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Training library assistants in Mauritius

Marie Benoit
University of Mauritius
School of Administration

The University of Mauritius, with the financial help of the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) embarked on a fifteen-month experimental course in 1978 for the training of library assistants who were already working in libraries. The main aim of the experiment was to evolve a course of approximately one year taking three afternoons weekly, geared to local conditions and using available resources. The experiment was a success and the course, after minor alterations, will be repeated for the fourth time in 1981.

The need for short-term courses

In developing countries short-term courses for library assistants, held locally, are necessary to bring the working staff of libraries, information and documentation centres up to a higher level of efficiency. Even the smaller nations of the developing world, such as Mauritius, are affected by the information explosion. The need for storing and retrieving this flow of information and disseminating it to the relevant decision-makers, research workers, educators, students, etc., has become a necessary task to support national development efforts.

In Mauritius many government ministries and departments, the national broadcasting system and newspapers have, if not libraries, at least reading-rooms for the use of in-house researchers and decision-makers as well as the general interested public. These libraries and information centres usually began with a shelf of books and a few files of documents in the charge of a clerk, typist or messenger. As the nation develops these governmental and quasi-governmental bodies are expanding and their need for information is growing proportionately. The clerk who administered the original shelf of books has moved with the collection, which is now housed in its own room or building, and has actually become if not a 'librarian' at least an 'officer-in-charge of a library'. By virtue of seniority and tenacity, he finds himself having to serve a clientele and sometimes to administer a budget and perhaps a support staff, in spite of the fact that he has had little or no professional guidance or training. Although most of these libraries do function, offering minimal services based upon fragments of expertise acquired by observation or simply through serendipity, the need for more formal training is obvious.

Apart from the training needs of library assistants in the smaller libraries, in the larger libraries also (which are often run by professional librarians) there is usually a need for trained assistants to relieve professionals from routine duties and thus enable them to do more creative work. Most library assistants, because of inadequate educational background, economic limitations or geographic isolation are unable to follow professional courses abroad or at home, where these are available. Short-term courses held locally are therefore needed to solve some of these training problems.

IDRC aid

In 1978, with these and other problems in mind, the University of Mauritius set up an experimental fifteen-month course in library studies at certificate level. This Library Assistants' Training Experiment was funded by both the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) and the Government of Mauritius. Under an agreement between the University and the IDRC a course director was recruited abroad by IDRC while a deputy course director (the present author) was recruited locally by the university. IDRC provided the sum of C $94,700 while government's financial support was a local equivalent of C $14,600.

The main aim of the experiment was to evolve a course of approximately one year taking three afternoons weekly, geared to local conditions and using available resources.

The aim of the course itself was to provide training in routine library techniques and methods to enable students to become more proficient in the performance of their duties. The course also endeavoured to create in the students an awareness of information potential in national development. The emphasis was on the practical aspects of librarianship and the course did not lead to full professional status. It was offered only to those already employed in the field and receiving practice during their daily work. Mauritius has an unemployment problem and the university did not want to flood the market with library assistants with no job prospects. Thus, priority was given to those who had some form of practical experience. Those recruited also had to possess at least the School Certificate in five subjects with credits in English and another language.

We started with twenty-four students. Three dropped out, one of them to follow a degree course in librarianship in India. Their jobs ranged from a municipal librarian, who ran the library for a town of about 50,000 inhabitants, to those working in 'cupboard' libraries.

Although the course was intended for library assistants, we were obliged to give priority to those of a higher grade, who were already working in libraries but who had no hope of going abroad for professional training in the near future.

The course had to be compatible with the busy, complex lives of the students involved. Three of the women students were pregnant. In addition to their professional duties, which often included shift work, most students had families to take care of once they arrived home. They also had to find time for the preparation of their written course work, of which there was a substantial amount, and for the assessment of reference materials scattered in different libraries.

Course content

The following parts of the syllabus were largely based on the course content of the British City and Guilds Library Assistants' Certificate: Library and Society, Elements of Library Management, Classification, Cataloguing and Indexing, Bibliographical Control and Reference Work. We also included General Studies. Here the students were given an introduction to the social economic, political and administrative structure of Mauritius, high-lighting the problems of a plural society, of a small plantation economy and of public administration for development. They were also given a brief introduction to Mauritian literature and an introduction to science and technology in society. This part of the syllabus also included an introduction to the use of statistics. In addition, a project had to be undertaken by the students either on an individual basis or, if the work involved was substantial, as a team.

The total number of contact hours was 400, broken down as follows: Library and Society, 40 hours; Elements of Library Management, 80; Classification, Cataloguing and Indexing, 100; Bibliographical Control and Reference Work, 100; Project Work, 30; and General Studies, 50 hours.


Fifty per cent of the marks were awarded for course work, i.e. essays, notes in preparation for seminars, practical exercises in cataloguing, reference and so on. The remaining 50 per cent were awarded for written examinations.

Learning by doing

Lectures on sultry sub-tropical afternoons after half a day's work and a long uncomfortable bus-ride had to be delivered with great enthusiasm if they were not to induce sleep. We encouraged the students to participate and lectures usually evolved into lively class discussions with everyone exchanging experiences and problems. Seminars were held once a week.

As often as we could we carried our class off campus for observation visits and guided tours to different kinds of libraries, the national archives and related institutions. Because Mauritius is small most libraries are easily accessible and often students gave us guided tours of their own libraries. In some cases reports had to be submitted on what they had observed. We trailed behind the French Embassy's van seeing how their library book-box drops in rural areas function and how much one group of handicapped readers depended on these books for their recreation. All this added a new perspective particularly to those who had never before ventured beyond the confines of their own libraries.

A large empty room at the university was equipped with tables, chairs and shelving. The 'lab' ended up looking and sounding Eke the processing room of most overcrowded libraries in the Third World. There the students made accessories for the Browne circulation system using locally available paper and card. They practised using a card duplicator, filing publisher's catalogues in locally made pamphlet boxes, checking in periodicals and preparing them for binding. The British Council kindly let us borrow, on a long-term basis, about 500 books and pamphlets which had been part of a travelling exhibition of books on librarianship. While half the students were taught the basic principles of cataloguing and classification, using these books with one member of the staff, the other half did practical work on reference books in the university library with the other member. In fact the 'lab' idea was not a great success. It needed better organization and at least two other persons to supervise the students.

Teaching aids

An adequate flow of audio-visual materials was made available by the French and American embassies but mostly the British Council (alas, it closed its doors in March 1980). Through their local offices we were able to borrow slide presentations, films, video cassettes and tapes of lectures and interviews by eminent librarians. This helped to give the students a good idea of what libraries and their services were like in Europe and the United States and enabled them to form objectives, set standards and draw comparisons.

In spite of the fact that textbooks had been ordered a year before the course started, only a few had arrived. So this was a problem which had to be overcome. When we were not teaching and doing administrative work we were preparing handouts to supplement the curriculum. Eventually we realized that to some extent the lack of books had not been such a handicap. First of all, few appropriate books are available at this level. None relate to the realities of library operation in the Third World. With students who were practising in the field and very much aware of local conditions, it was difficult to talk only of ideal and sophisticated methods. Our feet were kept firmly and constantly on the ground and ivory towers quickly abandoned. Secondly, we realised that working students would have had to make an almost supreme effort to find the time and energy to cope with long reading lists. Some developed an interest in a particular subject in which case time was found to nurture this interest through reading. However official reading lists only seemed to induce a sense of guilt. But handouts were read, and proved to be a helpful adjunct to lectures and seminars.

We kept our eyes and ears open for any appropriate person who came to Mauritius and who might accept an invitation to talk to the students, give them the benefit of their experience and thus make the course more interesting and alive. Our vigilance paid off and most visitors proved to be easily approachable and willingly volunteered their services. Among our speakers was the regional representative of the Library of Congress, a well-known French library educator who had been lecturing in the neighbouring island of Rion, the managing director of a well-known British firm of library suppliers and the wife of a World Bank consultant, an expert on book preservation. Fortunately our students are bilingual (some speak an oriental language as well) which gave us a wider choice of speakers.

For the General Studies component of the course we utilized the regular university staff. Lectures on the local political and economic set-up and local writers were particularly appreciated.

Although most of the teaching was done by the. Director and his deputy some practising librarians were invited to give lectures on the state of the art and their own experiences in the field.


As part of the final assessment each student had to submit a project at the end of the last term. Initially a short proposal was submitted to the teachers and each student was given an opportunity to discuss his or her idea with one of the teachers. Some ideas turned out to be too ambitious and had to be abandoned. The emphasis was on producing something useful but with which Certificate-level students could cope. Many students decided to produce a guide to the library in which they were working. All students submitted a draft of their project to one of the teachers. This was discussed and, where necessary, amended. Most students took enormous pride in their project and went to great lengths (and often expense) to produce a presentable piece of work.

Perhaps the most useful project of all was a Bibliography of Mauritian Government Publications, 1955-1978, which has a total of 549 entries. The materials recorded are based on the holdings of the Mauritius National Archives which enjoy legal deposit and are one of the repositories of government official publications. In their Bibliography of Mauritius (1502-1954) covering the Printed Record Manuscripts, Archivalia and Cartographic Material (Port Louis, 1956), A. Toussaint and H. Adolphe list government publications in Group B (periodicals, newspapers and serials 1769-1954). This project therefore updates part of this section of Toussaint and Adolphe's bibliography and contains a comprehensive index of authors and corporate bodies.

It is hoped that this useful work will eventually find a publisher. This would encourage the compiler to devise some method of keeping it up to date.

Among the worthwhile projects completed by students in subsequent years is A List of Projects and Dissertations Submitted by Students of the School of Administration, University of Mauritius, from the setting up of the University in 1970 to 1979. It is hoped that another project, A List of Publications of Members of the Teaching Staff of the School of Administration of the University of Mauritius is only the beginning of a list which will include the publications of all members of the teaching staff of the university.

The city Library of Port Louis is one of the oldest libraries in Mauritius, having been established in the 1850s. The project on French Literature in Mauritius (1800-1979): a Select Bibliography of French Literature with a Mauritian Imprint in the City Library of Port Louis is therefore an almost complete guide to Mauritian literature in French and a very useful bibliographical tool.

Mauritius has a multilingual and multiracial society. A Bibliography of the Literature of Mauritius (Hindi and Bhojpuri) 1909-1980 is another project that deserves publication. Its compiler devoted a great deal of time and energy to it. She had to track down publications in the collections of individual bibliophiles. Although the Archives enjoy legal deposit the preservation of oriental materials has not been taken seriously enough. Therefore the collection of the Archives could not be relied upon.

Most of these projects involved far more work and were of a far higher standard than was needed at certificate level.


It can be said with satisfaction that the experiment was successful and attained its objectives. Forty-seven students have successfully completed the courses since they began. The author now acts as the course supervisor and the course will be run for the fourth time in 1981. Its length has been reduced from fifteen months to one academic year in line with other certificate courses at the university.

There is no doubt that most developing countries are in a position to set up such a certificate course attuned to the needs of the country concerned, without too much difficulty.

It is unfortunate that in the case of Mauritius no survey of the existing libraries has been conducted so far. This makes it difficult to estimate the number of library personnel required for various kinds of libraries in the country. Nevertheless there is little doubt that a diploma course is needed and should be introduced in the near future.