14 January 2012

If You Give a Student an iPad

Several times over the past year I was asked (mostly by other bazungu...white people) whether or not the work I did last year was/is relevant or even necessary. Because: "Can't everyone just go on Google?" and "Isn't all information online?" and "Aren't books becoming obsolete?" The mentality seems to be, if so much information is available online why bother cataloging all those books? I was even asked why I don't just give all the students iPads.

If you only they knew.

Never, never ask those questions to a librarian if you don't want a long answer. Or, at least don't ask this librarian.

There's nothing wrong with Google. There's nothing wrong with going online. There is nothing wrong with an iPad.


They aren't the answer for every research question or for everyone's research or information needs. Especially for a tiny library in Africa, with no budget and very limited power and internet. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Libraries exist to connect people to information and librarians help build community by making information accessible, organized and understandable. This means in print and online. Could Google, computers, iPads, etc. accomplish those goals? Probably. Going online is great...there's plenty of information there. But for our students sometimes that's not the answer. I've discovered that many RTC students really value the written word. Where they come from books are rare and treasured. And computers (and computer research) are still a big unknown to some. It is more comfortable to look for a book than to use Google.

Not to mention infrastructure. We barely have power for 12 hours straight...if everyone had a computer or iPad I doubt they'd all be able to keep them charged. And wireless internet is only available in a few places around Kampala.

Would I love to have more computers and technology in the library? Of course. But is technology the answer? And more importantly, what are the goals? I am continually asking questions about what I'm doing and how to do it. Am I making mistakes? Maybe. Am I trying to be sensitive as I make decisions and changes? Definitely.

Most importantly, though, I don't want to create an American library in Uganda. I want to create an African library in Uganda. I do this by starting with what I have and moving forward. What we have right now are 10,000 books than need to be accessible. We have 4 computers for students to use, two with internet. We have students willing to learn and space for them to study.

I'm trying to look at the bigger picture of how to use technology, while arguing that cataloging is still necessary. I've learned that the whole process is a lot more complex than I realized. 'Computerizing a library' involves a lot of decisions, thinking and planning.

So, for now I'm taking the resources we have, combining them with the culture I'm in, while teaching students about all of it, and hoping that in the end we are making an African Library, where students find information and community is built. iPads are optional.


  1. FYI some friends last night were asking about friendships I made with other missionaries in Uganda, so I was telling them about you naturally :) They don't really know too much about what it takes to computerize a library but they were very enthusiastic to hear about the work your doing, and thought it was great that you were computerizing a library first of all in a library that didn't even have computers for the first few months you were there, and second of all doesn't have power a lot of the time. Keep up the good work! Keep working on a Ugandan library for Uganda, and not an American one that wouldn't fit in an African setting! PS let me know what time your flight is so I can be there to cram in your suitcase :) Send greetings to everyone there for me!

  2. Thanks so much for your encouraging words! I'm eager to get back for sure. It's a lot of work but I love it! :) Hopefully I can keep focusing on the bigger goals this year. P.S. I leave Friday night...I'm sure I can fit you in somewhere. :)