KAMPALA: On Saturday, April 23, 2022, Uganda joined the rest of the world to celebrate World Book and Copyright Day, which is aimed at promoting the enjoyment of books and reading. It is the date on which several prominent authors, such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, died. The UNESCO General Conference held in Paris in 1995 selected the day to pay a worldwide tribute to books and authors and encourage everyone to access books.
In Uganda, the National Library of Uganda organized the World Book and Copyright, which started with book exhibitions at the national library and reading tents for children. But what is the National Library of Uganda and what does it do? The Uganda National Library, mandated to collect, preserve, and disseminate Uganda’s documented heritage, is located on Buganda Road, opposite Buganda Road Primary School.
It was established by the National Library Act, 2003 with the role of being the National Bibliographic Control Agency responsible for ensuring the legal deposit of materials by publishers, publishing the National Bibliography of Uganda, and managing the National Collection of Uganda. The library is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. with a user fee of 2,000 schillings to access the reading space and Wi-Fi.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the library would even open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., which was stopped. The national library is divided into two sections, namely, the legal deposit, where books submitted by authors are kept, and the special collection, where the books are openly accessible to the library users.
The special collection comprises 3,063 books. Books in the legal deposit can only be accessed with permission from the librarian, who searches for them in the digital system and gets them physically from the legal deposit. The library doesn’t lend books to readers as one of the ways to ensure that the books it holds never go into individual ownership. Before the pandemic, between 50 and 60 people would use the national library each day. During school holidays, the number would increase to between 70 and 80 people.
Ever since the onset of the pandemic, the numbers have reduced to between 30 and 40 people who visit the library daily. This library is mandated to acquire, preserve, and make accessible Uganda’s documented intellectual and cultural heritage. The documented heritage includes documents of cultural, historical, research, and educational value such as books, newspapers, government reports, and many others published by Ugandan authors and organizations, plus government departments.
The library ensures the legal deposit of materials by publishers. Section 5, clause (a) of the National Library Act, 2003 provides that “the right of the national library to require every publisher of a book or document in Uganda at his or her cost to deposit 3 copies of the book or 1 copy of the videogram or film and 10 copies in the case of any government department with the national library”.
This means that every Ugandan publishing a book, individually or through a publisher, must deposit 3 copies of the book or document at their own cost to the national library. However, books that contain content that is deemed unfit for public consumption are not accepted in the library deposit. Helen Muyomba, the in-charge of the information and referral service at the library, says that 150 authors submitted 17096 books last year, a good sign that Ugandans are writing and recognizing the importance of the National Library.
The national library also allocates the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) numbers to books as a means of ensuring that Ugandan publications are of a high standard. The (ISBN) is a unique numeric commercial book identifier, which makes them easily marketable internationally.
Adonia Katungisa, the Director of the National Library of Uganda, says that before giving an ISBN number to a book, a person at the library reads it through to know the content of the book to be sure it does not promote information that is regarded unfit for public consumption.
He stresses the importance of the ISBN in identifying and ensuring the quality of the publication on the international market.
The other roles of the National Library include inspecting and ensuring that public libraries conform to national policies, guidelines, and standards. It has the responsibility of laying down national policies in regard to public libraries, giving advice, issuing standards, norms, guidelines, and work manuals, providing technical and professional advisory services, and coordinating and carrying out advocacy for these libraries at local and international levels.
There are 49 public libraries established by the local governments. Local governments are charged with the responsibility of establishing, equipping, managing, and maintaining public libraries in Uganda. The national library provides these libraries with books. According to Katungisa, the library strives to promote the reading culture in society, especially among children in communities and schools, by organizing reading tents and digitizing some of the books into e-readers.
In 2019, the National Library partnered with the World Digital Library (WDL) through the Library of Congress to digitize documents of historical and cultural importance. The World Digital Library provides free online access to manuscripts, rare books, maps, photographs, films, sound recordings, prints, photographs, and other important cultural documents from all countries.
Some of the materials that were digitized in this partnership include the Buganda Agreement of 1900, the first stamps of Uganda as a protectorate, the first Ugandan money, the first translations of the Bible into various languages and the ‘Biscuit Tin Bible’, maps by explorers and pictures of tribal rulers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traditional dresses and royal regalia of various tribes, and others.
Hosea Luwano, an author of books in various disciplines, says there is also a challenge of the library failing to purchase books from local authors and instead relying on donations from foreign countries. This, he says, lowers the morale of authors to write books because the library is expected to buy copies from authors and donate them to public libraries all over the country. However, Katungisa says that they are unable to buy books due to limited funding.
Another challenge he cites is the low reading culture among Ugandans, which he says results in a low production of books and reading materials.
He also decries the lack of a permanent home for the national library, which currently operates in a building belonging to the Patidar Samaj, or Asian community. Katungisa says that the lack of a permanent structure built with the sole purpose of housing a national library also makes the preservation of documents difficult because preservation equipment cannot be installed in the current building.
In addition to this, the library has no digital platform where books by Ugandan authors can be deposited in digital form and accessed by the growing audience of young people who use the internet more frequently. This, Katungisa says, is in the pipeline and a digital platform will be set up soon. The library is supposed to keep information in other formats, such as sound and video.
However, all the information in the library is now in document form, limiting accessibility to those unable to read. Katungisa says for this challenge, they are working on signing international protocols such as the ISMN to be able to store information in these formats for better accessibility.