On Sunday I had the privilege of being the MC at the inauguration of the Nana Afia Kobi Serwaa Ampem II Library at Kumasi’s Ashanti New Town (Ashtown), which happens to be my home vicinity in the city and about five minutes’ walk from my home.
The short but rather impressive ceremony featured top royalty in the person of the Asantehemaa, Nana Konadu Yiadom III, with other assorted royals in tow.
Political figures, including the local MP and Minister for Energy, Dr Matthew Opoku Prempeh, also featured, as did members of the clergy, community leaders, public officials, students from schools in the community and several others. The weather was beautiful.
Having decided I will set the ball rolling in Twi, I faced the minor initial hiccup of finding the local word for ‘library’ when I stepped up to the dais, with the Asantehemaa and her entourage seated right opposite.
I did not get much feedback from the crowd by way of an answer, and so collectively we figured out that everyone knew what ‘library’ was anyway, so there was no need to go fully native on this and stress oneself.
The 200-seater capacity edifice, with 36 computers, e-resources, wi-fi and 10,000 books spread across all age groups on two floors, is the latest jewel in the crown of the Ghana Library Authority (GhLA), which has been on a quiet revolutionary path since 2017 to revamp and expand the country’s public library system under the dynamic leadership of Mr Hayford Siaw, the Executive Director of the Authority.
Having previously worked in the Ministry of Education, which has oversight responsibility over the GhLA, I am only too aware of the remarkable work they have done.
The library, which was named after the immediate past Asantehemaa, Nana Afia Serwaa Kobi Ampem II, is the 111th public library in the country, up from 61 at the beginning of 2017.
Back then, the number of books on the shelves of these libraries stood at about 400,000, which was a massive drop from over a million books in 1981.
By the end of Dr Prempeh’s tenure in March 2021 as Education Minister, the GhLA had over 1.2 million books on its shelves.
So many other innovations were introduced to make our public libraries reflective of and responsive to the realities of the 21st Century.
Many of my friends and contemporaries who attended primary school in Kumasi speak fondly of a pilgrimage to the Ashanti Library, located on the premises of the Centre for National Culture in the city.
For many, it was an exciting visit that brought them contentment as they delved into the books to discover the world beyond their horizons.
The library also provided sanctuary from the many errands their parents would send them on if they were home.
In effect, this love affair with books, cultivated over time, became their little bubble that did wonders not only for their knowledge but also improved their repertoire of vocabulary.
Of course, the romance of yesterday is not necessarily the reality of today, with computer games and the internet and social media being immediate tools by which one can access information and even books.
The idea of physically trudging to a library across town may not, therefore, reflect the reality of technology age and may lead some to question the relevance of public libraries and whether we need those physical edifices at all in the first place.
While this argument may be an attractive one, I believe it is misplaced, especially in a country like Ghana, principally for two reasons.
With internet penetration standing at around 53 per cent at the start of 2022, the reality is that a hugely significant part of the population lacks the resources to access learning resources digitally.
A well-resourced library, therefore, provides that vital link to seeking and discovering information to make the learning process a viable one.
Even Finland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with internet penetration of 96 per cent and 99 per cent, respectively, are still building libraries.
Finland, with a population of less than six million, has over 700 public libraries.
The other reality is that for many children, their family living conditions are such that they do not provide the physical space and ambience to facilitate learning after school.
It is just impossible for many families sharing cramped single rooms in compound houses to find space for a desk and chair for a child to be able to learn.
For many others, being home after school means household chores and other distractions.
A public library, therefore, especially in deprived communities, provides that vital oasis where children – and adults – can dissolve themselves into the learning environment.
Of course, what all of this means is that the public library of today cannot stand in desolate isolation as a monument stuck in the mists of yesterday’s ideals, but must rather evolve and project itself in the context of the 21st Century if it is to remain relevant to the community.
What this means, for instance, is that libraries must, among others, provide the facilities for jobseekers who are unable to afford personal computers to be able access them to prepare CVs and use the internet for free in their job pursuits.
It also means that it must be able to provide audio-visual facilities for learners to access important learning materials digitally and also for students to be able to access e-resources that are vital for their learning process. So many opportunities abound.
Thankfully, the GhLA has taken this path as it expands its presence, going beyond sleek buildings and making sure that they serve a relevant purpose in the communities.
I am delighted for would-be users of the new library, which has a very spacious, cool, well-furnished and delightful ambience. If children in particular can be nurtured to develop a love for their public library the way my Kumasi contemporaries literally took over the Ashanti Library as children back then, we will be in a good place.
Now back to my initial hiccup at the start of the inauguration on Sunday. Maybe I should find a way to corner Prof. Agyekum of the Linguistics Department of the University of Ghana, who is an authority on these matters.
I think I will lay in wait for when he next appears on Peace FM’s Kokrokoo panel discussion programme, whereupon I will send my enquiry by way of a text to the show.
After all, we all learn something new every day.