Eliane Blumer und Karsten Schuldt
Libraries can help people in poverty to better organize their everyday-life

Schuldt - Blumer
Schuldt - Blumer | Photo: Max.Kroneck

In the birdseye-view poverty in Germany and Switzerland is something different than poverty in Cameroon.

What could you learn from your visit in Cameroon and your participation in the workshop?

We can not talk about the whole of Cameroon, as we only visited selected Cameroonian libraries for a week, nothing more and nothing less. The libraries we saw gave the impression that the library landscape in Cameroon is looking into the future and moves forward proactively and under their own powers. The colleagues developed the competencies necessary abroad and progressively also inside of Cameroon and use those competencies in a target-oriented manner. What we could perceive are clear visions for the future of the institutions visited, which, although with external help, are implemented in self-government.
Nevertheless, there were always doubts about the concrete follow-throughs of those plans, which were based on the experience of countless failed projects in the past. The knowledge of the colleagues seems to be great and widespread, when at the same time the structures itself only change with slow pace. But the problem didn’t seem to be the level of professional education or the currency of professional knowledge.
We were impressed by our colleagues’ openness in the exchanges between each other and with us, especially the open dealing with perceived problems of and in libraries. In Europe, such problems are not discussed in such an open way.

After you learned a little bit about the Cameroonian situation, did you think that libraries are a solution for poverty?

Only maybe. This is not different from Europe. Libraries can help people in poverty to better organize their everyday-life - even if that only means to find a personal anchor in literature or crime novels - and can help them to overcome poverty as well; but only if libraries think about what poverty actually is, how poverty develops and how poverty could be defeated and, at the same time, work together with people in poverty, not only for them. In the birdseye-view poverty in Germany and Switzerland is something different than poverty in Cameroon, but at the end of the day it always means that people are held back from living a life that would be an average life in their own society. That’s the same in every country. What is different in Cameroon, maybe, is the peoples attitude towards books and libraries. But we stayed not long enough to know that definitely.

Is a visit in a country like Cameroon which seems so different to Germany or Switzerland worth it?

In every case! In the end, our visit in Cameroon led us to know more about the structures and libraries in our respective countries. What seems common in Europe is not common if you compare it to the reality in Cameroon. For instance: The good performance of libraries in Cameroon is almost always based on a strong commitment of the colleagues towards the continuing existence of their libraries. Just following the rules or plea at the right time to the powers that be does not secure the existence of libraries in Cameroon in the long term.

In Germany as well as in Switzerland there is a discussion on information literacy, which was also mentioned in Cameroon. Are there differences between Cameroon and the german-speaking part of Europe in that case?

It is important to mention that the discussions on Information Literacy are quite different in different languages. While “Informationskompetenz” is a constant topic in the German-speaking discussions and maybe leave the impression as if this is a global discourse, there are much less articles and discussions on this topic in French. Even in Cameroon the topic was introduced by colleagues from the English-speaking regions.
At the same time, there is a wide variance on what is understood as Information Literacy. For instance, in Cameroon most of the libraries, even the university libraries, do not have a connection to the internet and other public institution - even the Goethe Institut - have to deal with low bandwidths. Smartphone however have widespread. So, what is Information Literacy in such a context? The right usage of databases? Evidently that has to be defined in a local context. Information competence in the German-speaking Europe is situated in contemporary European societies, in the possibilities of European universities with their 24/7 connection to a fast internet. This can not be the case for Cameroon. What is considered as relevant information is defined by the context. Maybe this is something that could enrich the debate in the German language: The context in which information literacy is defined should not be perceived as given, but should explicitly be taken into account.

Still, if somebody from Europe wants to help libraries in Africa, for instance in Cameroon, what could he or she actually do?

It’s important not to arrive with out-of-the-box solutions, especially not with complete concepts of libraries. In the end the only solutions that work are those which are demanded in the local context and therefore have to be developed with the colleagues on site. And what does not help in particular is the donation of weeded library books, old computers and the like. Of course, those books won’t be read in Africa and, are not relevant for African libraries, either, if they are not relevant for libraries in the Global North. Old computers, even when in good shape and equipped with lightway operation systems, are not functional anymore and are most of the time just power hogs.

In october 2014, Eliane Blumer (Information scientist, research assistant at the Université de Genève, fellow in continuing education at the Swiss association for librarians (BIS)) and Karsten Schuldt (Library scientist, research fellow at the University of Applied Science Chur, lecturer at the University of Applied Science Potsdam, editor LIBREAS. Library Ideas) visited, on invitation of the Goethe Institute Kamerun, numerous libraries in Cameroon as well as a workshop by the Goethe Institute and die Cameroonian library association. This interview took place at the end of their visit.