Lubuto Libraries in Zambia: 15 Years of Library Service to Children and Youth

The Lubuto Library Partners, working in Zambia for the past 15 years, established three libraries focussed on the needs of children and youth, providing books, technology, and library programming, as well as serving as safe havens. The pandemic has caused Lubuto Library Partners to consider new directions post-pandemic.

When I lived in Lusaka, Zambia, in the late 1990s, I was struck by the burgeoning number of young people orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. What could be done about this situation? The first step was grassroots involvement with a drop-in centre for street children. From that experience emerged ideas about how libraries, as enriching safe havens, could uniquely address this problem in ways that NGOs and Zambian society had failed to do. We founded the Lubuto Library Project in 2005 as an international development project/organisation with headquarters in Washington, DC and an office registered in Lusaka. In 2014, it was renamed to Lubuto Library Partners.

From the outset we recognized the need in Zambia to advocate for the rights of all children and youth, especially the marginalized. Over the past 15 years, Lubuto has maintained a constant focus on learning from experience. Our monitoring and evaluation systems enable us to understand our outcomes and use evidence to drive decision-making. What has evolved is an innovative development organization that works to build the capacity of public libraries to support the rights of young people to equitable education, security and poverty reduction.

Lubuto's mission is to enable vulnerable African children and youth, especially those who are not in school and highly vulnerable, to develop the knowledge and skills to reconnect with their culture and community and participate fully in society. A free and open system of accessible library services supports them. Lubuto’s objectives are to: create open access to child-friendly, culture-specific, well-equipped, and expertly-staffed libraries; support holistic development and advocate for the rights of all children and youth, especially the marginalized; and build capacity of librarians, communities, and educators to provide high-quality educational, information, and social services to children and youth through public libraries.

Impacts of Library Services

To achieve these objectives, Lubuto’s approach is to model the broad impacts that library services can have on Africa’s children and youth by:

  • Partnering with local host communities (who assume library ownership) and stakeholder institutions
  • Co-creating library facilities reflecting social, economic, and cultural patterns
  • Providing knowledgeably curated, highest quality collections and resources
  • Developing and supporting delivery of targeted and innovative programming
  • Carrying out effective outreach
  • Introducing and supporting continuous improvement of library services for children and youth
  • Monitoring and evaluating libraries’ impact for learning and advocacy.

Lubuto’s enduring open-access libraries, which are rooted in local context and freely offer comprehensive collections of well-chosen books and technology resources, serve as safe havens. They have come to play central roles in the lives of young people in their communities. The libraries become their hub for dynamic library programming—offering education, psychosocial support, and self-expression through reading, music, art, drama, computers, mentoring, and other activities.

With three currently operating libraries, the headline figures—more than 1.65 million visits by over 162,000 children, and 25,000 program participants—would seem to point to both the extraordinary need for responsive libraries and the potential for meeting it. A single Lubuto Library had an average of 2,500 visits per week in pre-pandemic times. Based on responses from aid agencies and development organizations, I think that Lubuto has successfully pioneered the use of public libraries as a platform for cross-sectoral impact and challenged narrow perceptions about what a library can be and do.

Lubuto’s programs for young mothers and for the deaf have brought neglected populations out of the shadows and into opportunities for growth. The libraries have partnered with health care providers to offer on-site HIV testing and counselling to young people and linkages to clinical services, care, and support for youth living with HIV, survivors of gender-based violence and other forms of abuse, and young mothers. They address youth unemployment and help out-of-school youth increase their financial security through both formal and non-formal educational pathways to employment.

Lubuto has also demonstrated to the international development community libraries’ increasing relevance in the digital age, particularly through the creation of targeted literacy products. The libraries, innovative programs, and outreach have led to strong relationships with a wide range of institutions, community groups and initiatives and individuals within the international development world and beyond. Lubuto has become a trusted partner to stakeholders and major donors, delivering on—and often exceeding—their targets and commitments.

Covid's Effect on Libraries

Lubuto’s operations changed dramatically when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Zambia. We had to cease indoor programming when the government mandated the closing of schools. Closing our doors was a dramatic change for the children in whose lives the library played a central role. It was also wrenching for the libraries’ dedicated staff. We continued limited in-person programming in outdoor library spaces for another month. After we had to curb the outdoor activities, library staff used text messaging, Facebook live, WhatsApp groups and phone calls to maintain close relationships with children who were now dealing with anxiety and fear—and sorely missing their library!

During the pandemic shutdown, we have reflected on what we have learned over 15 years, and how the community we serve was reacting. Now we need to consider what our new directions will be post-pandemic. Those new directions cannot focus as heavily on digital services as libraries in well-resourced countries—we target the most marginalized young people, the ones who need us most. What we have seen is that the children who fervently miss their library visits, are not primarily clamouring to read books or use computers. Instead, they are eager to talk to with our staff, to share their concerns, to get advice and support from their very caring and empathetic mentors at the library. Those important mentoring relationships are a lifeline to and between the children and our staff. Mentoring, in the rich and varied forms it takes in Lubuto Libraries, has surfaced—we believe—as our most enduring impact and offering to children. That, and the embrace of an accepting and joyful community.

Jane Kinney Meyers, a degreed librarian, is founder and president of Lubuto Library Partners. She has vast experience in creating specialized libraries worldwide and previously worked for the World Bank.