THE RIGHT INFORMATION TO THE RIGHT PERSON AT THE RIGHT TIME Present day challenges to librarians
What are the challenges facing information providers, specifically librarians, in Africa, in the age of the Internet, the age of the so-called information super highway? Is this highway the answer to our needs for information in our country, in Africa?
In trying to answer this question, I will mostly concentrate on the role of libraries and librarians in the Information Society. In the age when electronic access to information is becoming increasingly common (at least for a certain segment of the population) is there still a role for libraries and librarians? These days, librarians might prefer being called documentalists, information scientists, or resource centre managers. Their name is not as important as their role, which I see as that of facilitating access to information, whether documented in a book, a periodical publication or in an electronic file on the Internet. Whether a library is stilled called a library or has become a “resource centre,” it definitely still has a role to play in the electronic age. But much needs to change in the library scene in Kenya if librarians are to become team players with other information providers in facilitating access to information for all Kenyans.
Consider the following scenarios:
Early this year Alphonse Anyango* visited a library in Nairobi, Kenya. He related the following story to the librarian:
“I was working for one of the mass media organizations some years ago when I was involved in an accident and lost a leg. After some time I was dismissed. Since then, although I found another job, I am not able to look after my family like I used to. I have a son in Form 4 and am unable to pay his fees. Where can I find an organization willing to assist me in paying the fees for my son?”
In February this year Dorothy Kisia*, a student in a Community Development College on Tom Mboya Street was doing research on the influence of family conditions on the violent behaviour observed in a number of young people in Kenya. The college does not have much of a library so she visited a small library on Mfangano Street, run chiefly on a volunteer basis, and looked for information there.
The people in these two scenarios had something in common: they lacked information. Did the questioners find the information they were looking for? Well, these are the answers they were given: Mr. Anyango was sent to the operators of a Trust somewhere in the city centre with the hope that he would have a good reception there (though the office is only open to the public on certain days). He was also supplied with the address of another Trust. Both Trusts have helped students with fees in the past. He said he would come back to the library if he had positive results. He did not come back!
Dorothy was given some peripheral material as well as the addresses of a few NGOs who deal with the subject. Whether she eventually found what she was looking for is not known.
Could the Internet have been helpful in these cases? Yes, provided the following conditions would have been met:
In the case of Mr. Anyango
If the library had had an up-to-date database of all foundations, trusts and donor organizations in Kenya and if this database would have information on the type of support these organizations make available and to whom. If such a database were on the Internet, it would of course have been accessible to Mr. Anyango, not just from the library but from any Cyber Café.
In the case of Dorothy
The library could have been more helpful to Dorothy if it held a database of materials held on the subject in other libraries. Unfortunately, no such database exists. Therefore, it is obvious that the Internet could not have been of help for it cannot list what is not there.
The state of Kenya’s library system
What was the reason these people could not be better assisted in spite of willingness to be of service on the part of the librarians?
The problem lies with the library system as a whole. Libraries in Kenya are not in good shape. For example, in my work with the NGO community for the last seven years, I have noticed that, as soon as the budget is cut, the first post to be eliminated is that of the librarian, that is, if the post exists at all. For it is a fact that many people have the curious notion that anyone can run a library and therefore this task can just as well be given to a family member or an acquaintance, whatever his or her qualifications or lack of them.
If NGO libraries are either non-existent or poorly run, can we point to a better situation in our government libraries or in the public-funded colleges and universities libraries? Alas, no. And what about our public library system? Many of the libraries in this system are used simply as reading rooms for students preparing for examinations: one can hardly turn to them to get information on the particular area in which the libraries are located. On the national level, one looks in vain for a one-stop reference centre informing one about collections in various subject areas held by different libraries.
What needs to happen in Kenya, if its people are to have the library and information facilities that people in developed countries take for granted?
Much greater attention must be paid to standards
We have all seen advertisements in the papers of industries that have met a certain standard set by the ISO (International Standards Organisation). If this happens, it is a cause of celebration for the particular industry: it means that it has come of age internationally. With respect to library and information services in Kenya, the biggest problem is that international standards are not adhered to.
Standards in the library profession are of various types: First, there are standards dealing with professional qualifications for members of library and information science professions. At present, there is no organization in Kenya that sets standards for the profession. This has several unfortunate consequences:
· There is no commonly accepted qualification for entrance into the profession valid throughout Kenya;
· Educational institutions teaching library and information science courses have insufficient guidelines for preparing students for these professions;
· Employers are often at a loss as to where to slot librarians; this accounts for the widely different salaries paid to librarians/information professionals;
· There is an oversupply of people who are technically trained whereas there is a shortage of people with analytical and management skills.
Another type of standard deals with cataloguing (the descriptive listing of a book, periodical, audiovisual or electronic file). International standards for this highly professional task exist but are very often not adhered to in Kenya. Again, there is no body in the country that concerns itself with these standards. As a result:
· Records created in different libraries cannot be integrated into a single electronic database;
· There is no national system of authority for Kenyan names (personal and corporate);
The US Library of Congress (LC) sets standards for the cataloguing of materials. Its own database (containing millions of records) is used in many parts of the world for the purpose of checking whether a catalogue entry for a particular title already exists (thus avoiding duplication of work). This database is used by a number of university libraries in Kenya for this purpose. Unfortunately, not having a national equivalent of such a body in Kenya, cataloguers are on their own when they are describing titles published locally that are not found in the LC database. The setting up of a local equivalent to the US Library of Congress would therefore be a very important step in the direction of providing better library services to Kenyans.
Cooperation among Kenyan libraries is totally insufficient for the modern electronic age.
Setting of standards is not the only area where libraries in Kenya are lacking. There is very little cooperation, let alone coordination, of library-related tasks in Kenya. The unfortunate consequences of this state of affairs are numerous:
1. Kenya has no national reference library. (The Kenya National Library Service Headquarters library is meant to perform this function but they have neither the staff nor the facilities to carry out this important task);
2. There is no national bibliographic network in the country (along the lines of a system called SABINET in South Africa);
3. Complete bibliographic coverage of all Kenyan materials cannot be assured in the absence of a national bibliographic network;
4. There is no “Union list” of all the periodicals held in Kenyan libraries. A Union list not only gives the titles of periodicals but also the holdings of these periodicals and their location in the various libraries in a particular country. (The University of Nairobi had, sometime in the 1970s, started such a list but it was later abandoned for lack of staff and resources).
5. There is no system for checking if an item published in Kenya has already been catalogued. For this reason there is much duplication in cataloguing;
6. There is no way to consult with others about cataloguing, classification and subject indexing problems;
7. Librarians in various libraries use many different types of software. There is no organization that gives advice on the capability of these various types for integration into a national network.
8. There is no complete index to daily newspapers published in Kenya. It is true that the Daily Nation is on the Internet but what if one does not remember the date or the author when a particular article was written? There is no comprehensive author or subject index to guide one. (Some specialized indexing for a few subject areas, covering recent years and a number of newspapers, is being done and this index is available on a CD);
9. There is no comprehensive index to periodicals published in Kenya. (Articles in Kenyan scientific and scholarly journals may of course be found in various indexes published abroad, and increasingly on the Internet, but normally only people in universities or in international organisations have access to such indexes).
The absence of a professional body of librarians is a detrimental factor
Kenya has no professional body of librarians. The absence of such a body is one of the reasons for the sad state of affairs in Kenyan libraries today. The reasons for the non-existence of a professional librarians’ association are many and this is not the place to go into detail about it. There is an organisation called The Kenya Library Association and it does include in its membership some of the professional librarians in Kenya. However, the fact that it is not, strictly speaking, a professional body has meant that it has by and large failed to address the many problems facing libraries in Kenya in the electronic age. Kenya does have a good number of professionally trained librarians, especially in its various universities. A number of them are doing very good work–sometimes in the face of many obstacles–in the libraries where they are stationed. But they have not had any great impact on the national library scene. A number of librarians have lacked the professional enthusiasm that one would have expected and have switched careers in midstream. Others are simply disillusioned and do not contribute much to the welfare of the national library system.
How to change this situation? A few dynamic professionals, working together, whether within or outside the Kenya Library Association, could do much to turn the situation around. One just hopes that these professionals can be found, especially among the younger generation, and that they would have the courage to tackle the complex problems facing our information society.
What about the Internet?
It should by now have been become clear that the Internet is no panacea for the problems bedevilling libraries and information systems in Kenya. The example of a group called AVLI (African Virtual Library Initiative) that was active around the turn of the century should teach us not to expect too much of electronic solutions taken in isolation. This group was confidently claiming that Kenyan libraries would all be linked electronically by the year 2004! When I asked someone about this group recently, the answer given was that it was dead!
The Internet is not magic. We cannot expect Kenyan materials to find their way to the Internet automatically: an individual sitting behind his or her computer must prepare every item of information listed there. This work can be tedious. To give just one example, preparing one record for an electronic database using international standards, can take as much as half a day.
If, as Africans, we wish to take our place proudly among those who use the Internet to make information more accessible, not just to outsiders but also to our own people, we will need to do much hard work. Is it worth it?
To answer that question, let’s remember the well-known saying: “If you thought knowledge was expensive, try ignorance.”
*Names are fictitious