Libraries for the people

Library week focuses attention on making librarians more proactive

“MUSIC is my downfall,” says Elizabeth Watson, shaking her head. She allows herself a smile. “Would you believe that I had to delay my flight because of the Soweto String Quartet? All I can tell you is that it was totally worth it.”

Currently preparing a list of early calypso music from Barbados in the Carribbean, Watson’s other major interest is in those quiet places—libraries.
Which makes one wonder how quiet her library would be. As president of the Commonwealth Library Association (Comla), she was in South Africa recently to meet and address members of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (Liasa), the newest member of the Commonwealth body.

She describes the Commonwealth as “a fascinating entity”, and sees it primarily for networking and sharing information. Comla also assists library associations with management strategies, provides opportunities for exchange and examines ways of integrating new curricula into the library. The issue of curriculum is an important one. “Many educators don’t see the relevance of libraries,” Watson says. “But the problem is on both sides of the fence. We tend to operate in isolation instead of co-operation. Librarians need to get more proactive.”

Watson concedes that “although there has been a certain amount of innovation in schools of library science, compared to 20 years ago, the core curriculum stills needs a radical shift. The focus is primarily on cataloguing, classification and management.

“What we need to happen in our training are ways to learn about team building, about client service. We need multi-dimensional skills. Librarianship should be regarded as a people-based service profession.

“My own professional growth really took off once I perceived myself as an ‘information facilitator’,” she says, “no longer book-bound or book-based.” Watson collects and dispenses many videos, music, photographs and CD-ROMs in her own library back in Barbados. She says “I ordered a DVD-player (digital versatile disk) recently, although no one had requested it. You’ve got to predict things. It puts me in a different mindset. Libraries are always reacting to things. We need to anticipate.”

Watson shrugs when she says, “There are also a lot of librarians who are unmotivated.”

The library that most impressed her on her trip seems to have been the little one built in a container at Botrivier, and managed by the Education Library Service. The library serves the school by day and the community after hours. “Another teacher I met at Grassy Park Primary volunteered to go on a librarianship course, and with the support of her principal, who knocked the walls down between two classes, has made a wonderful library.” Lack of motivation may be the partial result of librarians being regarded as extraneous to the curriculum, if not the school itself.

“Technology is touted as the panacea for all our ills, but illiteracy prevents use of the computer. Yes, information literacy is something we’re all interested in,” she says, “but you can only get literate with a book.” This is where libraries make such a vital contribution to the welfare of the nation.

“Libraries are changing,” Watson warns, “and if they aren’t, they ought to. They are no longer the safe little places that spinsters are attracted to. In fact, in Africa there are more male librarians than in the West. But if we don’t integrate business practices into our libraries, then we’ll lose what we’ve got. We’ll always have to compete for resources with sectors like health and housing, so the advantages of a library aren’t always that obvious. So we’ve got to prove that we can deliver. And it’s no use just reacting, because then we’ll forever be trying to catch up.”

Library Week is from May 15 to 26. Liasa’s theme is “Reach the World at your Library”. Check out your local library to see what’s going on

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, May 2, 2000.