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Rebuilding a Malawian library after disaster

Book Aid International – with support from Elsevier – helps to restock the shelves

By Jenny Hayes, Book Aid International | June 10, 2016

Mzuzu University's library after the fire

In December 2015, Mzuzu University Library in Malawi was tragically destroyed in a fire. The building and all of its books — around 45,000 volumes — were consumed, along with the equipment and furniture. The loss of what the Malawi Library Association called “a model library” and “one of the richest reservoirs of knowledge in Malawi” will affect not only the university’s staff and students but also the wider community. The library supported students and lecturers in fields including education; environmental, health and information sciences; and tourism and hospitality management. It also housed a children’s library and a unique collection on Malawi and Mzuzu City.


“Books are very important sources of information for the faculty because they mostly provide basic information, which is very necessary for teaching and learning,” says Felix Majawa, University Librarian at Mzuzu University. “Students are not able to buy their own books, and as a result the library is always under pressure to provide books for their studies.”



Outfitting a temporary library


University staff spent much of their Christmas holiday developing a plan to ensure that the next semester could still start on time in March. They decided to use the main student assembly hall as a temporary library and appointed a contractor to fit it out with shelves and tables donated by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Meanwhile, Felix and his team worked with the library’s national and international partners to begin restocking. But a collection of 45,000 volumes cannot be quickly replaced.


“We have received about 5,000 books while others are in transit. Other partners have promised to help us, and we are still waiting to hear from them,” says Felix.


The first 5,000 books were enough to enable the semester to begin. Library staff organized a short loan collection for students to use while they waited for the temporary library space to be completed. 



Donations from Book Aid International and Elsevier


Map of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in which Book Aid International operatesBook Aid International, a UK-based library development charity working in sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the partners helping Mzuzu University Library to restock. The charity provides around a million new books, donated by publishers, to more than 2,600 African libraries each year. In response to the university’s call for help, Book Aid International dispatched an initial shipment and plans to send more shipments this year, including a donation from Elsevier, which has supported the charity since 2003.


“When we heard the terrible news from Mzuzu just before Christmas last year, we were anxious to help and found over 800 relevant books in stock, which we sent them in February,” says Stevie Russell, Book Aid International’s Collections Development Manager. “Then we received a very timely, extra special delivery from Elsevier in the USA: over 6,000 higher education textbooks in science and medicine, many of which cover the very subjects they needed. Thanks to Elsevier we will be able to send over 3,000 books to the university this year, including titles such as Computer Organization and Design, Medical-Surgical Nursing, Gray’s Anatomy, Kanski's Clinical Ophthalmology — and, just for luck, Robertson on Library Security and Disaster Planning.”



Planning for the future


Hamisi Abdullah, a reference librarian, in Mzuzu University's temporary library.The temporary library is now complete and about to open to staff and students. It has seating for 250 and will provide a short and long loan service as well as reference service and e-resource access. But Felix stresses that this arrangement is not a long-term solution and that the library needs a new permanent home: “We have about 4,000 undergraduate students and 187 postgraduate students. The problem of reading space is still there, and we plan to construct a new library that will have 1,000 seats.”


The university is currently designing the new library building, and Felix is keen that it includes mechanisms for disaster prevention. 


When asked what he and his colleagues have learned about librarianship through this tough situation that they’d like to share with other librarians, Felix said, “There is a need for a disaster management policy and the promotion of the safe use of electronic resources.”


While the fire has been catastrophic, we hope that the combination of a new collection and new building will see the students, lecturers and community of Mzuzu flourish.