CILIP ILIG Informal: Library Aid To Developing Countries

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CILIP’s International Library and Information Group ran an informal session a few weeks ago, in which Johanna Anderson discussed the research she had undertaken for her Library and Information Management MSc: ‘Library Aid to Developing Countries: A case study investigating how a Western literary library model is integrated into a Sub-Saharan African oral culture within the Malawian primary education system’.

The research was undertaken in situ at a primary school in Malawi and was based around a library set up by a UK charity in the school. Following on from the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, Malawi had already made primary education free to all children. The uptake of school places had increased so dramatically that it was felt libraries could be introduced as a way to ease the pressure on the education system. Donations of books from the UK were the main method of providing stock for the library and no experienced library staff were involved in the setting up or running of the library.

Johanna discussed the background to her research and the key areas she’d focused on:

  • The role reading had to play in Malawi culture (one with a predominantly oral tradition, rather than written).
  • How relevant the stock was to its users (level of readership, subject coverage, English language stock).
  • How the library stock was used and the impact it had on the community (people who could read shared information with others; it taught people about the world outside of Malawi; infrastructures needed to be put in place to support & develop the library).
  • How reader development was supported (focus was mainly on sharing information in books, with little focus on reader enjoyment).

It was really interesting to hear about library services from such a different angle, specifically one based in a non-western developing country with a culture that traditionally focused on oral communication, rather than the written word.

Books introduced a change in the way communication occurred in Malawi – information used to flow from the elders to the children, but now it also flows from from the literate (often school children) to the non-literate. It shows that resources people have access to change the way they interact and communicate with each other. This isn’t just the case for developing countries, but also for any community who has access to new methods of communication. For example, witness how the internet and, more recently, social media has changed the way people communicate, obtain and share information.

Johanna’s research and the discussion around it during the event highlighted the fact that a library is so much more than a room full of donated books. For a library to be successful it needs the infrastructure to support it – where the library is housed, systems used, trained library staff. The library discussed in Johanna’s case study didn’t seem to have this infrastructure in place. It made me wonder whether irrelevant donated books could instead be converted into a means of supporting the infrastructure of the library that was there? eg sell the books in the UK and help pay for training for the library assistant, a more suitable home for the library, put in place systems that ensures the best use is made of the resources. I also wondered if librarians on secondment/sabbatical from the UK to libraries in developing countries could be a good way to help develop the infrastructure around libraries? In some ways it might be of benefit to both the libraries in developing countries and UK librarians – it might get librarians to think about their core skills – get them back to basics – think about the purpose of libraries/librarians and make them re-evaluate their own role in UK libraries. Some critics suggest that public libraries in the UK have lost their way. By going back to grass roots and a situation where their core/basic skills need to be used might be a way for them to re-evaluate what their role is. For example, as a technical librarian a lot of my focus is aimed at the technology side of things. I wonder how much of the librarian focus I’ve lost whilst pursuing this particular technology path and how much of it I could regain if I had the opportunity to get back to focusing on the core skills and knowledge?

Johanna’s dissertation highlighted the fact that where, in the past, books/the written word might have been seen as alien to a culture founded on oral tradition, people in Malawi now associated books with knowledge, power, prestige and wealth. Many of these associations also tie in with the fight against poverty. The Malawi Government also acknowledged the importance of literacy and put strategies in place to encourage it – resulting in increased literacy levels. It seems ironic that a Government in a developing country can recognise the importance of literacy and put measures in place to ensure it’s supported, but at the same time our own Government is happy to encourage the whittling away of our public library service.

As I say, the event and discussion generated around it was really interesting. If you want to find out more about Johanna’s research her full dissertation can be found here.

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