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What quest to find EAC national public digital libraries reveals

There are a number of social media book discussion groups, and they are growing. It is one sign ebooks are being read and audiobooks listened to. It is unconscionable that many of the ebooks are pirated, but they nonetheless are being read.

A national public library with a good selection of free and easy to access ebooks could probably lessen the piracy. It could fill a vacuum. The pirated copies reveal a hungry readership that likely wouldn’t enjoy a good read otherwise.  


In places like the United States, e-books at public libraries have become so popular in demand that there are long waits, often taking weeks before a borrower can get his turn.


To get a feel of their popularity, look to Rakuten OverDrive, the biggest platform providing e-books to more than 43,000 libraries. It reports that its library customers around the world lent out 274 million digital books in 2018, up 22 per cent from the previous year, including through its popular Libby app.


Digital audiobooks lent through OverDrive similarly jumped 28 per cent to 107 million, according to the company.

I wanted to find out the selection of ebooks by African authors in our national public libraries in the East African Community countries one can borrow. Many can be found on ebook platforms on the internet but can be expensive to buy. 

I had not thought of this earlier, ashamed to say, but I was motivated. As a reader of ebooks, I don't amount to much, but I long discovered the convenience of carrying any number of ebooks in my devices for reference or enjoyment, not to mention the unlimited capacity to build a decent personal e-library.

I also discovered the warm and inviting tone of the sepia background on the e-reader. Some users say it is reminiscent of a well-thumbed page in a popular traditional book.

The only thing missing is that indefinable book smell that many a book lover will nostalgically mention. But, perhaps as compensation, many e-reader apps conveniently feature an inbuilt dictionary – just tap the word you want to look up, and voila.

One would think that with an example such as OverDrive’s tens of thousands of libraries the case need not be made for digital libraries. In the EAC we do, as I was surprised to discover. This is what I found.

Though some of the libraries provide some e-resources and data, these are not adequate or broad enough. The Kenya National Library Services (KNLS) has the broadest year-by-year catalogue going back to 1980. It, however, does not offer digital books on its website.

Likewise, the National Library of Uganda, whose website has pages either without information or are under construction. One of the pages under construction will of digital books. This is unlike the KNLS which does not feature such a page.

I could not find the website of the Tanzania Library Services Board (TLSB). It must be in cyberspace somewhere, I just couldn’t find it. There are, however, references to the TLSB in other unrelated websites.

The National Library of Burundi is more like an information portal, with a page giving opening time for the library, its history and information on tourism in the country.

The Kigali Public Library takes the accolade. It is the only national library website offering digital books. Though the collection is modest, over 600 ebooks and audiobooks, according to the library website, it offers a fair range.

One can download the Libby app to read with, while the library asks members looking for titles not in the collection to inform them to purchase for the member to borrow.

This is practical, as purchasing an ebook can be a costly affair. According to the Washington Post, a library typically pays between $40 and $60 to get license from the publisher a new e-book adult title, which it can then loan out to one patron at a time, just like with physical books.

It, nevertheless, is affordable as the Kigali Library shows. One wants to believe that the other EAC governments are mulling establishing a digital library, such as evidenced on the Uganda website.

Their policies show they are aware of the technology. They should urgently adopt it. It can only further national aims. Aside from public information needs, a library represents a blending of cultures and intellect that enable educated and literate population.

There’s potentially also an infrastructural dividend. A digital system can be accessed by anybody anywhere in the country. It could supplement the far-flung libraries in the districts or obviate the need to build or sustain the branches—eventually.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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