A pile of children’s shoes marks the entrance to the Busia Community Library. The library walls don’t exactly shine white, and the ubiquitous Kenyan dust tints the floor a dull reddish-brown that no amount of scrubbing can erase. But the pile of shoes is significant—it represents the start of the information revolution in Busia.The library has made books, computers, and other information resources available to the community. But to have impact on people’s lives, to be worthy of being called a revolution, merely making information available isn’t sufficient—it needs to be made relevant. Mobile phones exploded in popularity because they were affordable and their use was immediately apparent, but computers and the Internet have to overcome a steeper learning curve, higher cost, and a more distant payoff.

Baseline Busia

In this rural town of roughly 40,000, the appetite for information is voracious. Strangers pass newspapers around buses and cafes, and outdoor bar parking lots fill with patrons peering over concrete barriers to catch a glimpse of the Swahili TV news. But Busia’s Internet cafes are prohibitively expensive for the majority, and bookstores stock little beyond what’s required for schools.Recognising this gap by Mkshft community leader and banana farmer Maria Wafula organized a library construction project. In 2006, in a small government office, the Busia Community Library opened its doors. Two years later, my colleague Ariel Schwartz and I founded Maria’s Libraries to support the fledgling project.In a short period of time, community members began to request specific types of books. People were, understandably, interested in things that were relevant—farmers wanted new agricultural techniques, herbalists sought alternative medicines. Many students requested business books. Human biology also proved to be popular—Busia’s District Commissioner would visit the library every day during his lunch break and pore over Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Establishing Relevance

In the beginning, use of the library’s Internet-enabled computers was significantly lower than the demand for books — information services needed to be introduced in a relevant way.

  • Students aged 13-15 face the KCPE, a high-pressure secondary school eligibility exam. One successful program introduced them to the Internet in this context, without formal instruction.  Participants began with digital scavenger hunts to familiarize them with the Internet through play, and culminated in self-guided searches to find applications that could help prepare them for the test.  Using the Internet became both essential and relevant.
  • Most importantly, the kids became ambassadors for the tablets and computers to their parents and teachers. About a month into the program, the headmaster of a local school came into the library, inspired by his students. He sat down at a computer in the adult corner but seemed at a loss for what to do. Emily, a student in his school, approached him and shyly asked what he wanted to know. She spent two hours teaching her headmaster the basics of using the Internet.
  • Emily’s headmaster was not the only member of the community to be drawn in by these early young users. As teachers, parents, and other children became interested in using technology, the library added programs to teach them. The library’s job is not to prescribe how people use computers, but to seed and support the demand.

Looking Ahead

Busia’s library continues to evolve based on the needs of the community. Focus groups and observation highlight unmet demand, reviews of other projects provide potential solutions, and trial-and-error ultimately determines what works in Busia. A new building is currently under construction, which will include traditional library services as well as a citizen science center for agricultural experimentation, an oral history lab, and a co-working space. And as the library develops, the pile of shoes inside the door continues to grow.