Mark Cotham speaks to ARNIC on the challenges of librarianship in Sub-Saharan Africa

On Tuesday ARNIC was joined by Mark Cotham who spoke on the challenges of librarianship in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mark Cotham is a largely retired attorney who practiced for over thirty years, primarily prosecuting claims by royalty owners against the world’s largest oil companies. Today, he runs a small non-profit (Good Steward Global Initiative) in Houston, Texas that establishes libraries in the developing world. He travels to East Africa 2-3 times a year to establish libraries and is looking forward to his 20th trip there this summer.   Mark received his Bachelors of Science and Masters of Art in Communication Studies from Northwestern University, (where he studied under USC faculty member Tom Goodnight) and is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.

Mark spoke on the challenges of librarianship he has come up against in his work. Librarians in Sub-Saharan Africa face an enormous number of challenges in delivering library services. The challenges begin with a lack of access to books, both in the local languages as well as in languages like English. Librarians there also face a total lack of familiarity on the part of the local people with the concept of libraries and a public inexperienced in accessing reading material for other than compulsory education. Promoting library use in such circumstances can be difficult.

The challenges of training librarians in these circumstances are not surprisingly considerable.  Finding techniques that work to inform as well as inspire would-be librarians to a profession that they are not well versed in is at the heart of the challenge.  Finding an institutional model that can promote and disseminate library science among fledgling diverse institutions is also difficult.

His talk explored the book famine in the developing world and the lessons he has learned in establishing over 200 libraries on a shoestring budget in remote parts of Africa, including Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and soon South Sudan and Zambia.

The talk was followed by an interesting discussion on the role of libraries as spaces for communication in the modern world.

Thank you to Professor Goodnight for connecting ARNIC with Mr Cotham.

ARNIC will reconvene its seminar series in the fall. In the meantime ARNIC members will be traveling across the globe undertaking research projects over the summer – stay tuned!