Chapter 8: A place in the world: qualitative research as a way to study global libraries – Qualitative Research and the Modern Library


A place in the world: qualitative research as a way to study global libraries


This chapter explores a novel project, located in rural Uganda, which used qualitative methods to explore communication exchange amongst rural village library users.

Key words



village libraries


grounded theory

narrative analysis

content analysis

So far, this book has focused exclusively on qualitative research in the modern Western library setting. Many aspects of daily life are now impacted on some level by globalism, whether it be business, technology, or education. Libraries are no exception; they operate in all corners of the developed and still-developing world, and librarians and library professionals provide services for a wide variety of users of many different languages, backgrounds, and cultures. Qualitative research in these settings can focus on the needs of users, the use of technology, and collection development, to name a few. In libraries that operate in the developing world, qualitative research can take on a very rich meaning; it can also reveal cultural and social patterns of interaction, social and cultural norms and beliefs, and information about communication, values, and societal structures.

This chapter will present one example of qualitative research used to study certain phenomena related to a rural African village library in Uganda. Specifically, this study utilizes a qualitative content analysis approach to explore information transfer in the way of stories told by library users (mothers/grandmothers to their children). The aim of the study is to discover then understand any patterns, themes, and theoretical constructs within these narratives related to the library within the sociocultural context of life in this rural Ugandan village. Since the study is exploratory in nature, it aims to generate, rather than test, research questions about the nature of these mothers’/grandmothers’ stories, which may in turn be used to guide future examination of theoretical constructs. This is often the case with qualitative research of this type.

This example is intended to highlight the diversity of qualitative approaches and the ways in which it can work in traditional library settings and in library-related settings that may be more typical of anthropological field studies.

Why use a qualitative approach?

This project is based on research conducted during the summer of 2009 in the rural Ugandan villages of Kitengesa and Gulema. It represents part of a larger constellation of studies (Dent and Yannotta, 2005; Dent, 2006a, 2006b, 2007; Dent Goodman, 2008; Parry, 2004) which have investigated the impact of rural village libraries in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa on the users they serve, using both qualitative and quantitative data. The 2009 intergenerational study focused on the learning-readiness of young children (5 to 7 years old) as influenced by the reading habits of their primary caregivers—in this case, their mothers/grandmothers. The project included more than 100 hours spent interviewing 51 caregivers about their reading and literary practices, their home lives, and their health and socioeconomic status.

This particular project used a qualitative approach because of the type of data to be examined (stories), but also because of the cultural framework in which the study took place. Identifying cultural information transfer in a culture that still struggles with high rates of illiteracy presents certain challenges, especially when current research trends tend to focus solely on information and knowledge transfer as products of literacy. Traditional oral practices are often not integrated into efforts to increase literacy, yet, in many cultures worldwide, orality remains one of the major modes of communication (Ong, 2002). Studying narratives and stories has long been an approach used by researchers to learn more about cultures, organizations, individuals, and events. In this case, examining these stories is a way to highlight their continued relevance and importance to those who shared them, the tellers and the listeners. Anyone who has listened to traditional tales, old proverbs, or original stories can attest to the fact that they are incredibly rich, creative, and often complex, bearing multiple meanings for both those who tell them, and those who hear them. The researchers of the study share a profound respect for the importance of this kind of oral transmission, no matter what the cultural backdrop is. At the same time, a better understanding of the inherent meaning, themes, and impact of these stories within a research context may be able to support an increased awareness of their continued role within both oral and literate cultures. This may ensure that research, whether on literacy, rural village libraries, or language development, remains respectful and inclusive of these practices.

An ethnographic study of this type encompasses more than just the phenomena being studied; thus this study and its outcomes were reviewed within the context of what it means to live in Uganda in this day and age. Impediments to wellbeing and health are always present, and include disease (especially malaria and HIV); famine; threats to hygiene; lack of access to clean water; low educational attainment; low literacy rates; and even more sinister dangers, such as kidnapping, ritualistic murder and sacrifice, and familial violence. One of the key goals of the original Ugandan rural village library study was to gather empirical evidence on the positive impact of these libraries, in order to support those in other rural areas of Uganda (and other parts of Africa) in the building of their own village libraries. Given this, it is very important to understand the functions of information and knowledge transfer, and to think critically about the ways that oral practices and new literacy practices may be blended—within the context of these village libraries and beyond.

The literature reveals little about how mothers/grandmothers in rural African villages share important cultural knowledge with their children through oral stories. While there is quite a collection of research about the information needs and information-seeking habits of people in Africa (Ikoja-Odongo and Ocholla, 2004; Camble, 1994; Aboyade, 1987; Durrani, 1985; Kempson, 1986; Mchombu, 1996; Kaniki, 1994), and about women’s information needs and information-seeking habits (Fairer-Wessels, 1990; Nginwa, Ocholla, and Ojiambo, 1997), it is difficult to find research based in sub-Saharan Africa about how Ugandan mothers share cultural information with their young children through stories, the links of these stories to literacy practices such as reading, and, specifically, the themes represented within these stories. Efforts to improve literacy rates in the developing world are ongoing; at the same time, there is real value in understanding the current modes of cultural information exchange—both context and meaning.

This will allow for the thoughtful support and integration of these practices, not their replacement, as reading cultures are established.

The role of the rural village library

This study in this example is framed by ongoing research on the impact of the rural village library in Africa, which must itself be understood within the context of access to reading materials and the importance of literacy. One of the legacies of colonialism on the African continent is the widespread illiteracy and entrenched poverty that interfere with its people’s full participation in the global economy.

A frequently cited reason for the astounding illiteracy rate in Uganda and, indeed, on the entire continent, is the dysfunctional public library system left over from the days of colonialism (Alemna, 1995; Mostert, 1998; Rosenberg, 1993; Stilwell, 1989, 1991). These public libraries, generally located outside rural communities and thus inconvenient to most of the population, are based on a Western model of information transmission oriented toward the culture, needs, and language of the African colonizers, whether they were English, French, German, Italian, or Portuguese. In the public library system, “the needs of the colonized were subservient, if considered at all” (Stilwell, 1989, p. 264) and have historically functioned as “a reflection of colonial interests and priorities” (Ekpe, 1979, p. 5). Consequently, Africans across the continent developed distrust of printed material (and possibly of literacy itself) because of its use in the spread of pro-colonial propaganda (Stilwell, 1989). Stilwell (1989, 1991) has carefully documented colonizers’ intentional efforts to block curious Africans from using the public library system altogether.

These public library systems are currently underfunded and dysfunctional because their collections are largely irrelevant to the needs of a continent struggling to become literate. Thus, an alternate model of an African library was created to fill in the void created in the wake of these inadequate Western-style traditional systems. The concept of the rural community library originated in 1968 and seems to have caught on in a variety of African countries, including South Africa (Mostert, 1998; Stilwell, 1989, 1991), Nigeria (Aboyade, 1984), Ghana (Alemna, 1995), Tanzania (Mchombu, 1984), Kenya (Durrani, 1985; Philip, 1980), Botswana, Mali, Zimbabwe (Sturges, 1994), and Burkina Faso (Dent Goodman, 2008; Kevane and Sissao, 2008).

Since 2001, the Kitengesa Community Library has been an example of a rural village library in action. Located in the Masaka District of Uganda, the library offers printed material in the native language of Luganda, adult literacy classes, children’s storytelling times, and holdings that reflect the specific needs and interests of the local residents, such as farming, medical health, and child-rearing (Dent, 2006b; Dent and Yannotta, 2005; Parry, in press-a, in press-b). Its pervasive impact has been meticulously documented in a series of qualitative research studies conducted in the critical domains of high school scholastic achievement (Dent, 2006a), literacy acquisition (Dent and Yannotta, 2005), establishment of a reading culture (Parry, in press-a, in press-b), and economic development within the community (Dent, 2007). Quantitative research conducted on rural community libraries in Burkina Faso largely supports these qualitative findings (Kevane and Sissao, 2008).

Residents of Kitengesa are for the most part without running water or mains electricity, although recent efforts have seen the laying of pipe and other implements necessary to pipe water to the village. Villagers make a living by small-scale farming and some fishing. The Kitengesa Community Library was funded primarily by a United Nations One Percent for Development Fund grant, and constructed in 2001 on the grounds of the Kitengesa Comprehensive Secondary School by a professor from Hunter College, her husband (a former resident of the village), and the headmaster of the secondary school. The library was built to serve the needs of the community—mainly students and teachers—as well as provide service to village members. The library currently features a collection of about 2,000 books and the building can comfortably seat 24. There are two librarians and a few student library assistants who work in the library in exchange for school fees. The students of the secondary school are automatically members of the library, and community members pay $1 per year for library use and borrowing privileges. Anyone in the community can use the library facility to sit and read or study at any time—this does not cost anything. Currently, there are about 500 members of the library, and the library is open a total of 77 hours per week. As of summer 2009, the library remained the only public structure in the village with electricity. The lights in the library are powered by solar panels.

The Kitengesa Community Library served as the home base for this project, although not all of the mothers/ grandmothers were members.

Elements of the project’s methods

Convenience sampling was used to select the transcripts used in the study. Twelve semi-structured interviews with women from the rural Ugandan village of Kitengesa conducted during the summer of 2009 as part of a larger study were selected. Five of the women were members of the Kitengesa Community Library, seven were non-members. The mothers/ grandmothers were from roughly similar socioeconomic backgrounds. All were literate, although the literacy levels varied. All had completed some level of either primary or secondary schooling. Participants answered 40 questions as part of a semi-structured interview. Questions focused on the reading habits, library use and literacy practices of the mothers/grandmothers, as well as their socioeconomic and health status. The answers to two specific questions generated the data for this study: Do you ever tell your children stories? and, If yes, can you provide an example of a story that you tell to your children?

Interviews with the Ugandan mothers were conducted over the course of the two-week period. The interviews were conducted in the village library by a team of two researchers and one translator. The interviews took approximately one hour to administer. Transcripts for this study were selected from 51 interviews based on the examples of stories shared in answer to the two questions stated above. Stories with more detail and elaboration were selected above those shorter examples where the storyteller only shared a brief summary of a story, or a few sentences. The interviews were translated simultaneously (from the native Luganda to English) through an interpreter during the actual interview. The videotaped sessions were later transcribed into text by a doctoral student coding team from Long Island University’s clinical psychology doctoral program.

The actual coding of the data was done by the primary researcher, and proceeded according to the steps explicated by Auerbach and Silverstein (2003):

 Explicitly state research concerns and theoretical framework.

 Select the relevant text for further analysis.

 Record repeating ideas by grouping together related passages of text

 Organize themes by grouping repeated ideas into coherent categories

 Develop theoretical constructs by grouping themes into more abstract concepts consistent with the theoretical framework

 Create a theoretical narrative by retelling the participant’s story in terms of the theoretical constructs. (2003, p. 43)

In addition to the manual analysis of the content, the same text was visualized using the free online visualization software ManyEyes (, which produced visual representations of certain word groupings. The relevant text was also imported into the content analysis software Tinderbox, which allowed for certain properties associated with the mothers’ interviews to be represented visually and examined at once using an object-oriented interface.

What the content analysis revealed

This section provides an overview of the initial outcomes for this study, primarily to demonstrate how a study using this particular qualitative approach might evolve. The context for the initial outcomes are also discussed (including a very brief overview of associated literature) in order to highlight how findings from a grounded theory approach might be framed.

The study produced seventeen repeating ideas, seven themes, and finally, two theoretical constructs, based on groupings of themes that emerged from repeating ideas in each of the stories (see Table 8.1). The constructs are:

Table 8.1

Summary of Repeating Ideas, Themes, and Theoretical Constructs

Repeating Ideas

Animal Garden

Manual work/labor






Walking alone “Njabala”

Girls as main characters



Disobedience Food/Water

Husband (man or beast)

Nothing is free/taking things for granted

Themes (categories)


Role of women in marriage

Failure to fulfill the marriage duties

Physical labor as a means of providing sustenance

Pitfalls of not working hard

Children and obedience

Role of girls/women in society

Theoretical constructs

Fear as a conforming influence on young girls’ gender roles

Fear as a conforming influence on childhood obedience

Source: Author.

Research has demonstrated that oral stories are a powerful medium for communication within cultures. Stories can communicate shared values within a group, contribute to social stability, and promote and maintain the social status quo (MacFadyen, 2004). Oral stories in particular play a key role in the transmission of cultural capital, and support the ongoing maintenance of beliefs, morals, and rules (MacFadyen, 2004). Similarly, African stories provide a means to share moral and cultural messages, and a way to “express ambiguous emotions involved in close interpersonal interaction that we all share” within a culturally established framework (Jacobson-Widding, 1992, p. 19). These stories can also “epitomize the structural and structuring principles of the public, social order” (Jacobson-Widding, 1992, p. 10). Psychoanalytic constructs can also be seen within the context of African stories. Self-identity, group identity, individuation, and mother-child attachment are not uncommon themes, often framed by cultural practices such as the “weaning trauma” discussed by Jacobson-Widding during a study of the Manyika people of Zimbabwe (1993, p. 12).

Two specific constructs emerged during this study. The meta-construct was that of fear, which appeared to be used in a number of the stories in a variety of contexts. This major theme was often intertwined with other concepts such as gender roles (for girls), societal norms, and social control. These fear elements, represented by some of the repeating ideas and themes culled from the transcripts, are transmitted verbally through the mothers’ stories, as Rachman (1977) illustrates:

Information-giving is an inherent part of child-rearing and is carried on by parents and peers in an almost unceasing fashion, particularly in the child’s earliest years. It is probable that informational and instructional processes provide the basis for most of our commonly encountered fears of everyday life. Fears acquired informationally are more likely to be mild than severe. (1997, p. 384)

In addition to the element of fear in many of the stories, most of the stories featured girls as the main characters, and many times these characters met with some fateful end. A number of the stories focused on marriage, and the importance of fulfilling the “marital duties.” Disaster would befall any girl who behaved badly. The traditions and norms associated with marriage differ from culture to culture in Africa, although certain customs associated with marriage in some African cultures—polygyny and child betrothal, for instance—have been characterized as degrading of women (Perlman and Moal, 1963). Physical abuse and unequitable physical labor by the wife both in the home and on the land have been cited as frequent features of marriage in some cultures as well. Conceptualizations about the nature of marriage in the village where this study took place were not a part of this study. However, the content of the stories do suggest an emphasis on the role of the girl/woman in relation to marriage. The story of “Balinda” is a good example of a tale that combines the marriage and gender role element with that of fear:

At one time when they go to the forest to fetch firewood. So people are fetching firewood, collecting firewood for hut. She was seated, Balinda was seated. So the beastie came, so in the process of bringing that firewood, that beast had to marry Balinda. When Balinda put the firewood on her head, that Beastie followed Balinda. So the beast was like “Balinda, wait for me!” Balinda was crying, then her friends were like “you never wanted to collect the firewood, let it follow you … let the beast follow you.” So they come with it home, Balinda come with this beast at home. So the beast told the parents that “we made an agreement with the Balinda, that I have to collect her firewood, and every time I have to take her home and she has to cook for me.” So, Balinda cried. So what we learn in this story, that you have to work in this world, not sit. If you want free things, you end up getting what? Problems. So Balinda was married to the … To the monster, to the beast. The beast, yes, because she was lazy.

In the story, “Balinda” must marry a beast because she failed to do her chores and collect firewood. It illustrates that terrible things happen to lazy girls. This was a repeated idea in a number of stories, including the story of “Njabala”—a young girl who was married but lost her husband because she “failed to fulfill all the marital duties.” “Njabala” was told by a number of the mothers and grandmothers. As well, the story of “Whengivla” featured a young girl, married, whose husband also left her because “she was very lazy at home.”

Muris et al. (2010) found that children’s “fear beliefs” could be influenced by a parent sharing negative information with the child (p. 341). This study did not assess the reactions of children as they listened to these stories, so it is impossible to know for certain the impact that the stories had, but a number of the stories told by the mothers and grandmothers feature elements that might provoke fear in the listener. Consider the suicide story:

That once upon a time, there was a man who married his wife. They produced kid, two kids. That there came a dry spell, famine. The mommy goes to look for the kid, goes to look for the food. She comes back and then finds the dad has committed suicide. The mommy comes back finds the children were just alone. The dad has committed suicide. People gathered when mommy came back, she was so alone and people gathered. That the dead body was beaten … The dead body. Was beaten and buried. But after bury, burial and funeral, that after the family just dismantled like the mom went in a different direction and the kids went away because the mom could not look after these. The story ends there. This one to bring the kinds from the same thing the dad did. So when they see the dead body being beaten they can’t also commit suicide because they will also fear to be beaten. After they’re dead.

The story is meant to instill enough fear in the listener so as to discourage them from ever committing suicide. The image of a dead body being beaten is certainly enough to instill this level of fear, especially if that image is of a parent.

One obvious message is that children who disobey a parent are likely to wind up hurt, or in some kind of trouble. Fear is embodied in many of the stories by monsters and beasts. In one story, a child is walking alone at night, against advice, and a creature attaches to the child’s back:

There was a child that used to walk at night, many times. And there was a mask-like creature that attached to her, to her back when she was … Walking at night. And that one teaches children not to move at night.

In another example of a story, one twin is eaten by a monster because they disobey a parent:

These two twins went to the garden. And mom told them that you know what, it’s time to go back home. So one decided to remain in the garden then the one come with the mom. The one who remained behind was eaten by a beast.

The storytellers in this study reported that their stories were rarely told for entertainment—they were always told with a purpose in mind. As one mother stated when asked about her story, “It teaches children to behave.” Jacobson-Widding (1993) supports this notion, and suggests that teaching her children obedience, correct behavior and good manners are “a woman’s prime duty” in some African cultures. “Unconditional obedience to those who are bigger than yourself” is a key message (1993, p. 10). There is thus an emphasis on the transfer of knowledge associated with this concept.

These stories should also be understood within the context of present-day life in Uganda. During the researchers’ stay in the village, a number of adults and children talked about the dangers of child kidnappings and child sacrifice by “witch-doctors.” It was a subject frequently on the minds of the villagers, despite the fact that the majority of these acts are rumored to take place in the northern part of the country. This could certainly be understood as a reason for keeping young children from wandering the roads alone at night.

This project is just one example of the types of research that may be facilitated in a qualitative manner. Such approaches allow for intense examination of phenomenon, and for these explorations to take place in vivo (within a natural setting). In this case, future research would be based solely on the further examination of the two theoretical constructs, which would be transformed into research questions and related hypotheses. For instance, a research question related to the first construct, fear as a conforming influence on young girls’ gender roles, might be: Do elements of fear in told oral stories play a role in shaping Ugandan girls’ behavior in early childhood? A research question related to the second construct, fear as a conforming influence on childhood obedience, might be: Do elements of fear in told oral stories play a role in shaping Ugandan children’s obedience? Related hypotheses and means of testing them would need to be formed. These are only two examples of possible research questions. The data are incredibly rich, and there are a number of other possibilities that might also be worth pursuing.

This is certainly not the typical library research project—but it is an example of the many ways that the study of libraries and related phenomena in all forms may be accomplished.


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