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CTA. 2003. Knowledge banks?. Spore 103. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47815
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore103.pdf
Libraries have long been a society's store of knowledge. No longer staffed just by bookworms and book lovers, and often demand-led, they are stepping firmly into the future.Ancient and modernStand, early one morning, at the side of a major road out...
Libraries have long been a society s store of knowledge. No longer staffed just by bookworms and book lovers, and often demand-led, they are stepping firmly into the future. Ancient and modern Stand, early one morning, at the side of a major road out of a regional town in almost any country and you will still probably see a library service van chugging out for its rounds to nearby villages for the day, set to return at sundown. Be it in Marondera in Zimbabwe, despite the woe of fuel shortages, or Tamale in Ghana (woe: a ticky motor), or Ljouwert in The Netherlands Friesland (woe: ice on the roads), the sight of the local bibliobus or mobile media centre has for decades been as familiar as the delivery lorries of soft drinks companies. In most villages today, you find one or more libraries, their modesty outshone by their ambition, their few dozen or so titles much coveted by their users. Such local initiatives occupy a special place in the constellation of world libraries, alongside some legendary libraries of much greater size. Yesterday goes fast forward In Alexandria, Egypt, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was opened in October 2002 on or near the site of the ancient one which aimed to serve humanity from 295 BC to the early 5th century AD. It shares some goals with the ancient library: a focal point for research, the advancement of knowledge and the open exchange of ideas, but not for storing every book in the world that will happen one day in a place called the Internet. In Timbuctou, Mali, work is progressing on preserving the 20,000 books, many scientific and agricultural and dating from the 13th century, that are stored in the Ahmed Baba Centre for Advanced Islamic Studies. Electronic copies will be available on the Internet. Just as these books recall the depth of Islamic scientific enlightenment, so the 8th century Stift in St Gallen, Switzerland, with its illuminated scientific books, is a reminder of how libraries run by monks served as a refuge for knowledge in Europe s Dark Ages. The hard part is choosing While most people in society value libraries, few value librarians. This centuries-old paradox is changing, though, as these information professionals throw off their meek image and start to assert themselves. From the International Federation of Library Associations to the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists, they are catching up with the task of becoming service-oriented, raising standards and seeking financial sustainability. And there is the second paradox: it is the current social process of democratisation, drawing inspiration from the library-stored records of the struggles of our predecessors, which threatens the very necessary science of the librarian. The spread of information and communication technologies has led many untrained people to believe that they can organise their information and find out about anything, anywhere, on the Internet. In theory, yes, but only if the information searcher knows how to search, if the information storer knows how to make that information accessible, and if the information user knows how to sort the relevant wheat from the irrelevant chaff. All this calls for more, and not less, use of the librarian s toolbox of classification systems, thesaurus and abstracting skills, and programming intelligent searches. With the growth of informal, community-based libraries, the challenge for information professionals is to share skills with the uninitiated, and for community and farmers organisations to develop them. After the initial excitement of plugging into world-wide networks comes the realisation that it is not just a question of access but, increasingly, of being able to select information. What global library? There are, then, many bridges to cross along the library s path into the future. But while we must worry about selection skills, let us cross the first bridge first. In a seductive presentation to the International Telecommunications Union in 1994, the then Vice-President of the United States of America, Al Gore, called for the creation of a world network, based on the Internet, of libraries and knowledge. Every child, every school, in every city, town or village on the planet was to have access to this network by the year 2000. In a world apparently fonder of proposals than practice, however, it was not to be. Such has been the information explosion on the congested Internet since Gore s speech that the text of his address that April morning has been submerged and is no longer easily accessible. And that global library still has to chug its way over the horizon. Where libraries go now We are standing, early one afternoon, on a major route out of Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon. Behind the lines of street food vendors, along the usual strip of telecentres, tailors and hairdressers (we just love the shack called www.josephine.coiffure.com!), a new kind of shop struts its stuff. The info-shop of the Centre de Documentation pour le Développement Rural (part of the Agridoc network, see Spore 101) is receiving a steady stream of visitors, young and old, women and men, stopping by on their way home, to market, from school, to work. They come to buy manuals and newspapers, or take a look at the exhibition on drying cacao beans, or browse in the library. 'It gets busiest here on the days they pay out pensions at the post office,' observes Pierre-Marcel Ebede, one of the front managers. 'Then the old men come to town with two things in mind: collect their money, and get some information for the village.' At the back of the clean, light shop is the library. About 3,000 books, practical how-to manuals, reference books, magazines, policy tracts the sort of mixture you find in Agridoc and Spore stand neatly, well thumbed, organised by the subject classification system known as Satis. Two students are absorbed in making notes from a pile of reference books. Ebede interjects: 'Actually, about one-fifth of the library s visitors are farmers with very specific questions.' The hard copy Move to a similar scene 3,000 kilometres away, in Kumasi, the Asanti capital, in central Ghana. There, the library of the British Council, nowadays more of a locally focused development centre than its name implies, is undergoing its daily occupation by information-hungry extension workers, farmers, entrepreneurs and students. In her office, manager Nina Chachu is channelling the endless floods of enquiries and incoming publications. 'I use Spore as a way to select my stock, and to get interesting Websites. Whilst I appreciate access to your Website and other electronic resources, I still think that in many developing countries hard copies are still essential, especially given the state of the telecommunications and power infrastructures.' Cross to one of the hills of Madagascar s capital Antananarivo, to the teeming building of the Centre d Information Technique et Economique de Madagascar (CITE), and climb up several stairways to their besieged library. It has become the information centre of preference for many Malagasy agri-entrepreneurs. For those who do not come to the city, CITE has 10 info-shops across the nation. In a busy street in the bustling neighbourhood of Ambohimiandrsoa in Antsirabé, the shop nestles near a butcher s shopfront displaying raw and processed meats, including the city s renowned sausages. Inside the info-shop, farmers and food processors from the nearby market can find tips on how to better produce and preserve such sausages, and other food products. In a world where information has become a commodity, it should not be surprising that many libraries have metamorphosed into such info-shops, led by the development agencies taking information to the people. [caption to illustrations] Even virtual libraries need gateways of bricks and mortar, tables and chairs, as in Nzérékoré, Guinea. When will UNESCO give special status to rural libraries, whether run by Spore readers or not, as it has to the knowledge centre of Chinguetti in Mauritania and the new Biblioteca Alexandrina?