to well-stocked libraries.” Nelson (2008) stated that library service was historically a service provided only to whites, Asians and “Colored’s” (people of mixed heritage). All these assertions generate questions relating to what was the situation before the settlers arrive in Zimbabwe. Did Munhumutapa State Kings have a library? Did the Kings and rulers generated any form or written communication? All these questions and others similar to these remain unanswered and no publication is clearly providing a historical background to libraries in Zimbabwe prior colonization.
Soon after independence the new government’s challenge was to address the imbalance in library and information services distribution in Zimbabwe. Library services were situated in major cities and areas where the white population resides. The expansion of library services was a recommendation from the Greenfield report of 1971. Nelson (2008) observed that prior to, and continuing after independence, libraries were dispersed in such a way that only those living in a dense population area, such as a city or large township. The new government’s challenge was colossal and required financial resources to establish universal library services to both urban and rural communities. Recommendations from the Greenfield report calling for improved funding to library services, development of school libraries and the development of a library school in Zimbabwe (Nelson, 2008). After 1980, the Alison report was created and recommended the establishment of a new National Library Headquarters that would pave way for fast development of a national library services and saw the inauguration of the National Library and Documentation Service in October 1981 and started operations in 1985 (Nelson, 2008).
The Zimbabwe Librarian which was first published as Rhodesian Librarian in 1969 was the key communication medium for librarians that covered issues as they unfold in the library sector was instrumental in making known the recommendations of the Alison report and created debate on some of the recommendations. A number of challenges overshadow the establishment of a vibrant library service in Zimbabwe as a well elaborate plan was available but the will of the government and the necessary funds had disappeared (Nelson, 2008). The Alison report encouraged the government to commission the Swedish Library Commission to carry out another feasibility study that recommended the establishment of a Documentation Centre in Harare and a Culture house in each of the 55 rural districts of Zimbabwe (Welford, 2009). Meanwhile, the public library system was facing a myriad of challenges as financial support from government was reduced and donor funds become scarce leaving the library system in a deplorable situation. The price of imported books skyrocket and inflation was taking a toll on funds awarded to them by parent body. Underfunding becomes the new challenge to the library system that until today is causing havoc in the management of information centres in Zimbabwe.
The public library system flourished for a while before the economic crunch of registered in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2010 affect the operations badly that they fail to revive operations due to underfunding if not no funding is provided to them for services besides staff salaries. The major cities house the public libraries that are using space created before independence and no initiative has been put to establish new state-of-the-art buildings to cope with demand for services. Despite the acknowledgement the government has that free access to information is critical to fight obstacles bedeviling the country no plan has been put to change the face of library services after the economic downturn. Much effort is put in the economy failing to realise the significant role libraries and information play in shaping and changing the economy.
Information is a valuable resource and there is need to put up sound infrastructure to allow smooth access to it at every level both in rural and urban areas in supporting the education system. Several initiatives through NGOs and library institution have been executed but are failing shot as the demand for library service is overwhelming.
Alemna, Anaba ‘Alternative approaches to funding university libraries in Africa.’ New Library World, 95 (1112), 1994, p. 15 – 17.
Nelson, Megan Sapp ‘Once upon a time in Zimbabwe.’ New Library World, 109 (9/10), 2008, p. 419 – 430.
Welford, John ‘The Development of community libraries in Zimbabwe.’ [Internet] Available at http://www.helium.com/items/1387300-development-of-rural-community-libraries-in-zimbabwe. (Accessed 21/10/2011).