September 8th of every year is observed around the world as ‘International Literacy Day’ (ILD). Established in 1965 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the day is set aside to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. Its aim is also to raise the world’s consciousness of literacy issues facing the global community, and to endorse campaigns that help to increase literacy for all the people.

The library is one of the most critical forms of social infrastructure that we have, that can be used to promote literacy. It is also one of the most undervalued! A Public Library is a non-profit library that is accessible by the general public, and is usually funded by the government or from public sources, such as taxes. The public Library has also been described as a “welfare centre, which provides useful services to the community by fostering education, promoting culture, recreation and dissemination of information to all sections of the society.”

As gateways to knowledge and culture, libraries play a fundamental role in society. The resources and services they offer create opportunities for learning, they support literacy and education, and they help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society. They also help ensure an authentic record of knowledge created and accumulated by past generations. Without libraries, it would be difficult to advance research and human knowledge, or preserve knowledge and heritage for future generations.

One significant and fundamental role of public libraries is education. Public libraries provide books and other materials for people to read and use. These materials are educational and lead to self-improvement. The educative role of public libraries also expands to include supporting both formal and informal education.

Promoting literacy is another important function of public libraries. Literacy refers to the ability to read and write. Public libraries continue to play a major role in fostering literacy in communities and societies, particularly among people that need special assistance in developing literacy skills.

Public libraries also help to promote lifelong learning. Lifelong learning is the process of continuous and ongoing learning throughout a person’s life in order to enhance continuous development and improvement of an individual’s knowledge and skills. Due to the complex and rapidly changing environment, people need to acquire a variety of skills and knowledge, irrespective of their age, or social or economic status.

Public libraries do not only have educational roles and functions. They can also contribute to the country’s economic development. For example, public libraries can have a significant impact on economic productivity when they get involved in providing effective business services, resources and literacy programs to their business communities. Such businesses and organizations that use public libraries as a resource become more successful, thereby contributing to economic development in their communities.

One of the most important functions of the library is the preservation of our cultural heritage. Perhaps the most deep-rooted of our human instincts is the desire to preserve our culture for future generations. Libraries help to accomplish this objective. Libraries are rich repositories of historically and culturally significant collections, many of which are not available anywhere else. Without the services of a library, many works that are reflections of our cultural heritage would be lost to future generations.

What are some of the challenges facing public libraries in Nigeria today? One problem faced by public libraries in Nigeria today is their scarcity. For instance, someone who lives somewhere in Festac Town, Lagos would have to travel a long distance to somewhere around Mile 2/Amuwo Odofin, in order to access the services of a Public Library. This Public Library (The Borno House Library, which functions under the Lagos State Library Board), seems to be the only functioning library in the entire Festac/Amuwo-Odofin area, if I am not mistaken. So, it will be appreciated if more public libraries are established across various communities/neighbourhoods.

Another problem is that many public libraries do need renovations. These public libraries are often unattractive and poorly maintained, while in most cases, the infrastructural facilities are inadequate. This could be because the library buildings and the systems that sustain them are underfunded, and probably neglected.

This problem can be tackled by improving funding for the Public Library system. More public support – such as through the contributions of philanthropists – can be of much benefit in this regard.

Other problems facing public libraries in Nigeria include that the books in stock at the libraries are usually outdated. It is quite rare to find new and current books or journals. Also, reference materials, where they exist, are usually old and dusty. Audio-visual materials are also usually hard to come by. The quality of manpower is also frequently not up to expectations. These and many other problems are currently plaguing the Public Library system in Nigeria.

A functional library is expected to stock all kinds of items that add to knowledge – from books to audio and visual materials, internet access, artefacts that advance the cultural and recreational needs of the society, etc.