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The biggest library ambassadors... are children

We sat around the table in the middle of the library.  It was a stifling hot afternoon and our discussion centred on the need for a fan to make the room more conducive to readers, something that the town council agreed to provide.  There were six library users, boys and girls ranging in age from 5 to 10, sitting at a long table, all of whom didn’t seem to notice the heat, or mind it. They sat, each with their own book that they had selected out of the conveniently located wooden crates at the front of the library or else from the shelf housing local language (Chichewa) books. 

The National Library’s school monitoring coordinator, George Kashindo, and I were visiting a library in Salima, about 45 minutes away from the capital city of Lilongwe.  We were meeting with the librarian, who had been trained by the NLS the year before, to hear how she was doing and to see how the library was functioning.  Two officials from the town council were there participating in the discussions since the libraries are set up as partnerships between the NLS and the district assembly to provide the community with access to useful and interesting reading materials. 

While our conversations were going on, the readers continued to browse and select more books, seemingly oblivious to our discussions about library patronage, community outreach, reading promotion, and other issues that we were discussing.

While these things were indeed important to give a bigger picture of the library and its impact, I was mesmerized by the children, how comfortable they were in the library and how well they knew how to navigate the library’s collection.   My attention soon turned to what they were reading.  With CODE support during the last year, the collection has grown to include quite a lot of locally procured reference materials such as dictionaries, picture atlases, and local-language readers, as well as early readers in English supplied by CODE through the International Book Bank. 

While we spoke, more kids kept streaming in, older ones too, who, I was told, were students at the government secondary school located nearby.  We ended our meeting by asking some of them questions about the books they were reading.  Younger kids who were not able to read yet said they liked the early readers and board books, both those in English and Chichewa because they “liked the pictures”. 

The older kids appreciated the Chichewa readers published through the NLS’s Werengani series since they liked reading the stories that were about Malawi.  The older students generally liked the reference materials related to subjects taught at school.  Adults in the community, I was told, were interested in the novels, the daily newspaper as well as information on health issues relevant to their community such as HIV and AIDS.  

While the librarian, district officials, monitoring officer and I discussed reading promotion activities to maximize reach in the community, it was clear that these kids were the biggest library ambassadors of all since, page by page, they were building their love of books and their awareness that there’s a rich world of information out there.