Being a rejoinder by Ifeoma Lillian Esiri to Mai Nasara's "Meet me at the Library" speech delivered on the occasion of Nigeria's LNG Literature prize award ceremony
"There is a passion to giving, there has to be, and those who give, give to where that passion lies."~~Ifeoma Lillian Esiri
In your acceptance speech ‘Meet Me at the Library’ delivered at Nigeria LNG’s Public Presentation and Award Ceremony, you expressed the hope that ‘the one thing that would mostly be on our minds would be libraries’. Some of that ‘hope’ I suppose, is being realized, as one of the things I intend to talk about in this reply to you is ‘libraries’. The other is ‘giving’.
I am glad Benjamin Franklin fascinates you because he is the beginning of my discussion of libraries. Franklin was great in many things, including author. He was an insatiable reader but there were no libraries in his time, and the absence of printing presses that could mass produce books in America meant that the few books available were quite expensive and came from England. Franklin got his friends to give not only their books, but money to buy more books. Thus he was able to establish the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of America’s earliest libraries, credited by some as America’s first public library. This is the Wikipedia entry of that effort:
"Franklin and his friends were mostly of moderate means, and none alone could have afforded a representative library such as a gentleman of leisure might expect to assemble. By pooling their resources in pragmatic Franklinian fashion, the contribution of each created the book capital of all."
I have discussed Franklin at some length for two reasons which will become apparent.
You asked ‘Can we truly say we have libraries in this country?’ I answer – Yes, we do. They may not be in the thousands, may not have grand interiors and may not have extensive collections, but they are libraries and they serve a purpose. Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries has had a community library at Awolowo Road, Ikoyi since 2000. It also has five libraries in different Local Government Primary schools and one in a State Secondary school in Ikoyi. Together they have gotten hundreds of Government school pupils and students reading. We are not the only ones. Mrs Liz Jibuno of Didi Museum has established a library in Delta State as part of the Museum’s Delta State initiative. That library serves its community and is a great resource for many NYSC members there. There are many others, but whether one or one thousand matters not: the fact is that they are there, making the effort. That is why I am particularly saddened by your ‘sound and fury’ and ‘conspiracy’ nonsense.
You complain of small rooms ‘stuffed with many colourful books telling stories of summer, snow and cookies’ and large rooms big ‘enough to house a thousand titles, like The Runaway Hero, The Great Fall, Heads and Tales, One Little Mosquito and Eno’s Story’ all written by your friends, as well as ‘Jelly Baby’ written by your mentor, but which instead, have very few titles. Both types of room, you claim, ‘are pompously labelled “Library”’.
Now, let me go back to Franklin. You say that you "learned" that good "leaders and role models" (presumably like Franklin) "take special pride in knowledge and do everything to contribute to the education of the young". Sadly, I have to say that your learning is flawed. The end result of learning is emulation: you try to equal or surpass your role model, in this instance Franklin. But you haven’t told us that you have brought all your friends together and that they have not only given significant volumes of books but have also made monetary contributions for the purchase of more books and that we should soon expect the launch of the Library Company of Nigeria. What you have told us on the other hand is that small rooms are stuffed and large ones left empty. The point Mai Nasara is this: summer, snow or cookies, large or small, empty or full - those "pompously labelled" libraries are the result of someone’s effort. You have no right to belittle or insult them, particularly if you yourself are not active in that area.
To adapt Kennedy’s famous words I would say to you Mai Nasara – Ask not what Mo Ibrahim can do for your country – ask what you can do for your country.
Using John Wood’s model, a library, according to you, would cost $5,000. So, you calculated that $5 million from Dr. Ibrahim’s foundation will yield 1,000 libraries, and an additional $200,000 each year would produce 40 more. Well, I’ve been doing some arithmetic of my own and when I divide $100,000 (which I believe is what you have received by winning the NLNG Literature Prize) by $5,000, I get 20 libraries. It would have been so much more inspiring if you had started your call for 1,000 libraries by telling us you were putting up the first 20, or even 10. By all means get Mo Ibrahim and those like him to establish hundreds of libraries. But are you entitled to ask of others sacrifices you do not make yourself?
My second reason for speaking at length about Franklin is the sense I get that in looking to Mo Ibrahim’s $5 million, you feel that for giving to be worthwhile or indeed effective, it has to be on that huge scale. Franklin and his friends were men of "moderate means" but "the contribution of each created the book capital of all". The donation he gave the town of Franklin was only 116 volumes. There is a passion to giving, there has to be, and those who give, give to where that passion lies.
You say our children "must gain unfettered access to books" as the only way forward and you are quite right. When we opened our first school library at St. George’s School for Girls, Falomo, I urged publishers to get children hooked on books by making frequent book donations to libraries. I pointed out that in so doing they would, so to speak, be killing two birds with one stone: once a reader always a reader and books sales for them would go up. No one listened and no one gave, but its logic is very simple and it baffled me that they didn’t get it.
Here’s how it works. The late Cyprian Ekwensi took part in one of our children’s programmes and afterwards asked his publishers to give us two copies each of all his books. They did. To this day, he is our most read children’s author because we have a lot of his books. We have also had to replace every single one of those books many times over and we have paid to do so. Children will always be children: with them the life of a book is very short. Once they have read a book and liked it, their friends will get to know, will want to read it and will ask for it. And we will have to get it! I cannot imagine what else an author desires more than that his books should be read. And it all started with a donation of two copies of each title.
A good number of our books come from being donated. There is an endless stream of wonderful people whose children outgrow their books and they bring them to us. I cannot recall who gave us Achebe’s ‘Chike and the River’, but we have had to replace that many times, along with his ‘How the Leopard Got its Claws’ (I am truly puzzled when you say that it was in your county library in America that you finally got hold of this book. We’ve always had several copies in all our libraries and the book is not out of print. It’s available today at N230 from Heinemann – but I digress).
Giving is in many forms; one’s time, money, ideas, property-it’s a long list. You have won a prestigious prize. The selection process was transparent and had integrity, but it was a panel of five adult judges who told you that you were the best. Yet, those judges are not your audience, your book was not written for them. So I would advise that you do not snub invitations to discuss your work with children. They truly are the hand that will feed you. Not every Newbery (the annual American award for the ‘most distinguished contribution to literature for children’) or Carnegie (the British equivalent) winner is in print today. A publisher will not continue the publication of a book children do not read. If children do not take to your book, you have won nothing. They are the ones you must seek out, impress and inspire.
You have set yourself a rendezvous which might take some time: meanwhile, why not keep one with me – at the library, 196 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, 10 a.m. on Friday 30th March, 2012? But don’t show up without books – whether written by you, or your friends, or from your ‘avant-garde publishing maverick’. The children will be there: they always are. So – ‘at the library’ – the children and I will be waiting.
Mrs. Ifeoma Lilian Esiri is passionate about children and their education, and is a trustee of Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries.