World Libraries

Adult Education in Sierra Leone: What Role for Libraries?

Abstract: Adult education is gradually receiving priority in the Sierra Leone government’s goal as an essential service to national development. This article discusses the role libraries are to play as repositories of the traditional print media and non–print materials in attaining this goal.


The communication of information and ideas is a major concern of the library profession. Like the print and electronic media, libraries contain the collective memory and mind of society by virtue of their collections and services to that society. A good library can provide all walks of life with a more complete communication on diverse disciplines. Libraries’ collections are properly organized for easy access and retrieval of information.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognizes the value of education, which is underpinned by strong moral and legal foundations. In this light education is an indispensable means of “unlocking and protecting other human rights by providing the scaffolding that is required to secure good health, liberty, security, economic well–being and participation in social and political activity” (UNESCO, 2002).

Sierra Leone is gradually recovering from a civil war (1991–2001) in which tragic events such as injustice, bad governance, corruption and mismanagement were rooted for many years. If the country wants to ensure that history does not repeat itself, education is an important development. Investment in education is perceived to empower the grassroot populace from multiple disadvantages such as reducing child labor, and improving gender equality and notably protecting the rights of girls. Also the skills provided by basic education like reading and writing are fundamental for national development. Education is associated with improved nutrition, health and population control, productivity, and paves the way to self–employment. Overall education is needed to rebuild and sustain people’s livelihood so they can participate in nation building in the post–war era.

Although there are no widely accepted data on adult education in Sierre Leone, varied nation–wide programs have been undertaken ranging from the promotion of literacy by story telling and discussion of visiting scholars’ lectures. Participating bodies are organizing themselves into networks to maximize the management of their resources, itemize and supply available reading materials and ensure that they provide the necessary support to promote adult education in the country.

 Adult education activities in Sierra Leone

Adult education is an aspect of those varied kinds of education provided for or undertaken by adults. Sometimes referred to as post–school education, this type of education is specifically non–conventional in that it aids adults in their cultural development and contributes to their general well–being (Weber, 1999). Adult education is practiced worldwide and the programs that are implemented vary from country to country. In Sierra Leone however, where a significant proportion of adults are illiterate, adult education is meant to serve the educational needs of the less fortunate people who do not have formal education. This includes not only adults but also young adults especially the ex–combatants who have passed the school going age. This education is meant to complement formal schooling.

Much of the political advocacy for adult education in Sierra Leone is characterized by an emphasis on the contribution of literacy to social and economic development of adults as well as society. The social benefits that are expected to accrue include improved status of adult learners, self–esteem, health, values, and the alleviation of poverty. The potential economic benefits include employment possibilities, earnings, agricultural productivity, consumption behavior and fiscal capacity. Hence not only government through the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) but also such Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as Partners in Adult Education (PADECO), People’s Education Association of Sierra Leone (PAE–SL), Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA) and Institute of International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (IIZ/DVV) are involved in adult education. To help improve the methods of teaching and the skills of adult literacy, workers in the Institute of Adult Education and Extra Mural Studies (INSTADEX) at Fourah Bay College offers certificate, undergraduate and postgraduate diploma and masters degree courses in adult education.

Adult education in Sierra Leone requires more than teaching and involves not only illiterates but also grassroot people who are often poor and needy. The majority of them live in the rural areas. As a supplement to the courses organized for the illiterate, semi–illiterate, neo–literate and functional literate skills such as soap making, gara dyeing, tailoring and agricultural cultivation are incorporated. These efforts complement those of traditional secret societies like ‘Poro’, ‘Koffoe’ and ‘Gbangbanie’ for males and ‘Bondo’ and ‘Sande’ for females, that have for long been actively involved in developing initiates in various careers. Adult education classes are largely held in schools between 4:00 and 10:00 p.m. daily. Seminars, workshops and fieldwork are organized for organizers, tutors/instructors to keep abreast with latest developments in the field.

Creating a literate and inviting environment for adult learners goes beyond this focus; it requires the establishment of unique institutions that provide different kinds of teaching and learning materials such as those for reading, extensive literature, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, pamphlets and calendars. Such materials must be properly organized to facilitate ease of use. This is where libraries should play a vital role.

 The library scene in Sierra Leone

Access to relevant information is a key requirement for an individual to cope with the pressures of contemporary society. Libraries play a vital role in the provision of information to their diverse clientele. As repositories of the traditional print materials libraries have seen new additions to their collections such as maps, slides, audio tapes, recordings and newspapers which are vital to information dissemination.

Libraries all over the world have diverse aims with multiple purposes. They provide opportunities for self–education and help fill the gaps caused by school shortages. They hold valuable workshops for educational programs, support technical and scientific research by providing relevant materials and information to those who need them (Perez and Enrech, 2000). In Sierra Leone, as it is in other developing countries, the library scene is made up of public/national, special, university and research, college and school libraries. The public library, the Sierra Leone Library Board (SLLB), which also plays a national role, was established in 1959. Its purpose is: (a) to support and reinforce programs of adult and fundamental education; (b) to provide effective service to children and young people, including requisite services to schools; (c) to provide much needed information and reference services; (d) to provide and stimulate reading for pleasure and recreation; and, (e) to provide where needed adequate services for special groups i.e. women ands girls, language groups (SLLB, 1983).

The SLLB is an organization for all segments of society without any demarcation of those who wish to study, gain information and refresh the mind and communicate. Among its traditional roles are the preservation of materials, aiding research and education, information provision as well as recreational and cultural facilities. With the headquarters located in Freetown the public library has a branch library at Kissy, Greater Freetown, and regional libraries in district headquarter towns though some of these have temporarily ceased operation due to the civil war (1991–2001).

Special libraries in the country are found in some banks, industrial corporations, government departments, hospitals and broadcasting stations, to cite but a few examples. Though they vary in size these libraries represent a range of information resources, and are able to provide quick responses. Some of these libraries like those at the Bank of Sierra Leone and the British Council have automated services.

The university and research libraries are those of tertiary institutions and research organizations such as Fourah Bay College, Njala University College, the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, Institute of Agricultural Research and Rokupr Rice Research Station which represent the bibliographic foundation of the country’s research efforts. They serve faculty, students, scholars, and researchers and participate actively in the distribution and exchange of materials with sister institutions. Other academic libraries are those of the Teacher Training and Junior Community Colleges that collect materials for use in teaching/learning activities. These libraries serve students, lecturers, administrative staff, local school teachers and pupils, business people and alumni as well as Armed Forces personnel.

There are also are school libraries. Mostly found in some private elementary and secondary schools, these libraries are essential in the personal, intellectual and social development of pupils. They house many different materials required by pupils for teaching/learning activities; they represent the primary center in schools to which pupils can go to find recorded information and help in molding their information behavior. Thus they are crucial in readying the pupils for an adult role in society.

Printed materials continue to dominate these libraries and they have combined resources of over six million volumes. Derived largely from donations these materials are selected in concert with their varied objectives and are organized to facilitate use. Some of the materials are lent to desiring clientele using accepted circulation control systems while other libraries provide facilities only for consulting materials. Some of the libraries provide reprographic facilities while Fourah Bay College library has a bindery.

In spite of the varied roles libraries play, librarianship in the country needs orientation. The country’s libraries are reproductions of western libraries and are largely confined to towns, thus making room for the provision of adult learners. Besides there are obvious divisions in the profession that reflect class structure in society. Class distinctions in such positions as college librarian, chief librarian, deputy chief librarian, principal librarian and senior librarian, and between professional and paraprofessional librarians, continue to pose problems in libraries. The crux of the matter is that most of the senior cadre who form the minority in these institutions had their education overseas and are knowledgeable about administrative duties only. The majority of the staff are the ‘and others’ whose ideas about library work are more closely related to the needs of the clientele, especially with adult users because of their constant dealings with them. Committed though they are, these staffs are not properly utilized in libraries. This situation creates acute problems regarding the direction in which the profession is moving.

Moreover, libraries in the country are riddled with problems. Financial support of these institutions is not keeping pace with increasing costs even though they are under pressure to provide efficient services. Libraries in academic institutions are constrained by changing curricula and increasing enrollment. Collectively they lack adequate training and qualified staff to staff them and are limited in their ability to tap new technological sources of information.

One would think that the changing political scene would have boosted support to these all important institutions in order to improve their services but this has not been the case. Over the years and to date, successive governments have committed funding and expertise to basic education, health and agriculture programs, to cite but a few examples, but have failed to play a leading role in the area of library development. Although government is the major donor agency for public library service and tertiary education in the country, recent developments give disturbing evidence that libraries are seriously threatened by budget cuts and deficits, which in turn hamper collection development efforts for a wide variety of disciplines including provision for adult literacy programs. Implicitly libraries are in a state of flux and their ability to respond to the demands of their varied clientele including adult learners is diminishing. A major change is needed at every level in the investment in libraries through sound funding formula, and arrangements. Amidst this plight how then can libraries contribute meaningfully to adult education in the country?

 What is the role for libraries?

Adult learners, like any other users, are individuals with unique informational, psychological and social needs which libraries should strive to satisfy. And this requires careful planning, patience and a great deal of cooperative effort by those involved. The existing pattern of libraries serving adult literacy programs in Sierra Leone is not only costly but also uneven and wasteful as there is no coordinated program established nation–wide. If the government is to achieve its aim of improved adult literacy programs for self–enhancement and nation–building there should be common goals, objectives, methods and standards for coordinated development set for libraries in the country.

Libraries have a vital role to play in adult education as there is a close relationship between the two: adult education needs libraries and the improvement of library resources depends on the effectiveness of adult education in turn. This should be continually reinforcing. One of the aims of the country’s public library (SLLB) is to support the learning process and since most of its clientele are adults this justifies the view that adult education should be central in its activities. SLLB’s functions in the context of adult education should be two–fold: to support the activities of organizations that are engaged in adult education; and, to support those who see the library as an educational and cultural center.

In tertiary institutions adult education should be based mainly on such book–oriented disciplines as history, government, environmental sciences, geography, agricultural science and social work. In this light there is a need for adequately stocked and staffed libraries that could provide opportunities for general education and encouraging cross–disciplinary approach to subjects and problems for critical thinking. Similarly special libraries can contribute to adult education in their parent organizations since there is a significant proportion of illiterate and semi–illiterate staff in employment. Such staffs need to have their reading and writing skills enhanced for efficiency. Also libraries in teacher education institutions and schools can serve as information centers in their respective localities more so these institutions can be more widely used for adult education programs.

Access to relevant information is a basic right to adult learners if they are to cope in society. The comprehensive arrangement of materials on the shelves and their subsequent divisions into adult lending, reference and children’s departments justifies the role the public library should play in adult education. In addition to the varied materials housed in these departments special provision should be made for adult learners. Such materials as primers, newspapers, leaflets, extensive literature booklets, pamphlets, reference materials on the economy, business and trade publications as well as government publications should be available to adult learners. To facilitate the use of these materials suitable reading and studying facilities for adults should be provided in the form of furniture, study carrels and product guides, catalogues and bibliographic aids to assist adults in their quests for information. Similarly academic libraries should provide study and research facilities with the inclusion of print and non–print materials for adult clientele. Since some academic libraries have Internet and reprographic services these could be used for the benefit of adult learners and those who are engaged in the program.

Basic reference materials and the bibliographic and reference skills of librarians in academic libraries could be used in providing support to adult learning programs. These services should include the circulation of materials abstracted from a regular scan of appropriate journals and newspapers and the provision of back–up facilities to answer specific queries. To facilitate use of these libraries, user–friendly instruction for this group of users should be provided.

Libraries should serve as information centers in their localities for adult activities; they should act as depositories for printed publications for members of the public, teachers, animators, faculty and scholars relating to adult education. If possible they should establish local study groups for discussing such salient issues as agriculture, HIV/AIDS, birth and child health care, environmental control and ecology. To this end the public library should play a leading role in publicizing adult education activities by stocking its notice boards with posters, handbills, articles and pictures essential for adult education. Its ample foyer should be used for drama performances, exhibitions, displays, concerts and recitals, film shows, meetings, seminars and workshops. Since a vast number of teacher training college and school libraries are found in the rural areas where the majority of the country’s population is found, these libraries could serve as publicity centers for adult education activities. They could be utilized for the publication of reading materials, training of instructors and the provision of materials for adult education work in partnership with adult education organizations in the overall organization and supervision of adult education programs. By so doing they could attain their role as transmitters of culture.

Further, the public library’s services to schools should be redefined for the benefit of adult learners. The library’s regular exhibition and display of the best print titles for schools should be reviewed to include those for adult education. If possible the public library should operate a book purchasing program that could also acquire materials or provide expert advice on the acquisition of materials for adult education purposes. In the same vein, the public library’s outreach activities should be improved with the provision of a mobile library service for the benefit of housebound adult learners through regular visits (Isaak, 2000).

Most of the adult learners live in the rural areas where public libraries are the only accessible institutions although they are poorly equipped. At a professional level, public librarians should advocate support for adult literacy programs by providing relevant non–book materials for adult education activities, and establish university study and career guidance information centers. Public librarians in the rural areas where there are no schools should undertake bold and appropriate services by giving some formal teaching in their communities with ideas expressed in simple readable sentences. They can recruit their ‘pupils’ by means of leaflets and even loudspeakers in market places or village ‘court barrys’, mosques and churches. Since tape recordings are in abundance in the country, these librarians can play cultural music to capture the attention of adult learners before the commencement of classes. Classes could be held between 4:00 and 9:00 p.m. daily. Visual aids for important issues like sexually transmitted diseases, agriculture and child health care can be organized followed by the provision of brochures, posters and pamphlets stressing salient points of the campaign. They could also use their libraries to sell important adult education materials. Programs should be constantly reviewed and evaluated, while secondary school dropouts in their communities could be employed as aides. But there should be systematic planning for the most effective use of money, time and materials. Such moves could be done in concert with the organizations that are involved in adult education.

In like manner school librarians should also volunteer to get actively involved in adult education activities by serving as instructors and could offer their libraries for adult learners’ use. These libraries should be opened during the day time and evening with possible rotation of late hours between schools in the same community. To attain these goals there should be emphasis on fund raising activities, cooperation among librarians and the provision of an effective policy to encourage the establishment of libraries in support of adult education. Librarians should also strive to get involved in the planning of adult education curricula. Academic and public librarians alike should work closely with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST), faculty and college administration to provide educational support by sensitizing them to the importance of their libraries in adult education programs.


Although libraries in the country continue to face numerous problems it is important that their role in combating the country’s illiteracy problems should be recognized. Their current role in providing tangible information and materials to support adult education could be seemingly fragmented and uncoordinated amidst the current challenges posed by information technology and due to lack of defined policies specifically meant for adult education. But their services should not be underestimated. A more realistic approach, therefore, is needed; this should be the concern of not only librarians and their respective staff but also the government and those who are involved in adult education in the country. Only then can libraries be fully utilized for adult education purposes.


Aissa Isaak, 2000. “Public libraries in Africa,” In: Aissa Isaak (editor). Public libraries in Africa: A report and annotated bibliography. Oxford: INASP, pp. 1–22.

Adoracio Prez and Marta Enrech, 2000. “A virtual library: Defining library services for a virtual community,” In: Peter Brophy, Shelagh Fisher, and Zoe Clarke (editors). Libraries without walls 3: The delivery of library services to distant users: Proceedings of an international conference held on 10–14 September 1999, Manchester Metropolitan University. London: Library Association, pp. 98–109.

Sierra Leone Library Board handbook 1983 (unpublished).

UNESCO, 2002.Education for all: is the world on track? Paris: UNESCO.

Rose–Marie Weber, 1999. “Adult education and literacy,” In: D.A. Wagner, R.L. Venezky, and B.V. Street (editors). Literacy: An international handbook. Oxford: Westview Press; pp. 337–341.

 About the Author

John Abdul Kargbo is at the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone.
E–mail: johnabdulkargbo [at] yahoo [dot] com

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