What do the Reading Spots projects symbolise to parents?

An extract from a dissertation entitled ‘Beacons of community-led education, or divisive entities? A study of parental attitudes towards community-led libraries in rural Ghana

Following a comprehensive literature review, I used theories from both new literacy studies and the postcolonial approach (mind need to research both extensively to fully understand the analysis below) to explore the potential divisive features of literacy centres. My research design used semi-structured interviews of the parents of both users and non-users of 2 libraries. I also use informal insights and observations gained from living in both the Tease and Akumadan communities to add an additional understanding of the social context.  The research model is based upon an interpretivist epistemological position in which it is recognised that value is determined differently depending on the specific human interactions, functional status and social context of our exploration (Bryman, 2012: 28-29).



I looked at 3 questions:

  1. What does the community library symbolise to parents?
  2. What do parents believe the purpose of a community library to be?
  3. How do parents believe that the community library could be improved to increase the benefit of the library for the community?

For the sake of brevity, I will offer some of the ideas found from question 1:

What does the community library symbolise to parents?

During earlier informal observations of the communities’ responses to the library it emerged that many parents believe that the library has additional value through its symbolic worth. Furthermore this was a mode of library analysis that did not emerge from the literature review.

Symbolism as usage

One parent offered a view that found evidence to support Street’s ‘ideological model’ (Street, 2001), suggesting that the library’s symbolism will be determined by the use that the children make of it rather than assuming its benefits. For him, ‘the symbol will be gained from the knowledge the children will take from there. So if the children come from the library, what they will do will determine the symbol of the library.’ (Akumadan 6) This echoes Wittgenstein’s statement that ‘meaning is use’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: §43); a parent in Tease also stated that ‘if we use it that will help us to know the importance of it’ (Tease 6).

Community pride

Nearly all the parents in the community saw the library as a symbol of pride with one parent stating amidst laughter that ‘I am proud, I am walking like this’ (shoulders pushed up and chest pushed forward) (Akumadan 6). This exclamation of pride was particularly widely observed in Tease where the community had greater awareness of the library, perhaps due to the smaller size of the community and the community-led commissioning ceremony. One parent commented that ‘when we are from Tease and we travel we say “Oh I’m from Tease and we have a library – I feel proud of it’ (Tease 1) and another that ‘it’s something we can talk about and boast that we have library in our community’ (Tease 5). This pride was, indeed, observed in interviews of parents of both users and non-users, and parents that were at both ends of the literacy spectrum.

This pride was often acknowledged as causally linked to comparison with the facilities in other communities, with one parent stating that she was proud ‘because most of the communities in my area – they don’t have’ (Tease 1), with the word ‘because’ indicating the comparison as an explanation for the pride. One parent commented that the library ‘has given the community a lot of respect’ (Tease 2) indicating that those receiving the news in other communities now respect the Tease community and its people more. Reactions in Akumadan were similar with specific comments about the lack of a community library in the ‘whole district’ (Akumadan 1) with further comparative comment (Akumadan 6).

However, this pride also seems to exist internally to the community, based upon pride in the ability to read; one parent states that ‘the children can boast that now they have a library in Tease and some of the children who come to read, and they go to the school and say “I go to the library and read this this and that’ (Tease 2) thus indicating that it is not only the parents who feel pride in the library, but the children who use the library feel proud of their usage of it.  One parent was not just proud of the community but ‘proud of herself’ (Akumadan 4) for her interaction with the library.

It might be immediately questioned whether this pride has positive consequences, or is one of Plato’s ‘false pleasures’ which is indeed a pleasure, but dangerous as based upon a false calculation or estimation of reality – in this case the actual educational benefits of the library’s existence (Plato, Philebus 39e-41b). It can be seen that this pride in the library has some ‘true’ qualities in observing some benefits from the interview data. Firstly, the children’s pride in their own ability to read seems to give them greater confidence in school (see Tease 2); this may also encourage others to visit the library and promote a wider culture of reading within their peer group.  The parents’ pride in themselves (Akumadan 4) or their wider community (Akumadan 1) may also have several benefits: alongside increasing self-esteem, it may encourage them to value the library through usage and increase optimism about the standard of living in the community. This may in turn encourage people to stay in the community rather than move elsewhere for jobs: this is an issue highlighted by one parent in Tease who stated that: ‘the library has helped a lot, but what they need is jobs so that when the children complete they can stay in the town and help the community rather than travelling’ (Tease 4).

It might alternatively be argued that having an abundance of pride in the community library might have a negative impact with respect to increasing expectations of further development, and expecting the library to have a significant impact, without consideration of effective management – indeed, one parent comments that ‘the books cannot read itself!’ (Tease 6). It is clear that further research examining the impact of pride within the community setting would be best to avoid guess-work, but it is important to raise the issue at this point that the parents’ perception of the library symbolising various positive concepts, or having various positively-framed purposes, does not necessarily equate to the library having a positive impact: we could be examining a MOTL.

It took a little more analysis to consider why the library was a symbol of pride. The following symbolic values of the library seem to be placed alongside pride, giving a further symbolic significance that may have a causal connection, leading to the production of pride.

Literacy, education and knowledge 

Some parents saw the library as representing ‘knowledge’ (Tease 6), with Tease 5 portraying the library as an active place of ‘learning’ rather than ‘knowledge’, recognising that gaining knowledge is impossible without the learning process also being present (Tease 5). One parent in Akumadan commented that even knowledge of the library itself, and what a library is, was an important factor, stating that ‘they are happy that the library is here because at first they didn’t know what a library was. So it makes them happy.’ (Tease 4)

Many parents saw the library as symbolising education more widely, commenting that ‘when you enter the town and you see the edifice you see that you are entering a community which has education at heart.’ (Tease 7) Adding my wider knowledge from informal observations to inform analysis of this comment, the community in Tease played a role in engineering this symbolism, as the community’s traditional leaders decided that the library should be placed at the entrance to the community so that any visitors or people driving through would immediately witness the building.

Other comments focused on education are:

‘It is represents education – it is for the educators – those who want to learn and know how to read and write, those people can go there. So it is an education doctor.’ (Tease 1)

 ‘A library represents education – that’s the main thing because I don’t think farmers will go there. Library represents education, and it is for those who are in the education field to use it.’ (Tease 6)

These comments position the symbolism of the library towards education more widely, although both comments here indicate the divisive nature of the library. Tease 1 indicates that it is for the ‘educators’, by which I think she means those interested in education rather than teachers as she later explains her comment by saying ‘those who want to learn and know how to read and write, those people can go there’ (Tease 1). Her final comment that it is ‘an education doctor’ indicates that she sees the library as offering a wide range of services that enable people to progress in their education, also stating that she called it ‘literacy room’ (Tease 1).

The representation of the library as ‘an education doctor’ (Tease 1) implies that the library plays a medicinal role in supporting those children who cannot read and write. As previously mentioned, the metaphor of illiteracy as a ‘virus or disease’ is ‘well-known’ (Papen: 2005:12) and as the NLS movement would argue, unhelpfully frames literacy as a set of universally valued skills that people can either possess or lack. The notion of a ‘disease’ also implies that it is viral: that once one child fails to get the certain skills required to be ‘literate’, that this may spread to others and lead to a society in which illiteracy is common place. Thus the image of the library as providing a ‘cure’ for this disease fails to examine the actual literate practices of those too quickly labelled as ‘illiterate’. Indeed, my translator labelled Akumadan’s citizens in such a way, often commenting to me that ‘this one’s an illiterate’. It is clear through the use of ‘illiterate’ as a noun rather than a verb, that he saw their inability to read and write as an important state of being, rather than just pointing to a set of skills that they lacked. This deficient state of being is an example of what Papen terms ‘deficit discourses’ of literacy in which ‘illiteracy is believed to be related to ignorance and backwardness’ (Papen, 2011: 64). This categorisation of people into ‘literates’ and ‘illiterates’ is termed by Foucault (1997) as ‘dividing practices’.

Whilst the notion of a ‘education doctor’ (Tease 1) portrays the library as an inclusive entity that may even play a role in reducing educational inequalities through free educational ‘treatment’ as mentioned in the literature review (see Frimpong, 2015: 3), other comments also suggest that the library has some divisive properties, accessible only to those who can read. A parent in Tease comments that I don’t think farmers will go there’ (Tease 6). This seems to give evidence of Street’s idea that the ‘autonomous’ model of literacy can lead to the creation of binaries such as the literate-illiterate binary by which people are defined by others or self-define as in one of the two groups (Street, 2008), rather than seeing literacy as a continuum. Various suggestions to reduce this divisive nature and close the ‘Great Divide’ (Papen, 2005: 32) will be offered in the last section alongside other recommendations for the improvement of the library.

Some might suggest that the very concept of literacy itself is inevitably divisive, as whether it is viewed as a set of skills or as embedded in a social context, there are some that will be able to comprehend how to use the literate practices effectively, and others who will not, unless they are instructed (Street, 2008: 3). Indeed, Rogers frames the relationship between the ‘literate’ and the ‘illiterate’ as a ‘relationship of power’ where the former have ‘excluded’ the later from society (Rogers, 2011: 223). In particular, the use of English as the national language in Ghana means that in order to engage in certain societal practices (such as applying for a passport), you need to either be able to read and write English or have support from someone who does. Thus it is perhaps clear that the notion of literacy itself, combined with Ghana holding a national language that is distinct from its citizens’ mother-tongues, are in themselves divisive factors; any divisions further cemented by the libraries need to be seen within this wider binary context.

Community development

Parents in both communities saw the library as a symbol of development and improved living standards. Parents stated that ‘It hasn’t been here for long but I believe sooner or later it is going to change the lives of some of us’ (Tease 7), and ‘it has bring good life to us’ (Tease 5). In both areas, the library was also seen to be symbolic of ‘upwards’ movement showing all that that ‘Tease community is now growing and we are developing’ (Tease 6), and that ‘Akumadan is a developed town’ (Akumadan 6). Although there was a certain irony presented in this latter comment as the parent later went onto say ‘meanwhile there’s nothing here’ (Akumadan 6), acknowledging the difference between the symbolic nature of the library, and the actual state of affairs in the wider community, thus acknowledging what might be seen as the community taking one of Plato’s ‘false pleasure’ in the library as a symbol of development (Plato, Philebus 39e-41b).

There is not much detail found in the text indicating exactly how the citizens of Akumadan and Tease view or frame the notion of ‘development’ – some associate it with the bringing of ‘good life’ (Tease 5), others talk about the community ‘now growing’ (Tease 6) which in its usual usage seems to imply the creation of further buildings and amenities rather than a development in education or living standards (even if these are subsequent consequences). Although more ambiguously, one parent in Tease comments that ‘it brings great things to our community’ (Tease 5); here ‘great things’ could refer to a wide variety of outcomes – economic development, educational advancement, or community respect, as just a few examples.

Evidently, the concept of ‘development’ itself is a much contested concept with different communities holding diverse advancements as priorities in terms of what they value in ‘development’, despite the sustainable development goals (SDGs) being framed as universal aims by the wider international community.  The failure to acknowledge local development agendas, and respect the proverb that ‘what is one person’s development is another person’s poison’ (Rogers, 2011: 229), can be another way in which binaries are created, setting a binary between the developed and the undeveloped, with those that are ‘developed’ determining the meaning of the term. Rogers notes that ‘Development today is seen by some people as a social construct, created by dominant ideologies within a particular context.’ (Rogers, 2011: 228). Indeed, the ‘underdeveloped’ often view themselves through the deficit model (Rogers, 2011: 221-222) – for example when one parent states that despite the hope created by the library ‘there’s nothing here’ (Akumadan 6).

The postcolonial scholar would require us to place these comments in the postcolonial context, recognising that the community were aware that both libraries were ultimately ‘built by some whites’ (Akumadan 2). Indeed, the parent who stated that ‘we can say that Tease community is now growing and we are developing’ (Tease 6) also commented that the library ‘makes me think that at least some people think of us.’ (Tease 6) Thus the library is not necessarily a symbol of agency and community-led development, but a symbol of external help, and thus, to an extent, a symbol of the dependency of Tease citizens upon foreigners for their own progress. If the library is a symbol of knowledge, as suggested above, it is also a symbol of the epistemological dominance or the ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988: 280-281) of the relationship between previous colonizers and colonized. Indeed, most of the books in Tease and Akumadan have been imported from the UK, and thus contain mostly western narratives, even if there is a focus on gaining funds to buy African fiction. This may ultimately lead to a sense of alienation from their communities and culture (Some, 1994; Adjei, 2007).

6.1.4 Hope

Whether due to its links or ‘participation’ (Tillich) with education, learning, or wider development, many parents saw the library in their community as a symbol of hope:

‘It brings more light to our lives’. (Tease 5)

‘All that she sees is that the children inside the library have a bright future.’ (Akumadan 1)

‘What I’ve seen of her if things continue like this, she will get to a good place.’  (Akumadan 3)

 In these future-facing comments it is clear that the parents believe that the library will have beneficial long-term consequences for their children with the symbolic use of light to represent their hopes for the future.

However, returning to a postcolonial analysis, for some it seems that the library was not just a symbol of hope but a symbol of help which was ultimately provided by the west. One parent comments that ‘It is the most important thing that I have seen because none of them think about us so it’s good that you came to help us’ (Tease 5), and another states ‘It makes me think that at least some people think of us’ (Tease 7). In the former quotation it is interesting that she states that ‘none of them think about us’ – the use of the word ‘them’ implies that I and other westerners (perhaps) are not the subject of her attack (as she might have used ‘you’ instead), but perhaps her own people. Thus this again could be evidence to suggest that the library stands tall as a symbol of western dominance. It is clear that my positioning as the founder of the project may have affected the way in which the answers were given; indeed, one parent hopes that I will be encouraged ‘to bring something extra’ (Tease 6) – perhaps the community members think that I will want them to indicate that they see the library as a western gift, in recognition of the donation made.

If the library does symbolise a gift, this might also encourage others to make donations of such a nature to the community. Alternatively viewed, if the library is seen as a gift from the west, this can only reaffirm difference and cement the binary between ‘the west’ and ‘the rest’ and further the ‘imagined geographies’ (Said, 1978) or ‘two world concepts’ (Young, 2010) in which the world is divided into two. Stirrat and Henkel argue that whilst NGOs might believe their donation of a building or project can be based upon ‘universalistic ideals about the unity of humanity’, it is also ultimately a practice suffused by a ‘recognition of difference’ (Stirrat and Henkel, 1977: 75). Although, when questioned on who they perceive to manage the library, most parents recognised the reality that the libraries are both managed and ‘owned by the community’ (Tease 7).

Section Conclusion

Our study has shown that parents see the community library as a powerful symbol: one parent noted that the symbolism was to be determined by usage, whereas others saw the library as a symbol of education, learning, knowledge, community development and hope. This evidence suggests that irrespective of the impact of the library upon knowledge acquisition and skill development it has had a significant impact upon the mind-set of parents of both users and non-users in the community – an additional study would be needed to ascertain whether this symbolic had positive or negative psychological effects and is one of Plato’s’ true or false pleasures (Plato, Philebus 39e-41b).  In order to fully comprehend the symbolic value of the library, in the next section, I explored further how parents viewed the purpose of the library in community life.

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