Cover Image
close this bookInternational Reader in the Management of Library, Information and Archive Services (UNESCO, 1987, 684 p.)
close this folder1. Management, information and development
close this folder1.1 Managing information: to what end?
View the documentOn the Librarianship of Poverty
View the documentInfrastructure for the development of an information policy
View the documentThe use of archive material of the countries of the socialist community for national economic purposes
View the documentThe special utility of archives for tie developing world

On the Librarianship of Poverty


This paper attempts to outline the main characteristics of Librarianship under the conditions of poverty. To the best of my knowledge and conviction, this is the base on which any meaningful discussion of Information Work in underdeveloped countries should be firmly anchored.

The goal of my paper is to set up and elaborate on four principles that, in my view, determine the social relevance of Information Work in developing countries. This is a personal testament, and I hasten to add that the views expressed hereafter do not necessarily represent the official position of my employers - the Tanzania Library Service. Similarly, criticism is not directed at any particular institution or person. Should it appear so, I offer my sincere apologies.

1.1 If their work is to be relevant to society, Information Workers must formulate terms of reference that are consistent with the needs of underdeveloped societies. At the moment, it seems to me that such terms of reference are largely nonexistent, and where they do exist they are vague and frequently irrelevant. Given below are the principles that I believe can help in formulating the appropriate terms of reference (and justify the sweeping statements above).

The principles, which are not mutually exclusive, are:

1. That the chief factor determining Information work in developing countries should be poverty rather than affluence.

2. That Information work in developing countries differs markedly from Information work in developed countries.

3. That it is possible to gather a body of knowledge on how best to meet this challenge.

4. That Information workers must play an active role in the process of socioeconomic development.

This paper was originally presented al an Experts' Conference on Teaching Materials in Library Training, Berlin (West) 1 5-20th December. 1980. The author is Training Of beer, Tanzania Library Service, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Libri 1982: vol.. 32, no 3. pp 241-250 0024-2667/82/030241-10 $02.50/0 © 1982 Munksgaard, Copenhagen 16 Libri 32:3

1.2 Information work and poverty

In Stating that Information work in underdeveloped countries should be based on poverty, I am saying something that could well be embarassingly self-evident. The division of the world into a rich North, and a poor South, is not only reflected in different levels of income, and the sharp difference in most things that make life bearable, but it divides the provision of Information with equal clarity.

In underdeveloped countries the common man is poor, illiterate and concerned with the basics of survival; more than four-fifths of his income is spent on food alone. He is hungry, undernourished, and diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and cholera are his constant companions. Children suffer more than adults; kwashiakor and parasitic diseases claim many of their lives before they reach the age of ten. Only about 40% of the children complete primary school.

More than 90% of the people live in rural areas where transport and communication are very difficult. Within the urban areas, outside the enclaves inhabited by the elite, the majority of people live in slums, the so-called, "Shanty towns". The dwellings are overcrowded, and the level of housing is hopeless by any standards, human or otherwise.

Under-employment and unemployment is widespread, and it is not National Income that grows steadily year by year, but human deprivation and suffering. Another growth area concerns the birth rate, at 3% per year it is the "best" in the world.

This anatomy of poverty and social reality must surely determine the nature, objectives and philosophy of Librarianship in underdeveloped countries. Poverty dictates, for example, the pattern of Information services where the amount of money available per head is less than 1 shilling (10 pence). Such poverty is responsible for a lack of trained staff, a weak publishing industry, and half-empty shelves- in short this is a distinct and different world, one ruled by poverty, ignorance and disease. The factors outlined above are a formidable challenge to the Information Worker in underdeveloped countries and give Information Work a very different quality.

At this point there are three questions that need to be asked; what fundamental knowledge and skills does an Information worker need to work efficiently in such a situation? How can this knowledge be applied to the maximum benefit of the underdeveloped society? Is it possible to gather a body of knowledge on how best to meet this challenge? I cannot pretend to have ready-made answers. Obviously, a considerable amount of interdisciplinary research to these questions is needed to provide the answers required. However, a number of observations can be made.

Conferences and journals such as the present one, create in my view, the right environment in which strategies can be developed for best meeting these problems and assembling the required knowledge and skills of optimum use to Information workers in developing countries.

1.3 A body of knowledge to meet such challenges: My firm belief that it is quite possible to gather together a body of knowledge on how this challenge is best met was stated implicitly above. Such a task requires, primarily, a particular attitude of mind, and secondarily, a suitable methodology that will give the desired results.

The attitude required is one of open-mindedness and objectivity. We must be prepared to subject every aspect of Librarianship to vigorous criticism and evalution because, like it or not, we have to start from the known before moving on to the unknown. Through this selective adaption, it is possible to produce a considerable body of knowledge suitable for the needs of underdeveloped countries. The rest of the knowledge needed will, however, have to be derived from the existing situation and unique problems.

This will be a classic case of theories evolving from practice, rather than of theories being borrowed from abroad and applied misguidedly in a very different context. I dare to suggest that it is possible to produce a distinct body of knowledge suited to the needs of underdeveloped countries using these two methods.

At first, such knowledge will lack form; clearly defined limits and the harmony between one area and another may not always be apparent. Its strong potential will, however, lie in the fact that it is theoretical knowledge that has developed out of existing social problems. It will not be knowledge imported wholesale that is abstract and frequently irrelevant. Such knowledge could well be closer to sociology and the economics of underdevelopment than to traditional librarianship, as understood and practiced in the majority of underdeveloped countries today.

The critical part of this exercise is establishing what is relevant to a particular situation at a particular moment. It is this situational relevance that will shape the new theory of the Librarianship of poverty. Using this approach it could be possible to develop a theoretical framework regarding the following fields:

1. The pattern of Information services.
2. The role of information workers.
3. Existing social factors and their implications for Information workers.
4. Relationship between information work and socio-economic development.

Before proceeding to explore these four fields, I feel it should be emphasized that our colleagues the Economists, sociologists, political scientists and educators have done much work aimed at developing a theoretical base for their professions that is relevant to underdeveloped countries. With careful interdisciplinary comparative studies, we could learn a lot that would be of great value in this undertaking - if only we could for a moment think beyond our hallowed DDC's, Sears Lists, and cataloguing rules.

1.3.1 The pattern of Information Services must reflect the resources of the country.

This statement may be thought to be self-evident if it is realised that Information infrastructure depends on an economic base for financial support. In practice, however, most "planners" of Information units are not free of preconceived notions imported from the developed countries in which they did their training. The standards suggested for libraries in underdeveloped areas are often faithfully copied from British, American or Australian handbooks.

I suggest that an objective attitude may force it upon us that a fresh set of standards more closely related to the actual situation is needed. A start must be made from the basic position that the limited resources must be stretched to provide maximum social benefit. However, social benefit is a concept not easy to measure. It is very easy to confuse means with ends. Very often we take pride in giving "Statistics" covering library buildings constructed within the past five years, the number of motor vehicles purchased, and the librarians and technicians sent for training. This emphasis is sadly misplaced. It is like a motor-car manufacturer who tries to maximise not his output of cars but the number of his workers and the size of his factory.

Given a sum of money, say four million shillings (£ 200,000), we should be able to find out which alternative programme of expenditure would be of greatest benefit. Using costbenefit, and cost-effectiveness methods, we could establish the cheapest path to our goal. We could focus on the end product rather than the means.

These conditions of poverty mean that the need to make the most of limited resources in the provision of Information services is a basic strategy. The construction of libraries, the training of e.g., librarians, and the purchase of motor-vehicles are merely means to an end - they are not the goal of an Information unit in itself. The key question is: how many more people can we serve as a result of a certain item of expenditure?

Considering the majority of information units, we find that the wage bill is around 60% and the capital costs are very high. These two items of expenditure have hampered considerably the development of Information services in most underdeveloped countries. The ridiculous situation where there are cataloguers who are without incoming documents is all too common.

High capital expenditure is the outcome of trying to construct premises modelled on those existing in Europe and North America. The buildings are splendid, but because resources are severely limited, it means that only one or two of these imposing monuments can be erected in a decade. The process of spreading an Information Infrastructure throughout a country is considerably delayed by the adoption of this expensive policy. If we use cost-benefit methods, we may yet discover that it is the cheap, small, well-maintained buildings made of inexpensive building materials that are an important key to the faster growth of our Information services.

All this leads to the conclusion that the standards of Information services must be tailored to the economic ability of a country. If the pattern of Information services is pushed ahead of general economic development, standards will be set that can only be maintained in small pockets of the country. The lucky few may have a very good service, but most people will have no service at all, or a service that is inadequate and at prohibitive distances.

The planning of Information services in developing countries needs to be deliberately related to a particular time and place. The temptation to upgrade standards, complexity, and sophistication before extending coverage needs to be checked, for this "keeping up with the Jones"' results in prestige programmes that do little to extend the coverage of Information services while absorbing large sums of money and pools of skill.

There is yet another reason why plans having a low capital output ratio are to be preferred. Most developing countries have a constantly fluctuating economy because this depends on the export of a few main crops or products - so that as world prices fluctuate the economy alternates from slump to boom and back again in bewildering succession. Government revenues that depend on such earnings reflect these cycles - expensive plans initiated during boom periods act as a painful drain on funds during periods of slump.

1.3.2 The Role of Information workers

Most of the staff holding senior positions in underdeveloped countries have been trained on a background of Information work as practiced in industrialised countries. Not unexpectedly, the prevailing attitude is that this is the way in which users should behave, and the way in which Information services operate. My belief, already stated, is that this is an erroneous view of things because the lavish standards of service that exist in a typical developed country are impossible to maintain in a poor country, unless the objective is to provide an Information service for the fortunate few rather than the majority of mankind in developing societies. Indeed, this does, sadly, appear to be the unstated objective of many an Information service in developing countries. After more than 15 years of existence, and expenditure of millions of shillings, many public Library systems have not yet succeeded in serving more than 1% of the population of their areas.

In most underdeveloped countries, the number of documents per head is low, the average sum spent annually per head of the population is low, and trained staff per head of population is low. Despite these facts, a few favoured areas enjoy a standard of service shaped to European standards. If it took 15 years to reach 1% of the population, how long will it take to reach the remaining 99%? Will it take 99x15 years to serve the whole population? If the present trend continues, I am afraid this could be the case. We could unwittingly provide a service such as that characterised by Bill (1962):

"- a service supposedly for all, used by only a smallish minority, and found wanting by most."

In the area of manpower planning, care must be taken that the staff required are produced in sufficient quantities to keep pace with the development of the service. Because of the scarcity of resources, greater emphasis may have to be placed on technicians rather than on librarians.

In underdeveloped countries technicians play a different and more important role because of the shortage of librarians, and this situation will continue for the coming decade. The work done by technicians includes tasks such as cataloguing, indexing, readers' advisory work, bibliographic and literature searches - this is work of a more skilled nature than that done by their counterparts in developed countries - because there is no one else to do it.

The shortage of staff can be alleviated if all trained staff are made aware of their obligation to train those working under them. This approach will ensure a snowball effect, because the trained staff will themselves carry out training activities in their own Information units.

The scarcity of everything would seem to indicate that co-operation between Information units should result in economising on resources and overall benefits. Yet, as found in most underdeveloped countries, it is one thing to agree on the importance of co-operation, but a very different thing to practice it. There are some psychological barriers to co-operation that need to be overcome if libraries are to co-operate in our countries.

As already pointed out above, underdeveloped countries have very limited job and career opportunities. Attempts at initiating co-operative ventures are regarded with suspicion because the individuals concerned regard each other as potential rivals. Those with similar qualifications, working in the same field, regard anything achieved by someone else as a threat to their own position in this imaginary but fierce struggle for survival. It is very rare indeed to come across anyone prepared to subordinate his own interests to some broader social goal.

Furthermore, an exchange of fruitful ideas is sometimes very difficult because a senior person will not risk a loss of face by being seen to act on the advice or recommendation of anyone else- especially a junior- as this would seem to indicate that he acknowledges the superiority of someone else.

The conspicuous absence of union catalogues, union lists of serials and centralized cataloguing schemes, more than testifies to this psychological problem. Unless information workers come to realise that it is only by working as a group rather than against one another, that they can achieve their objectives and demonstrate to society what they are capable of doing - continued isolation and "one-up-manship" is a source of weakness and leads to overall ineffectiveness.

1.3.3. The Existing Social Factors and their Implications for Information Workers. A number of existing social factors lack of resources, plans based on Washington and London Standards, and phychological insecurity of information workers making co-operation impossible, etc., were considered in the previous sections of this paper. A further area not yet explored is education and the contradictory attitude of society towards this subject.

It has been pointed out by many a good writer that education is the main correlate of reading and library use, hence the greater the level of education, the greater the likelihood for utilising Library services. However, seen in the light of the experience of underdeveloped countries, this generalisation is not always true.

The decisive factor, is not just "education" alone; the kind of education that a person receives also determines the likelihood of his continued use of Libraries and information services in the community. To a very large extent, formal education in underdeveloped societies is dominated by cultural attitudes towards authority - be it parental, religious or political. The readily accepted attitude is to obey these sources of authority without question. The classroom is a microcosm of the larger society outside; education is largely an unquestioning acceptance of the teaching authority. Books and any reading matter play only a very minor part in the process. Lecture notes and a single textbook can see a student through his academic career. There is very little opportunity for innovation, experimentation, and objective analysis - even at university level.

It is quite plain that every aspect of our education system tends to discourage the formation of wide reading habits. Out of class, reading tasks are seldom assigned, or assigned as a mere formality. Should a student be bold enough to read widely and formulate his own ideas, or ideas in conflict with his class lectures, then he may well fail his examinations.

This narrow-mindedness is considerably reinforced by the examination system in most underdeveloped countries. Because of the limited opportunities available in secondary and high education, the purpose of examinations has now become not a test of a student's mastery of his subject, but primarily to serve as an obstacle to reduce drastically the number of those who go on to higher studies.

Having surmounted this hurdle, through fair means or foul, this tiny group assume the mental attitude of an elite - that they possess particular natural qualifications that are lacking in others. This pseudo-intellectual arrogance has often been articulated by the statement; "After graduation, the only thing I will ever read is the sports page of the daily newspapers".

This specific educational context has resulted in library services in underdeveloped countries having very limited demands - most of the stock is left permanently idle on the shelves to collect dust and mould. The social pressure to expand library services is minimal - to the majority libraries have very little social relevance. Not unexpectedly, the role of library services is still a limited one, and the status of this profession comparatively low.

Many librarians and government officials have failed to discern these underlying factors. Attempts to solve the problems have included the hiring of experts to advise on how to start information units and systems; the formulation of standards copied from Western countries, or requested for foreign aid. To date, most such efforts have not lived up to expectations. The foreign nationals leave the country and their model libraries speedily deteriorate to their former shambles, their textbook reports being filed away out of sight. The standards formulated fail to elicit any action other than temporary curiosity. Foreign aid continues to pour dollars, pounds kroner and Deutsche marks into the country. The slight impact that this aid has had proves that it is only of secondary importance in the development of Information services; money alone does not create an Information system that involves readers, premises, documents and staff. What is of primary importance for such services is local desire and initiative. Foreign aid can help but will never be decisive in the development of Information services in underdeveloped countries. In fact, its periodic availability may deceive planners into indulging in expensive plans left half finished when such aid comes to an end; or acquiring expensive gadgets for which no spare parts or software are forthcoming when the donors leave.

1.3.4 Relationship between Information work and socio-economic development. Socio-economic development concerns every organisation in underdeveloped societies. Information units cannot continue to isolate themselves from this social struggle aimed at giving people a better life. Every worker in an Information unit must study this historical process so as to determine what is expected of him. Anyone who shirks this task risks redundancy because, in the distribution of scarce resources, only those who can demonstrate that they are capable of producing a favourable cost-benefit balance will deserve the funds required. We have no right to expect anything else.

I suggest that having the right attitude is the most important factor in determining how actively Information Services will be involved in this struggle for survival. There is a need to be seen to provide Information geared to development in the fields of agriculture, industry, commerce, education and health. Unfortunately, the majority of Information workers in underdeveloped societies are timid in their approach and have a very limited vision of activities and ways in which Information services can participate in this social struggle. I strongly believe, that an Information worker devoted to national development, having a sense of mission and being committed to this social struggle, and understanding the importance and urgency of modernisation is likely to play an active and fully involved role. It is perhaps quite plain, too, that an Information Worker conditioned to view his job from European standards may come to consider his environment as backward and hopeless, and become a disillusioned misfit. On the other hand, an Information Worker who treats his environment as a positive challenge to be met and finally altered for the better, can became an involved agent of change.

It is only through such involvement in the struggle against the social enemies of poverty, ignorance, and diseases that the relevance of Information services can be firmly established. It takes hard thinking, hard work and patience.

1.4 Summary

This paper attempts to examine how Information services can be developed under conditions of poverty. Information workers must formulate terms of reference for their work consistent with the needs of underdeveloped countries. As this work has to be carried out under conditions of extreme poverty - scant resources must be streched to provide maximum benefit. Means must not be confused with ends: buildings, motor vehicles, and wages are not the objective, hence expenditure on these items can only be justified if it results in an increased number of users.

In order to develop a body of knowledge on how best to meet these challenges, an open-minded and objective attitude is needed. The methods that can be used to gather this body of knowledge include adaptation and experimentation relating to practical problems. The scarcity of resources must be reflected by: the pattern of Information services; the role of Information Workers; the way that Information Services are adapted to the locality concerned and the active participation of Information Workers in national development.

The pattern of Information services must reflect the economic ability of the country concerned rather than follow standards copied blindly from developed countries. The cost-benefit concept is vital in ensuring the optimum use of scant resources and that the cheapest alternative is followed. The pattern of Information services needs to be approached from the bottom upwards rather than from the top downwards. Small, cheap units, located close to where people actually live must come before large, sophisticated libraries.

Information workers need to develop an aggressive attitude and to participate fully in the social struggle for national development. There is also a need for cooperation in order to economise on scant resources. To achieve this, the present psychological problems must be rationalised and overcome. These are the result of the limited career opportunities available that lead people to regard others as rivals, and consider the accomplishments of others as a threat to their own positions. Another problem is a retrogressive education system that depends wholly on the teaching authority, and on a single text-book. Such a system does not lead to the formation of wide reading habits.

The conclusion is that Information Workers must look for solutions to their problems within their own societies rather than depending on foreign aid.

Selected references

1. Asheim, L. Librarianship in the Developing Countries. Urbana, Illinois 1966.

2. Bill, A. H. The Library in the Community in Proceedings of the Annual Conference. The Library Association, 1962 p. 63.

3. Ilomo, C. S. Paraprofessional Library Training in Tanzania: Mimeo.

4. Mchombu, K. I. Information studies programme for Tanzania: A proposal Loughborough, 1979. (unpublished M. A. dissertation).

5. Minder, T. and Whitten, B. Basic Undergraduate Education for Librarianship and Information Science. Journal of Edu for Libr. vol. 15 no. 4, 1975 p. 25-270.

6. Kotei, S. I.-A. Preparing Teaching Materials for Library Education in Ghana: A Historical
Account. Crit meeting, Arusha, 25-30 Nov. 1979.