On Books Checking Out

Fourah Bay College Library at the University of Sierra Leone is pictured (above right) in 2016, where collections had battled a leaky roof, extreme humidity, and drastic budget cuts; all well-known to ravage books.

Taken by Global Scholar, Dr. Stephen Ney while a professor there, Fourah Bay College is the oldest university in West Africa, and “because of it, Freetown was once called “the Athens of West Africa” and until long after… it was the training ground of the nationalist and indendence leaders of all British West Africa. Its decline started sometime in the mid twentieth century and it plummeted in the economic crash of the 80s and the war of the 90s”.

The regretable state of a section of its library in the decades following, is as much part of the legacy of Freetown’s colonial history (Fourah Bay was founded as an Anglican Missionary School by the Church Missionary Society in 1827) as it is the effect of local economic and political tumult on the country’s higher learning. But if we resist impulses to see a familiar order returned to the stacks such as pictured above left, we might see what it has in common with the global university: increasingly less need to cordon off paths to untouched books.

A recent article in the University of Toronto’s campus paper described its libraries as evolving without books – into spaces more dependent on technological devices and natural light. The trend might see FBC reclaiming space in a reversal of decades old, limited and prescribed acquisition. According to Ney, aside from books, what FBC really needs is “good people, well-trained faculty, improved wifi and most importantly, the freedom to define itself in response to it own African context.” Ney asks enticingly, “What would a library of oral history look like?” He identifies the problem with FBC – as the books in its dilapidated library testify – “…that it was built according to a foreign model, according to foreign tastes, to satisfy foreign decision-makers.” Ney, who now teaches at another Sierra Leonean university, surmises the situation has likely improved, but queries the extent.

As you may have already surmised, this isn’t a request for funding to buy or send books. Rather, in light of having just celebrated that most joyous of seasons where we mark the birth of the Saviour of the world, it is an invitation for those with renewed senses of mission and vision to consider: what does an indigenous-led, African Academy library look like?

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