July 18, 2013

Turning shipping containers into internet hubs: a new library model in Africa


A rendering of a projected Librii hub.

There’s a new library project underway in Africa at moment that offers an intriguing path for making inroads on the digital divide, and for innovations in library design and use. The project is Librii, founded by architect David Dewane, and while some of its marketing materials are fairly obnoxious (“I want to be seduced by visual intrigue”), the concept is interesting: Librii essentially proposes to create (and given that it just reached its Kickstarter goal of $50,000, seems like it will indeed create) combination nonprofit/for-profit hubs that bring together the functions of a library, an internet café, and a public gathering space.

The Librii hubs would consist of

1) a traditional small library building with books, study space, on-demand printing capabilities, and a librarian on staff

2) an internet café built in a converted shipping container, stocked with computers, outlets, and other online resources. (For other creative library-related uses of shipping containers, see this MobyLives post.)

3) a shaded recessed plaza, with wi-fi access, that joins the two buildings

The for-profit aspect of this is that the Librii hubs will charge for internet access, room rental for classes, corporate advertising, and use of the space for events. This money would cover the operating costs of the hubs, so that they’ll be self-supporting—essentially, they’ll be private sector libraries.

The cool-technology aspect is that the container cafés would arrive ready to go—fully functional and ready to be plugged in the broadband networks now available in some cities, such as Accra, where Librii intends to launch.

The Librii project also picks up on the possibilities for print-on-demand as a viable solution to the problems of distribution many African countries have faced; I wrote about Paperight, an organization that focuses solely on POD within the existing network of copy shops, last year for this blog, and both Libriis and Paperight take the admirable stance of finding local partners and aiming to solve existing problems with a creative solution. Instead of, for instance, just dumping a lot of e-readers into the continent without thinking about what content is available or how the devices will be used (for more on the Worldreader phenomenon, this analysis in the 2010 report “Digital Publishing in the Developing World” is handy).

Probably the most innovative aspect of the project is the way it explicitly grafts together two functions—library space and internet café—that have by default been combined in many libraries over the past  twenty-five years or so, but not always smoothly. It’s an acknowledgement that two entities with different profiles, but similar goals, can support each other, intellectually and literally. And though I am by nature allergic to some of Librii’s rhetoric (nothing, but nothing, should be called a “hub of empowerment,” even if it is a hub of empowerment), it’s hard not to feel hopeful about the success of the endeavor.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.