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Developing libraries

Historically, libraries were places in which recorded knowledge was stored.

The ancient library of Alexandria is a classic example of a complete repository of knowledge. Its destruction by over-zealous Christians led to the ruin of scientific thinking in the West for a thousand years.

In Sri Lanka, libraries still function as mere repositories of books. While this is of course an essential requirement - especially given the low rate of book ownership in Sri Lanka - a library is far more than that.

A modern library is a complete system for providing information, providing the public with the means for accessing information or with information about how the required information may be acquired.

On-line catalogues

It is electronic as well as book-based, and is plugged into the internet and into book-sharing on-line catalogues, which enable the location of resources unavailable in situ.

It has been recognised in the richer nations that libraries play a central role in their progress. Governments in these countries have invested funds and resources in libraries to facilitate education and the management of knowledge, which they recognise is pivotal to advancement.

Unfortunately, libraries in this country are financially deprived and are poor professionally. In terms of modernisation they are farther behind libraries in the first world than they should be given Sri Lanka's status as a middle-income country.

Most of the libraries are not automated but some do have a few computers. These are not properly used. Cataloguing systems are those dating back to the early 20th century.

Legal status

Most of the librarians are only GCE (O/A level) qualified. Only a few have followed at least the Sri Lanka Library Association (SLLA) course. The National Library and Documentation Services Board (NLDSB) carries out ad hoc training, but no 'need analysis' is done for any of the training.

Public libraries come under the local government authorities. They do not have legal status, so decisions as to opening or closing them are solely in the hands of local authorities concerned.

The staffs are professionally frustrated because the local government authorities dictate terms in all areas.

School libraries are under the Education Ministry. Some time ago, a special unit, called the School Library Unit and headed by a Director, was created in the Ministry, to oversee these libraries.

Information technology

Several years ago the World Bank, under its 'General Education Project', created the National Institute of Library & Information Sciences (NILIS). This was affiliated to the Colombo University and trained teacher-librarians. At present NILIS conducts various courses for teacher-librarians.

However, the teacher-librarian concept has not become an intrinsic part of the system. School Principals are not enthusiastic about it and the teachers appointed as teacher-librarians are not necessarily the best or even correct persons for the task. Inter-library co-operation in the Public and School library sectors is lacking. Concepts which are quite commonplace in other countries, such as almost immediate inter-library loans, are non-existent.

However, the universities have created a 'Library Consortium', which might be considered a prototype that could be developed into a nation-wide inter-library co-operation network.

Automation of libraries has commenced. However, since most of the libraries are small school and public libraries, it is considered a long-term goal.

There is no proper policy on Information Technology.

Most libraries in Sri Lanka use the outdated ISIS freeware, which is a simple cataloguing programme and which is inadequate for a modern library. A proper library cataloguing system costs about Rs 4 million. However, a simpler and far cheaper system may be developed using local know-how.

The School Library should function as the information centre for the school, also carrying out the Information Technology function. Cheap computers may be provided for the school libraries through the use of 'thin client' computers together with a remote server.

Provide employment

A Public Library Board or some similar organization should be set up to oversee the Public Libraries; if necessary Boards could be set up on a Provincial basis. Control over the functioning of individual libraries could be devolved library committees, with representation from the local authorities, but would essentially remain with the Board.

In schools, the control function should continue to be exercised by the Education Ministry, but with a structure similar to that for Public Libraries. A survey needs to be done on all the Public Libraries, to find out whether the existing arrangements for book or equipment acquisition are sufficient. Systems analysis should be done to see how existing arrangements could be improved upon.

An all-island project to catalogue and make available online the holdings of all public libraries should be carried out. Schools could also then make use of these resources.

English knowledge will of course be the main problem to address, but there do exist ways of cataloguing using the QWERTY keyboard into Sinhala as well as Tamil. This project would provide employment and training to a large group of people as well.

The University Librarians Association of Sri Lanka has become a dynamic organization, which has disseminated knowledge of such fields as e-information and Library Marketing. This organization, as well as the SLLA, should be integrated into the planning process for libraries.

 

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