Libraries for African Children: A Critical Investigation of Lubuto Library Partners

Cover image courtesy of Lubuto Library Partners,

–by Ben Gochanour and David Dowdell–


This article examines Lubuto Library Partners, an organization dedicated to building children’s libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. Based in Washington, D.C., Lubuto has built four libraries in Zambia, with the first one opened in 2007. Their long-term goal is to build more than 100 libraries across Zambia, Malawi, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Criticisms of similar library programs in Africa revolve around the notion of “book dumping,” where Africans receive only old, discarded books from the United States, which are often of poor quality. However, Lubuto Library Partners attempts to be different by carefully selecting books for their collections as well as by offering regular programming for the children and providing extensive training for their employees. Are these strategies effective and financially worthwhile? Do they constrain the scalability of Lubuto Libraries by increasing costs? In this article, we will discuss these and other questions, including whether Lubuto, being an American organization, injects too much American culture into their work in Zambia. To do this we will examine financial statements, accounts from employees, news articles, and previous scholarly reviews. In general, these sources tend to portray Lubuto in a positive manner, acknowledging that their work presents few, if any, unintentional negative impacts. However, the greatest doubt lies in whether their program is truly wanted or needed by Zambian people. Given that donor resources are scarce, it is worth considering whether Lubuto Library Partners provides the best model for helping Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa.


Lubuto Library Partners was the brainchild of Washington D.C. library consultant Jane Kinney Meyers. In 1998, she began working at the Fountain of Hope, a shelter for homeless youths in Lusaka, Zambia. As an American, what she saw in Zambia was what she describes as an “ocean of homeless children,” and as a librarian, her first instinct was to read to them.[1] Although her approach stemmed more from her own perceptions and desires than from local needs or requests, it was still well-received. She started a small reading program which gradually grew into several programs and a small library for the children in the area. After leaving Fountain of Hope, Meyers, with the support of other D.C. schools and libraries, decided to replicate the model in other African communities, calling it Lubuto, which means “enlightenment, knowledge and light,” in the language of the Bemba people who live in Zambia.[2] Since then, Lubuto Library Partners has established three children’s libraries in Lusaka, one in the more rural community of Nabukuyu, and has plans for one more in the city of Choma.[3] These libraries offer children a carefully selected collection of books, as well as drama, art, and mentoring programs, according to Lubuto employee Thomas Mukonde. More than just services, Lubuto Libraries describe their locations as being an important “safe space” for children to learn and grow. However, while Meyers describes even the initial library project at Fountain of Youth as being an effective aid to education by helping more children to pass secondary-school entrance exams, their efficiency in helping Zambian communities is less clear. As a U.S.-based organization, they run the same risks that many orphanages have: unnecessarily Westernizing children, dividing them from their communities, and failing to provide solutions to more pressing needs.[4] In this article, we will investigate these potential failures of Lubuto. We will analyze the most pressing problems in Zambia as presented by UNESCO and compare Lubuto’s own description of what Zambia needs. Beyond rhetoric, we will take a close look at the practical operations of Lubuto, including their collection-selection strategies, their effectiveness in helping Zambian children and communities, their sustainability, and their financial efficiency. Lubuto Library Partners does well in avoiding some common problems of humanitarian efforts. They keep from dividing communities by striving to serve all children, orphaned or not, and they attempt to avoid Westernization by including locally relevant books in their collections and local architectural styles in their buildings. However, despite Lubuto’s positive characteristics, it is important to determine whether Zambian communities actually want or need Lubuto’s libraries.

 Zambia’s Need: More Libraries? 

Lubuto libraries integrate well into Zambian communities by being available to all children and by hiring and training local librarians, but they do not directly address the greatest needs facing Zambia today. Zambia’s biggest problem is poverty, not education. Children have many needs, but Lubuto can only address some of them. Lubuto does not house, feed, or clothe children; Instead, it relies on other organizations to meet children’s physical needs. Lubuto instead seeks to provide mental, educational, and emotional support, which cannot fill physical needs. This limits their operations to areas in which children’s physical needs are already met.

Based on data from the 2015 Zambia Living Conditions Monitoring Survey, UNICEF describes Zambia as a country full of many children living in extreme poverty. 53.4% of Zambia’s population is less than 18 years old, and 45.4% of these children are living in “extreme poverty.” Child marriage rates are high: 31% of women age 20-24 married before 18. Zambia also has the 5th highest birth rate by country, at 41.5 births per 1000 people per year.[5] Therefore, it seems Meyers’ description of an “ocean” of children is well founded. UNICEF also rates access to sanitation at 31% and water coverage at 61%. Furthermore, HIV prevalence is 11.6%. In the field of education, things are significantly brighter. 87.9% of age-eligible children are enrolled in primary school and 42.9% are enrolled in secondary school. Notably for Lubuto, Lusaka has a lower primary school completion rate than the rest of the country, making it a prime location to put children’s libraries and focus on aiding children’s education.

Lubuto’s website describes the problem slightly differently, primarily as a loss of rights for children caused by “the HIV/AIDS pandemic, conflict, systemic breakdown and poverty.” Like many humanitarian organizations, Lubuto focuses on the plight of children to attract international support. They also present the problem more vaguely in order to better support their solutions, which do not directly address HIV, conflict, systemic breakdown, or poverty.  Rather than children’s specific physical needs, Lubuto shifts focus toward their mental and emotional enrichment. While those needs are certainly also important, they skirt around the fact that children’s libraries cannot feed, clothe, or house children who need all that. Lubuto Libraries only operate effectively in areas where other organizations can provide for the physical needs of vulnerable children. Meyers herself admits that the “library concept could be replicated in other southern African communities [only] where a number of shelters, orphanages, drop-in centers, and other such facilities offer services to street children.”[6] Lubuto Libraries can only act in a supporting role. Zambia does lack libraries, but are libraries really what it needs?

Conceptually, libraries are not African: libraries in Africa first began with colonialism. When colonists desired, libraries were built in the cities more populated by Western settlers, with collections chosen by Westerners, and materials that were rarely relevant to Africans.[7] From the beginning, Africans viewed these libraries as a foreign, locally irrelevant presence. Libraries were “the universal church of a neocolonial society, incorporating and transmitting its ideology, shaping Africans’ minds to accept that ideology, and measuring social status in proportion to its acceptance.”[8] Following independence, new African states were slow to develop libraries. Many African scholars opposed the library as an image of socioeconomic inequality; “An attack on the library generally embrace[d] the revolt against colonialist values and glorification of the African past and nostalgia for the beauty and harmony of traditional African society, which is seen as having been founded on black emotion and institutions as opposed to Western reason and logic.”[9] This has contributed to the generally low number of libraries (especially children’s) in Zambia, which Lubuto is working to change.

The libraries built by Lubuto do fill a gap, especially those in more rural locations. However, they must take care to avoid being a foreign influence. Their work with Zambian publishing agencies certainly helps, but it is essential that they strive to serve Zambian communities in the ways they want to be served, not just as Lubuto’s American leaders imagine they should be served.

The Lubuto Library Model

To differentiate themselves from other libraries in Africa, Lubuto engages in several practices to try to avoid being a Westernizing influence. Most importantly, Lubuto claims that hiring local librarians, carefully selecting books for their collections, and partnering with local organizations will ensure that their libraries are places where local culture and scholarship predominate. Lubuto’s activities are intended to support children’s development, community development, and even national publication development, which further seems to support this mission. However, the reality is not this simple. Especially in the area of collection development, Lubuto’s American influence shines through.

The Space

Beginning with the physical structures themselves, the library space itself is intended to empower children. Each library is comprised of multiple buildings along with outdoor spaces for drama performances and other activities. The architecture of the buildings is designed to match local architecture and to be “warm and inviting”.[10] The library is meant to be a safe space for children to relax, interact, explore, and learn, and separate from any problems they may encounter at home. Mukonde describes a girl who came to the library as a safe space after being abused by her parents. The staff listened to her and helped her find support to escape that environment. This success stemmed from the fact that children feel “safe and comfortable” in the library.[11] Clearly, children visit Lubuto’s libraries for reasons beyond gaining access to books. Despite being funded by foreign organizations, the library buildings don’t “feel” foreign, according to Lubuto. Of course, these are somewhat vague terms, and this argument is dependent on anecdotal evidence. This is typical of Lubuto: positive ideas are supported through carefully-selected positive comments about these ideas. Although we acknowledge that not everything can be quantified, this self-reinforcement cycle ignores concrete problems with, for example, its collection development policy, as discussed below. 

The Collection

More than its buildings, the core of a library is its collection of books, and Lubuto takes great care in selecting its collection. In contrast to book donation-based charities, Lubuto avoids “book dumping”, a practice that results in the provision of mostly old, unpopular or outdated, and irrelevant books.  The books in Lubuto’s collection, many written in local languages, are carefully selected by (mostly foreign) librarians and academics. Books are chosen that are both relevant and age-appropriate. Lubuto’s Collections and Programs Advisory Council consists of nine members, of whom five are American university professors.[12] Six members of the board live in the United States, one lives in Botswana, one lives in South Africa, and, surprisingly, only one lives in Lusaka, Zambia, the site of several Lubuto libraries. While it is certainly possible for American professors to choose books that will be relevant to Zambian children, this does result in plenty of popular U.S. children’s books winding up on the shelves. Mukonde defends these books as having “cross-cultural value”, which may be accurate, but is reasonable to view this practice as counterproductive to Lubuto’s stated mission of providing locally-based materials.

While Lubuto libraries may have more American books than they ought to, Lubuto does perform important work to support Zambian writing. The foremost example of this is the Zambia Heritage Library, an online collection of many Zambian books and stories that Lubuto has produced. Although many Zambians do not have reliable internet access, Lubuto’s own computers provide Zambians with the opportunity to access this resource. Here, the fact that Lubuto is U.S.-based actually supports retention of Zambian culture, as many of the documents come from the Library of Congress. This work has resulted in a partnership between Lubuto and Zambian Education Publishing House, a source of Zambian literature printed in Zambian languages. Both children and adults now have access to their own culture in ways they wouldn’t have had without Lubuto.

The programs

Beyond the opportunity to learn from books, children come to the libraries for the programs. Art programs, drama programs, reading programs, and mentorship programs all seek to empower young people and to let them express themselves and have fun. These programs are provided for children of all ages and are a great attraction to the library. Mukonde describes the biggest benefits of these programs as letting children explore previously unknown talents and express themselves in new ways. “Story Time” for younger children helps develop literacy and encourages children to attend school. For teenagers, there is a mentoring program aimed at promoting Zambian values—including the oral tradition, not just printed materials. This is an encouraging sign that Lubuto is not an overly Westernizing force in Zambia. Lubuto’s programs support local traditions instead of replacing them.

Worth the Cost?

As argued above, it is fair to doubt whether constructing and operating libraries is the most effective solution to Zambia’s most pressing issues. However, Lubuto has dedicated itself to this model, and although libraries clearly aren’t the only solution, they may be part of a larger one. Therefore, it is appropriate to examine Lubuto Libraries within their paradigm. If building libraries is the way forward for Zambia, then what should these libraries look like? Is Lubuto’s approach the best one?

To answer this question, it is fitting to begin by analyzing costs. After all, Lubuto has a relatively small yearly revenue (about $578,493 in 2016), yet has great plans for future growth. Furthermore, the vast majority of this operating budget is sustained by individual gifts, the federal government, and various institutions. Therefore, financial prudence is necessary not only to ensure Lubuto can continue to grow, but also to satisfy the individuals and larger entities who support Lubuto’s work.

Fortunately, Lubuto’s financial statements were most recently audited by Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP in 2016 and are publicly available online.[13] So, what do they reveal? First, we turn to the 2016 expense report. Of the $651,750 spent by Lubuto in 2016, $326,091 (50.0%) was spent on paying their staff (see Figure 1). Of this portion, the majority ($300,309) was spent on “Program Services” staff, while a much smaller amount was spent on “Management and General” and “Fundraising” staff. This is positive, as it indicates that Lubuto is minimizing costs not related to the direct provision of its services. The fact that management personnel costs are below $22,000 seems to indicate that neither Myers nor any other leaders at Lubuto are paying themselves high salaries.

However, Lubuto’s financial statement still reveals some problems. For example, in 2016 Lubuto spent about $73,257 (12.7%) more than it took in. Furthermore, Lubuto’s year-end net assets fell by $377,368 (49.8%) between year-end 2014 and year-end 2016. This kind of spending based on surplus resources from past years can only go on for so long. It seems troublesome that although Lubuto’s growth thus far has been relatively slow (there are currently four completed libraries), it has placed a significant drain on its assets. It seems unlikely that Lubuto’s goal of expanding to more than 100 locations across sub-Saharan Africa can be fulfilled given this picture.

Also of note here is a lack of spending in an area that seems critical: book acquisition. In fact, it is hard to even locate where on the expense reports book acquisition costs are mentioned. It is possible that it falls under the title Professional Services, the highest of the non-personnel expenses. However, even if books make up this entire category ($114,664) that is still less than a third of what Lubuto spends on its staff. Given Lubuto’s emphasis on creating high-quality collections of quality books, it would seem reasonable that more of its funds would be spent on acquiring these books. However, it is likely that this carefully-curated collection creates costs somewhere else, likely in the form of salaries paid to the experts who do the selecting. Of course, Lubuto believes in this approach, but it is reasonable to wonder whether significant expert advice is worth sacrificing the potential to buy more books.

Overall, Lubuto manages to keep a slim budget. Their financial report notes that Lubuto spends only $250 per quarter on renting office and storage space in Washington, D.C., for example. However, they still managed to spend more than they took in in 2015 and 2016, and they don’t seem poised to achieve the growth they are looking for. Therefore, it seems that additional cost-savings measures must be undertaken. The most obvious target is the high staff cost required by Lubuto’s model of extensive programming for children and significant staff training. With less money allocated to paying salaries, more money could be allocated to getting books into the hands of children, one of the core purposes of a library.

A more minimalistic staff at the libraries might also need to extend towards a reduction of U.S.-based advisory boards.  As mentioned earlier, six out of the nine members serving on Lubuto’s Collections and Programs Advisory Council currently reside in the United States.[14] It is possible that these individuals aren’t receiving compensation from Lubuto, other than perhaps some travel expenses. Still, if Lubuto based its collection procedure more directly on requests from locals and patrons of their libraries, Lubuto’s potential Westernizing influence would be minimized, and the needs of the locals more attended to.

This argument does not imply that Lubuto has not listened to the users of its libraries. A 2015 academic paper by Elizabeth Giles, current Director of Library Services at Lubuto, summarizes book usage data and qualitative book preference data gained through interviews with local people.[15] This emphasis on building dynamic, research-based collections is certainly admirable. Additionally, many of the expert librarians referred to are in fact Zambians.[16] However, it still seems that this process could be more locally driven. Lubuto’s current approach considers input from the locals, but final decisions are presumably still impacted strongly by the opinions of U.S. citizens of Lubuto’s advisory boards. What if, instead, Zambians (or other Africans, as this program expands) were the ones doing the final selecting? What if, instead of a Collections and Programs Advisory Council dominated by Americas, Lubuto formed a local advisory council for each of their local libraries, made up of members from that library’s staff, library patrons, and other community members? This suggestion may be met with some resistance, as it decreases Lubuto’s top-down control of its collections, and potentially, as a result, its appeal to major donors like U.S.-based organization USAID. However, if it has the potential to create libraries that better fit the needs of local community members, it might be worth it.


As we have seen, Lubuto Libraries has great intentions to alleviate some of Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa’s problems through the construction of locally-operated libraries. However, are good intentions enough? Zambia is a country with many problems stemming from systemic inequality and poverty, and although Lubuto’s work is a step in the right direction, it seems inadequate to address these significant issues. Nonetheless, building libraries is the step Lubuto chose to take, and so this article has examined Lubuto through its own paradigm: if libraries are the way forward, what is the best way to construct and operate these libraries?  We argue that a more minimal approach, with less money spent on staff training, programming, and expert-based collection curation strategies, is likely to have better results. This would better allow libraries to better fulfill their core function: getting many books into the hands of the public. Not only does it expand access and increase scalability, a more minimalistic approach also avoids serious concerns related to Westernization and paternalism if it also leads to a reduction of U.S.-based advisory boards.

A critique of Lubuto must involve a great deal of nuance, as Lubuto does many things worthy of praise. Overall, they operate without excessive overhead and recognize the importance of research-based decision making that draws upon the influences of locals, at least in part. However, small, incremental changes that further emphasize locally-based decision making and financial stability might bring Lubuto to a place of greater reach and impact. Lubuto is a relatively young organization, and hopefully more long-term-impact data gathered in future years can help to this end.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


Primary Sources

“Jane Meyers Interviewed on ‘The Librarian’ July 2018.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 Sept. 2018,

Lubuto Library Partners. 2015 and 2016 Financial Statements (accessed 10 Oct. 2018)

Meyers, Jane Kinney. “One Librarian’s Fight Against AIDS.” One Librarian Dec. 2013 (accessed 10 Oct. 2018)

Mukonde, Thomas Kusone. “The Lubuto Library Partners: An Insider’s Perspective.” YouTube. SJSU School of Information, 29 Jan. 2015 (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

“Partners.” Lubuto Library Partners (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

“What We Do.” Lubuto Library Partners (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Secondary Sources

Agosto, Denise. “The Lubuto Library Project as a Model of School Library Media Services for Disadvantaged Youth.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 37, no. 1, 2008, pp. 37-42 (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

“Country Comparison: Birth Rate.” Central Intelligence Agency (accessed 29 Nov. 2018) Esu-Williams, Eka, Katie Schenk, Joseph Motsepe, Scott Geibel, and Anderson Zulu. “Involving Young People in the Care and Support of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Zambia: Final Report of an Operations Research Study in Luapula and Northern Provinces,” Horizons Final Report. Washington, DC: Population Council.

Freidus, Andrea. “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care”. Children & Society, Vol. 24, 2010, pp. 293-303.

Giles, Elizabeth. “Evaluating Lubuto Library Collections: A Case Study in Dynamic and Strategic Children’s Collection Development.”, IFLA World Library and Information Congress, 11 June 2015 (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Grassly, Nicholas, et al. “The Economic Impact of HIV/AIDS on the Education Sector in… : AIDS.” AIDS, vol. 17, no. 7, 2003, pp. 1039–1044 (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Lundo, Maurice. “The National Information System (NATIS) concept and the development of libraries in Zambia: Some underlying critical issues”. International Library Review, vol. 16, no. 4, 1984, pp 373-385 (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Odi, Amusi. “The Colonial Origins of Library Development in Africa: Some Reflections on Their Significance.” Libraries & Culture, vol. 26, no. 4, 1991, pp. 594–604, (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Other Sources

“Children in Zambia.” (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

Gondwe, Eric. “Education in Zambia.”, (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

“Photostream.” Flickr. Lubuto Library Partners (accessed 11 Oct. 2018)

“Public Libraries in Zambia Flourish.” The Borgen Project, 16 Feb. 2016,

“Libraries Transforming Africa’s Next Generation.” Lubuto Library Partners,

“Lubuto Meaning.” Lubuto Library Partners,

“Lubuto Boards and Advisors.” Lubuto Library Partners, 28 Dec. 2018,



[1] Jane Kinney Meyers, “One Librarian’s Fight Against AIDS,” One Librarian Dec. 2013.

[2] Lubuto Library Partners, “Lubuto Meaning,”

[3] Lubuto Library Partners, “Libraries Transforming Africa’s Next Generation,”

[4] See, for example, Andrea Freidus, “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care,” Children & Society, Vol. 24, 2010, pp. 293-303.


[5] Central Intelligence Agency, “Country Comparison,”

[6] Lubuto Library Partners, “Jane Meyers Interviewed on ‘The Librarian’ July 2018,”

[7] Amusi Odi, “The Colonial Origins of Library Development in Africa: Some Reflections on

Their Significance,” Libraries & Culture, vol. 26, no. 4, 1991, pp. 594–604.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas Kusone Mukonde, “The Lubuto Library Partners: An Insider’s Perspective,”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lubuto Library Partners, “Lubuto Boards and Advisors,”

[13] Lubuto Library Partners, 2016 Audit,

[14] Lubuto Library Partners, “Lubuto Boards and Advisors,”

[15] Elizabeth Giles, “Evaluating Lubuto Library Collections: A Case Study in Dynamic and

Strategic Children’s Collection Development,”, IFLA World Library and Information Congress, 11 June 2015

[16] Lubuto Library Partners, “Lubuto Boards and Advisors,”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *