Twelve African librarians joined 28 of their US counterparts as part of the Spring 2019 Public Library Association (PLA) Leadership Academy. The weeklong event, held March 25–29 in Chicago, served as both the capstone of the African librarians’ training and the debut of the African Leadership Academy (AfLAC).
Since 2013, 140 US public librarians have participated in the PLA Leadership Academy, which was developed in collaboration with Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University. With funding and support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries program, PLA partnered with the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) in 2016 to develop an academy for public librarians in Africa. Eleven librarians from seven countries—the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda—participated in this first cohort, with nine joining the trip to Chicago. They were accompanied by three AfLIA coaches, who guided the group through nine months of leadership development training and served as facilitators on this trip. The cohort members, who began their training in January 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya, have implemented community-facing projects in their home libraries that have addressed teenage pregnancy by providing reproductive health information, implemented a mobile book box service to remote schools, and delivered library services in local correctional facilities.
The African librarians spent their first day of their week meeting with the 2019 PLA Leadership Academy. The group explored the new PLA leadership model and heard illustrative stories from the field, followed by an evening of improv-based communications and networking exercises at The Second City theater.
On March 26, the African librarians split from the US librarians and hit the road for the first of several library site visits. The goal of the trip was to explore leadership models in different contexts, as well as the role of leadership in developing innovative services. At Chicago Public Library’s Chinatown branch, Children’s Librarian Brandy Morrill introduced the group to many of the library’s services. Julie Lynch, librarian at Chicago’s Conrad Sulzer Regional Library and a familiar face to several in the group from past international leadership programs, also joined the presentation. Of particular interest were storytimes in languages other than English and cultural programs led by community members. AfLIA librarians who serve Chinese populations in their home countries took home several program ideas. “The Chinatown branch library displayed the value of culture and language, regardless of your location, age, or race,” said Victoria Isaacks, librarian at Namibia Library and Archives Service. Leadership lessons focused on the importance of understanding your neighborhood and engaging residents as collaborators, not just customers.
Columbus (Wisc.) Public Library (CPL) Director Cindy Fesemyer welcomed the group to the next stop. The small Carnegie building felt familiar in size to many of the AfLAC leaders—Msunduzi Municipal Library in South Africa where Pranisha Parag is principal librarian is a Carnegie library. CPL has an active Friends group; starting a similar group is a priority for several cohort members, and Fesemyer provided practical tips for success and valuable leadership lessons about empowering grassroots support. Youth Services Director Meg Kaster invited the group to join storytime, where the librarians learned about dairy farming through books and songs that hewed closely to the concepts of Every Child Ready to Read. The group even made butter. The librarians said they were impressed with how interactive and participatory storytime was for the children and their caregivers.
On March 28, Skokie (Ill.) Public Library Director (and Leadership Academy alum) Richard Kong and his staff met with the group and gave a tour of the library. The conversation focused on working with diverse community partners and using library space in innovative ways. The group was struck by the relaxed leadership style that allowed all staff to contribute and be recognized as leaders.
The group rejoined the US academy participants in Chicago for a celebratory dinner that evening, followed by graduation for the first AfLAC cohort. The leaders returned home with a new sense of purpose and confidence in leading their libraries and communities forward.