This post is also available in: العربية
Nairobi, December 12, 2019
Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, the current UNESCO World Book Capital, has pledged financial support to restore one of Africa’s most iconic libraries, the McMillan Memorial Library in the centre of Nairobi. The money will go to Kenya’s Book Bunk Trust, the body established by Kenyan publisher Angela Wachuka and Kenyan writer Wanjiru Koinange to oversee the restoration of three libraries in the city.
The surprise announcement was made by Sharjah’s Bodour Al Qasimi, vice-president of the International Publishers Association, Head of Sharjah World Book Capital Advisory Committee, at a packed fundraising gala fundraising at the library on Wednesday, 11th December.
Bodour said: “we made a clear call to everyone in our World Book Capital Manifesto about the necessity to build cultural understanding and respect through books, and we are here today…beyond our borders…to support your journey and the journey of a historic cultural icon of this great city”
Bodour says Sharjah’s support is in accordance with the emirate’s belief in honouring heritage, unifying communities and empowering children and youth. She noted that the donation was part of Sharjah’s continued efforts to support nations worldwide “as they build strong cultural foundations in their own communities.”
“We strongly believe that no real economic development can be complete without a robust cultural foundation,” Bodour says. “Our World Book Capital title came as a natural result of our focus on culture and human development for more than 40 years now, and we are proud of the stance we have taken.”
Book Bunk’s founders, Koinange and Wachuka, said “This is the most incredible news to end a year that has been filled with so many milestones. We feel seen, uplifted, validated and encouraged by all the people in our city and beyond our borders who recognise the value of our archives and our public spaces, and their power to shape our citizenry.”
A library with a difficult past
The McMillan Memorial Library was built by the McMillan family when Kenya was under British rule to honour William Northrup McMillan, a US explorer and philanthropist who settled in Kenya. It was built with help from Carnegie Corporation of New York whose founder, the US businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was a friend. It is the only building in Kenya protected by a specific Act of Parliament, the McMillan Memorial Library Act 217 of 1938 which provided that the library was for the ‘exclusive use of Europeans’.
Over the years it has suffered from neglect, with book stock and fixtures and fittings in need of protection. Book Bunk began their campaign to restore the McMillan and its two sister libraries in late 2017, entering into a partnership agreement with Nairobi City County’s government in March 2018. As part of this agreement, the Trust has developed public programming, created the library’s first-ever digital catalogue containing more than 90,000 books, carried out audience research and public consultations that have fed revitalisation plans, and in January 2020, are set to begin repairs of the Kaloleni branch. In the course of 2019, the Trust also got into partnerships with content providers, and are growing a contemporary collection focused on work by African authors.
A Hollywood connection
One fascinating part of the library’s history is its connections with the writer Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa which became a world famous film in 1985 starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. When Blixen sold her house to return to her native Denmark, she donated some of her furniture to the library and the pieces are still with the library today.
Upon completion, the historic McMillan Memorial Library will become a key location for reading and information exchange, and a modern hub for cultural events. Part of the restoration efforts by Book Bunk will be to re-establish and streamline the inventory and cataloguing process, which will take stock of the library’s current collection.
Bodour says: “Once the McMillan Memorial Library is completely renovated and open to the public, can you imagine how many young people it will inspire? How many dreams it will empower? And how many lives it will change? I have to say that I am very proud of the work Book Bunk is doing and I am so grateful for all of those who extend their support to help them achieve their objectives.”
One of the results of the project so far has been to identify the knowledge gaps in the book stock, with children’s collections as a starting point. Along the way, the restoration has also provided employment opportunities and expertise to university students, librarians, community mobilisers, educators and artists who are active contributors to the cataloguing and diversification of content process.