The Nairobi library that holds half of O. Henry’s books—and the O. Henry libraries that inspired it

Over the past two months, Kenya has held a national holiday of sorts, known as Stories of Kenya — or, indeed, Juja Day in honour of the average village resident who perused the nation’s…

The Nairobi library that holds half of O. Henry’s books—and the O. Henry libraries that inspired it

Over the past two months, Kenya has held a national holiday of sorts, known as Stories of Kenya — or, indeed, Juja Day in honour of the average village resident who perused the nation’s library collection, which, it should be noted, does not include, for instance, the Chronicle of Alexandria. Juja Day is when all of Kenya’s books are physically turned over to authorities and are opened to the public for examination. During the event, local schoolchildren look through books in a series of “locks” called towers. It is, in a way, a crude public test of children’s grasp of the written word and encourages them to think about what they are doing. For many Kenyans, bringing a book back to a public library means returning to a period when they themselves were exposed to the written word.

The historian Diana Tambui is the CEO of Nairobi’s International Centre for Library Studies, which works with 130 libraries to rehabilitate and restore the nation’s library collections. “I think the idea of reading and writing is important to everyone,” she says. She recounts the story of a former employee who used to check out books with her; she grew up and started lecturing, never to return. She returned, decades later, to see what had changed. While those bright young talents of her youth may have been graduated and finished with their work in Africa, she says, the culture of books had not changed.

For Nairobi’s single repository of the O. Henry newspaper archive, which dates back to 1898, that had been the case for ages. Charles William “Willy” Henderson, the orphan who would later have two of his novels published in the New York Times (Gooch Kgali and Kithchiki), had been turned away by the O. Henry library when he was growing up. But for his former teacher, it proved to be a catalyst.

“She went down and asked, ‘Why did you turn me away?’” recalls Jane Muthoni Ndungu, the library’s spokeswoman. “He said: ‘I wrote a story to a girl.’ And she cried: ‘That was about me and she wanted to go home to my mother.’ So they became an instant married couple,” she laughs. In a sense, the non-profit National Library of Kenya has become a kind of love letter to itself — and the O. Henry founders. “It really is the legacy,” she says.

The library is one of at least two that are dedicated to the legacy of O. Henry. There is also the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., which holds 2,527 O. Henry books and a guide to the 1867 novel called, fittingly, “At Home in Our Library.” (The book contains more than 1,500 full pages, including the life history of its narrator, Franklin James, but also includes important information in its bibliography.)

For Ndungu, the O. Henry newspaper archives are a personal piece of Kenyans. “Sometimes when I am in a travelogue to Isiolo or Sigowet or elsewhere, I go and open the books, and it makes me cry because these books go back to when our forefathers and foremothers were just like us.” To give another example, she says that she once visited a particular place because there were different “nooks” where one could open the archives with a cup of tea. “The sense is, when you open the books, you are discovering another Africa, another Nairobi, another happening.”

To celebrate Juja Day, libraries will offer free access to their collections for one hour. Groups, which include researchers from across the region, are invited to organize photocopies and make their own copies. There are also discounts.

Read the full story at Vox.

Related

What these 150-year-old newspapers from Palestine show us about the birth of modern journalism

Five months’ worth of men’s lingerie thought to have been used in Michael Jackson’s infamous doctor

Graphic: Portraits of women who died in the Holocaust

How Nijin Kuang, a little-known Asian history professor, made history

Check out the very first edition of The New York Times, drawn from the Associated Press

Leave a Comment