Libraries for Africa

As far as I can tell, not a single bookstore can be found in all Liberia. You’ll find random books in market stalls (I spotted a copy of Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics in December, right beside US Constitutional Law and Anne Rice) but there’s nowhere else to access the globe’s growing knowledge.

The university? I’m not sure there’s been a library for decades.

My department at Yale recently moved buildings. Our new structure looks like a prison: Bentham’s Panopticon, as conceived by Ikea. Oddly, the architect did not think to make much room for books. Thus Yale faculty began shedding excess volumes, and I and some research assistants scurried around scavenging the best of the spares to ship to University of Liberia. That plus some personal additions, some gifts from Princeton Press, and miscellaneous donations got us about 1000 decent volumes.

I’m ready to ship, but I fear what may happen to the books when they arrive. Can the social science department really house and share them? A hundred institutional failures, petty thefts, or (most likely) lazy borrowers could mean this small donation’s depletion in a year.

Friday morning I taught growth models to my African development class. The key to wealth, they tell us, is human capital and technology. Together they count for two thirds or more of income in the OECD. Catch-up is, in part, a function of diffusion, of which libraries seem to me to be a small but essential element: not just the knowledge itself, but a love and habit of reading fostered from a young age.

Books are just one of the developing nation’s library challenges. Institutions and sustainability the other. This I am discovering.

That is why one of my favorite charities is Michael Kevane’s Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL). Michael‘s a development economist at SCU, and one of my early models for an academic life devoted to international service.

I just learned his library NGO is up for a $20,000 donation from Better Books, to construct two new libraries in Burkina Faso. All they need are votes. Take 10 seconds, if you will, to click over to Better World Books and vote for FAVL.

Tuesday is the last chance to vote. You can also donate directly here.