Build a library, build a future: The Somerville Ghana Library Project
Claire Ben- Chorin
“I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country” Thomas Jefferson, 1809.
In Ghana, illiteracy is a chronic problem. UNICEF reports that only 34% of Ghanaians have access to primary education, and placed adult literacy rates at just 71.5% of the population. This means that 28.5% of people aged 15 and over in Ghana are illiterate. The Somerville Ghana Library Project was founded in 2003 by Somerville students, in cooperation with local philanthropist Molly Yankey, as part of an effort to tackle this major issue at a local level in Ghana’s Cape Coast.
Somerville and its students have helped to support ‘Molly’s Library’ for over a decade. The next nearest public library is more than a 12km walk away, and so Molly’s Library is a truly important local resource, used by around three hundred people each week. Jill Currie, one of the volunteer librarians, notes how the project “has really inspired and united the village in working together to provide a better future for the children.”
Now, the project is facing a new challenge, as the building that had been housing the library is no longer available for rent. Somerville students are therefore battling to raise enough funds to build a new library, one that will stand and unite this community in the decades to come.
So what impact can a library have? Libraries encourage new readers and promote a love of reading. Access to books is essential for developing greater literacy skills, so that children can perform better in school and flourish throughout their lives. Stephen Krashen, an expert in second language learning, has stated that “reading extensively is the best way to promote vocabulary development, increase awareness of sentence structure, and encourage a life-long love of reading.”
A study of literacy development programs in Ghanaian classrooms reveals that there is such a short supply of books available to students that teachers keep them stored under lock and key, fearing that they will be lost or damaged. In light of this, Molly’s Library is an invaluable educational resource for people of all ages, giving access to textbooks, fiction, drama, and foreign language books.
Toby Mann, a Somerville student who volunteered at Molly’s Library a few years ago, recalls the positive changes for the community he witnessed during his time there: Toby and the library team saw that high-school students in the area did not have their own textbooks, and though the library had many textbooks, these were not the ones the students needed for school. Molly’s Library therefore bought thirty-six new textbooks, all directly relevant to the courses being studied.
“The impact of these new books was immediately obvious, with the students desperate to use them even before we could log them into the library catalogue. Typically in the area, one textbook would be owned by the school and would be read to the class by a teacher, the inside barely even seen by the students. The opportunity to have a textbook to themselves was something the students would rarely, if ever, have previously experienced.”
Free, public libraries should not be seen as a luxury; they can transform lives, allowing children and adults to interact, discover and imagine. Books open up new horizons by providing educational opportunities and wonderful stories for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Libraries are therefore not an indulgence, but a necessity.
Libraries can also act as vital community centers, strengthening the bonds between local residents and bringing new life to depressed areas. People might visit a library to find books, and, in doing so, find each other. As such, Molly’s Library has been a meeting place, a point of contact, and a source of pride for the whole community.
Money raised by Somerville students so far this year has already purchased a plot of land in Akatakyiwa village, which is located next to a new school, also founded by Molly Yankey. Building a library here will foster a close link with the school, and allow its students to more easily broaden the skills and interests they develop in the classroom.
In order to make this new library a reality, a crowdfunding page has been set up. The target: £9000 by the 8th of June. The Somerville JCR has pledged to match each donation pound for pound up to £3,000. The money raised will go towards the construction of a library building with a teaching room, reading room, washroom, storeroom, and an office. Money raised above the maximum target will purchase new library resources, such as new furniture, additional books, and even some computers.
As Oxford students, we are blessed with access to some of the best and most beautiful libraries in the UK. It is easy to forget how lucky we are. By supporting the Somerville Ghana Library Project, we can give back, and provide others with the tools to forge a brighter future for themselves.