Since their inception, libraries have maintained their sovereignty as the main repository of knowledge in society. Today, new information technologies featuring computers, telecommunications, and optical media are seriously affecting libraries. ICTS, for short, is used here to include hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment. It has been an indispensable tool and has a great impact globally. Of all the diversified technologies of our time, the advancement in information and communication technology has undoubtedly had and continues to have a significant influence on the global economy. It allows you to collect, process and transmit information at breathtaking speed and at low cost. Increase productivity, improve quality and efficiency in all types of services.
The impact is visible in several areas such as healthcare, finance and banking, transport, publishing and management. Information technology is already changing our lives in a variety of ways. It facilitates communication regardless of distance, relieves a great deal of hard, dirty and repetitive work, and gives control over the natural environment. As Knopp (1984) realistically observes, the library is currently at a crossroads and must try to find a useful balance between traditional library functions and methods and new challenges. The African university librarian will pay a tremendous price by preserving traditional services and embracing technological advances. Nonetheless, it must be paid if the African librarian is to intervene or remain the mediator between the user and the information. It is the librarian’s job to ensure that the resulting use of computers, telecommunications, and any other appropriate technologies contribute cost-effectively to the needs of scholarship and research because “librarians have the experience of acquiring materials in a variety of formats and make them accessible for a variety of purposes” (Simpson, 1984, p.38).
THE LIBRARIAN OF THE AFRICAN UNIVERSITY
Two programs of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC) and Universal Availability of Publications (UAP), have contributed immensely to broad and easy access to printed information. Something similar can be done to provide the same access to electronic information. African university librarians could take the legacy of these programs and transpose them into a new vision for an electronic future.
At the second meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on University Libraries held in Accra in 1999, the need to prioritize improvement and issues of access to new information technologies was underlined. It has been underlined that university management structures must recognize the centrality of the library as a pedagogical tool (AAU, 199). Continuing education programs for African libraries to facilitate retraining, which caters to the dynamic information environment, must be advocated because there must be a concentration in technology education regardless of the area of library science in which one specializes. It stands to reason that “librarians need to know how to access and filter what is on the web” (Rosenberg, 2000, p.15).
IMPLICATIONS OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES
One school of thought strongly argues that the benefits of information technology are double-edged. Technology also seems to have increased rather than diminished African university libraries’ problems in providing information. Special equipment is required to access and retrieve information that arrives electronically. There are storage and conservation issues even when the equipment is available. Technology can only be installed and used if it is adequately and soundly funded. It is incontrovertible that the most important factor to seriously investigate is the economic side of the matter. In Sierra Leone, the university administration initially allocated approximately six percent centrally to college and institute libraries. Central funding, however, has been replaced by collegiate funding which is inadequate (Rosenberg, 1997). Management must recognize and sustain the centrality of its academic nerve center and ensure the sustainability of library programs and services.
The development of systems for organizing knowledge and information retrieval has reached a plateau, with names of key system features now being properly tried and tested. However, news about fundamental concepts, the use of reversed files to facilitate recovery, and the context in which many systems operate need constant review. Researchers are pursuing a variety of approaches in their search for better systems, categorized as follows:
1. System design, where the overall goal is to optimize system efficiency and effectiveness, including storage and its retrieval speed; AND
2. The human-computer interface (human factor) where the goal is to improve the quality of interaction between the user and the computer so that the former can be more successful in extracting what it needs.
THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT
National governments should give more importance to African university libraries in the area of infrastructure provision and funding. It is obvious that the Sierra Leone government, like other African governments, is looking for ways and means to reduce the amount of money spent on tertiary education (Duah, 1999). The New Education Policy for Sierra Leone (1995) undertakes, in principle, to “establish, equip, manage, maintain and develop an effective library service in the capital, cities and provisional districts” (p.41). Until such a policy is implemented, the library system would go Rip Van Wrinkle. Information is a factor of production. As a result, institutions that acquire, organize, store, conserve in a way that facilitates its retrieval and provides it to potential users deserve government support and attention. For example, the Ministry of Education in Ghana has launched several initiatives to improve both computerization and Internet access for educational institutions. The EMIS (Educational Management Information System) project was launched in October 1997 to provide Internet access/services to education administrators across the country.
Despite the new technology, the mission of the library will remain unchanged even if the way librarians fulfill this mission changes. African librarians have to strike a very useful balance between conventional/traditional library functions and new challenging methods to maintain their leadership role in the information age. The university library should consider using an automated system that will be accessible to students, faculty, and the general public to support the university’s teaching, learning, research, and extension services. This system can be worked out through the collaborative efforts of all concerned.
AAU News (1999). The role of university libraries in Africa, 5(2), pp.1-12.
Duah, V. (1999). The AAU and higher education in the next millennium. AAU bulletin, 5(2), pp.1-2.
Knopp, W. (1984). The library in the technological world: problems and questions proposed by the client. IFLA Magazine, 10(1), pp.57-62.
New education policy for Sierra Leone. Freetown: Department of Education.
Rosenberg, D. (1997). University libraries in Africa. London: International African Institute.
___________ (2000). Internet training for libraries. INASP newsletter, 15, p.15.
Simpson, D. (1984). Advanced technology: the secondary impact on libraries and users. IFLA Journal, 10(1), pp.43-48.