It’s a conundrum that library advocates have struggled with for years: in many areas in the developing world, libraries run on donations, which means they often end up with irrelevant books that never even get removed from their boxes. People still come to libraries in these places for a quiet place to read and study, but certainly not because of the resources they provide. Recently, a crop of initiatives have launched that aim to make libraries more relevant again. Librii, a project from Libraries Across Africa that’s seeking $50,000 in funding from Kickstarter, is one of them.
The project, which began as Librii director David Dewane’s thesis idea at the Rice School of Architecture, bills itself as "a digitally enhanced, community-based, revenue-generating library on the frontiers of broadband connectivity." In simple terms, the founders envision low-cost libraries (a single library in Ghana to start) that take advantage of the burgeoning fiber optic infrastructure in Africa to provide Internet access, curated content, educational programs, and of course, physical books.
"The set-up is inspired by online gaming. Users are pushed to content that’s relevant to them, that helps them learn and grow, get a new skillset, move up in a job, and enables them to create new content," explains team member Katie Plochek. "We want people to disseminate information. We don’t have a lot of Wikipedia pages right now coming out of Africa."
Today, just 3% of Africa has broadband Internet access. But as you can see, that’s starting to change. Ghana is one of the focal points of the shift—that, along with the country’s stability, led Librii to choose Accra, the capital city, as a starting site. "Their economy is really booming right now due to oil there. It seemed like a place that wouldn’t be too intensely risky to start," says Plochek.
If Librii gets all the funding it needs from Kickstarter, the next step will be fabricating an eHub (a modified shipping container) in Washington, D.C. "We want to create exposure with the physical eHub, giving people the opportunity to see it and walk through," says Plochek. After that, Librii will work on developing its internal IT network—creating a wireframe and beginning user testing in the U.S. Finally, Librii will coordinate with its on-the-ground partner in Ghana, ship the eHub over, and fabricate it on the ground. When the first library is complete, it will be staffed by professional librarians.
Much of the online portal’s content will be free, but Librii plans on charging a small fee for some of it to generate revenue. That’s the model: Librii thinks it can move away from a more philanthropic set-up by generating enough cash from its libraries to keep them going. Revenue will also allow Librii to keep its online content up to date.
Plochek believes that Librii’s model is the future of libraries, and she may be at least partially right. Libraries filled with thousands of printed books are great if the resources exist to keep them up, but all too often, they don’t. New models—ones that integrate high-speed Internet access and community services—can’t be ignored.