Web-connected libraries for Africa: the dream of digital knowledge for all
New venture Librii is seeking to set up self-sustaining libraries with internet access in poor and isolated communities
A decade ago, Brewster Kahle, philanthropist and founder of the Internet Archive, created the first digital bookmobile: a complete printing press in the back of a car. With a power source, satellite internet connection, printer and binder, the vehicle and its descendants subsequently printed thousands of public-domain books where they were needed most, such as in rural areas without internet connection, including schools and refugee camps across Africa.
In 2003, it was estimated that less than 1% of Africa's population had access to the internet. Since then, that figure has grown to just 15%. Private companies have been laying high-speed cables along the coasts, but it's slow to make progress inland: even where access is available, it is often low speed and unconnected to the facilities on the ground needed to make the most of it, particularly for education. (The vast majority of people in Africa who do access the internet do so via mobile phone.)
Now, with an initial funding of $50,000 from Kickstarter, library startup Librii is building its first "eHub" prototype: a shipping container filled with computers, printers and training materials, connected to a simple, low-cost study centre, which will let visitors access information, print books and other materials and, crucially, contribute back to the project and the web at large. Once the prototype is complete and tested, a partnership with the University of Ghana and Librarians Without Borders is intended to start shipping the embryonic libraries to Africa, following the frontiers of fibreoptic cable as they push into the continent. While Librii is an NGO, the libraries will be fully self-supporting after the first year, seeking local sponsorship and generating their own income. Recognising that local knowledge, architecture, infrastructure and education are all vital components in the project is what makes Librii's approach an exciting one.