The once white-only halls filled with books are now being restored for the Kenyan public, turning them into palaces for the people.
Book Bunk is working in conjunction with Nairobi City Council to restore some of Nairobi’s most iconic public libraries into sites of heritage, public art, collective memory, knowledge production, cultural leadership, and information exchange.
Through their work at the McMillan Memorial Library main branch located on Banda Street in the Nairobi CBD, as well as its two sub-branches in Kaloleni and Makadara, Book Bunk is restoring these public spaces and empowering the public to read and engage more in welcoming, accommodating spaces.
McMillan Memorial Library is the oldest in the Kenyan capital and the second oldest library nationally after the Seif bin Salim Library in Mombasa. It was erected in 1931 as a dedication to Sir William Northrup McMillan from his loving wife Lucie. For many years it was racially exclusive, only accessible by the white people boosting one of the most extensive collections in the region; though it held no books written by African authors.
The building hearkens to an earlier time; undoubtedly a vestige of the colonial times that came before us. With a collection that served the white settlers; a refresh of the outdated and problematic collection, as well as a new outlook on the layout, serves to bring new life to the library.
The Book Bunk team has had to rethink the collection, focusing on Kenya and African authors to fill the shelves of the libraries. This novel approach not only disrupts the status quo for most colonial-set libraries in Africa but more importantly hopes to re-arrange notions of the public who will visit the libraries. The system will hopefully make more relatable, edifying books available for the varied demographics set to use the libraries.
Speaking to The Sauce, Research & Inventory Manager Syokau Mutonga opened up about the painstaking yet rewarding undertaking of restoring the three libraries. She said, “We researched on who is using libraries and what would they like to read?” Speaking about the processing of the dilapidated libraries she noted, “We have mapped out where all the libraries are, creating an eco-system. This helps us understand what types of collections they have, and how can we rethink the collections we hope to house.”
The Kaloleni branch is specially set as a children’s library fully restored in June 2020, is in an area built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. It is located in a neighborhood integral in Kenya’s history, with the adjacent Kaloleni Social Hall being where Kenya’s first parliamentary election results were announced in 1963.
On the other hand, the Makadara newly renovated branch is perfect for young adults. Located in Maringo Estate, it is centrally located minutes away from law courts and county offices, and now shares a compound with the Huduma Centre, a public service hub. The swanky new library will be fitted with wifi, a conference room for meetings as well as outside seating for readers keen to indulge themselves while enjoying the Nairobi breeze.
Curating the reading material availed to the public has in these three projects is one of the most important activities by Book Bunk. It has involved cataloging the books at the library, weeding, and re-imagining what a modern African library is for the readers in the area.
The Book Bunk team is also involved in digitizing the archives held in the McMillan Library, critical in preserving the history of the nation which was under the control of British East Africa from the 1920s and until independence in 1963.
The Kaloleni and Makadara Libraries renovations were finished in 2020 and are awaiting the arrival of new books before they are ready for the public. However, with COVID-19 restrictions it is difficult to tell when these palaces will welcome their constituents.
To contribute to the Book Bunk Trust work at Nairobi’s Public Libraries, click here.
Images by Marlon Maina, text by Ivy Mang’eli.
Special thank to Research & Inventory Manager Syokau Mutonga.