Community Information Services in Malaysia:
A Study of Information–Seeking Behavior of Community–Based Organizations in the Klang Valley

Mumtaz Ali Anwar

floral device Abstract

Community Information Service (CIS) was introduced by public libraries in Western countries in response to an expressed need. Public library service in those countries was at that time almost universally available. There was, however, a need to focus on certain segments of the community which required problem–oriented information and assistance.

Public library services in Southeast Asia are not developed to the level where an active role is being played in the area of Community Information Service. Before public libraries in this region, which do not cover most of the population, venture into CIS, it is appropriate to find out if there is a real need for such a service.

The information–seeking behaviour of Community–Based Organizations (CBOs) in the Klang Valley (Malaysia) was studied using a mailed questionnaire. CBOs which participated in the survey are active in a variety of areas, but concentrate on problems faced by children and youth, health services, and physically and socially handicapped individuals.

They use a number of sources to obtain information, but the local public library is the least–used source. These CBOs would like the public library to “provide information,” “maintain a directory of organizations,” “assist CBOs in creating greater awareness,” and “refer individuals to organizations.”

It appears that organized CIS activity in public libraries in the Klang Valley is almost non–existent. This paper proposes a programme of action which includes making a professional commitment to CIS, setting up a CIS Working Group to study information needs and develop a prototype CIS model, developing guidelines for setting up CIS, and designing a staff development programme.

floral device Introduction

CIS is basically concerned with the provision of problem–oriented information. The idea of public libraries offering information on everyday societal problems is not new. However, public library involvement in this area in the U.K. and U.S. increased after World War II in the form of active cooperation with governmental and social agencies working with the disadvantaged segments of the community. During the 1960s and 1970s, a shift took place whereby libraries started offering CIS direct.

It may be worthwhile to look at two definitions of this concept in order to understand the focus and scope of CIS. Joseph Donohue, an American librarian, described CIS in 1976 as offering:

  1. Survival information, such as that related to health, housing, income, legal protection, economic opportunity, and political rights.
  2. Citizen action information, needed for effective participation as individuals or as members of a group in the social, political, legal, economic process [1].

On the other side of the Atlantic, CIS was defined in 1980 by a group appointed by the British Library Association as:

Services which assist individuals and groups with daily problem–solving and with participation in the democratic process. The services concentrate on the needs of those who do not have ready access to other sources of assistance and on the most important problems that people have to face, problems to do with their homes, their jobs, and their rights [2].

CIS was introduced by public libraries in the Western countries in response to an expressed need at a time when general library service was more or less universally available. There was, however, a need to focus on that section of the community which required problem–oriented information and assistance. It is interesting to note that this shift took place at about the same time when the profession started moving away from the traditional “functions” of public libraries towards defining their specific roles for specific communities.

It may be noted here that public library service in developing countries is still very limited. It covers, in general, small segments of the urban population and is minimal, if available at all, for the rural population. Also, service is still traditional, and the library profession has so far not seriously engaged in the “roles” debate. One can, therefore, safely speculate that interest in CIS in developing countries will be very minimal.

A perusal of professional literature will testify that the concept of CIS has quite matured in the West. A subject search of LISA Plus generated 619 citations. Out of these only 49 (7.9%) related to developing countries. Their geographical distribution is as follows:


Latin America48.2
Pacific Islands510.2


Of the 43 citations dealing with specific regions or countries, 19 (44.2%) deal with South Africa alone, whereas only one (2.3%) is on Southeast Asia. None of the Southeast Asian countries has an independent citation. The first of these 49 citations appeared in 1980. The five–yearly distribution of these citations is as follows:




It is comforting to know that the amount of literature produced during 1980–84 nearly doubled during 1985–89, and more than doubled again during 1990–94. This indicates that professional interest in CIS in developing countries is growing very fast. It must, however, be pointed out that this trend is valid only for Africa, and not for any other region. CIS literature on Africa is 61.2% of the total output. South Africa dominates in this area with a large share of 38.8% of all citations. Based on the literature reviewed above, it seems that CIS activity in developing countries, excepting South Africa, is minimal and is about a decade or so old.

floral device Current CIS Activity in Malaysia

Malaysia is treated partially in only one of the citations analyzed above. It appears, therefore, that CIS activity in Malaysian public libraries is minimal. A personal check with several state public libraries confirmed that no organized CIS activity was being undertaken by these libraries. Several libraries do offer bits and pieces of CIS (e.g., I & R services) which could form the basis for future planning.

In 1990, Katni Kibat developed a conceptual framework for a community information and referral service for the rural areas of Southeast Asia, and reviewed the current status of rural library services in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. He emphasized that library services in Malaysia were “too book–oriented” and mentioned a study which showed that the Hotline, Actionline, and Infoline (information services provided by three Malaysian newspapers) handled, on the average, 22 enquiries per day [3]. This proves that there is a need for a central agency which could provide reliable information on daily issues.

Katni presented a model [4] for rural areas called CAINS (Community Agricultural Information Networking System), to be housed in a branch library. Salient features of this model, which was based on a British one, are reproduced below.

  1. The users have been identified as small–scale farmers and household members.
  2. The information required by the farmers engaged in various agricultural activities is divided into categories:
    1. Agricultural activities based on small–scale farming
    2. Agricultural technology applicable to small–scale farming
    3. Marketing and its outlets
    4. General information

  3. The mechanics of information transfer, which focuses on several major activities, as follows:
    1. Resource files maintenance
    2. Information giving
    3. Referral
    4. Follow through
    5. Escort
    6. Outreach
    7. Advocacy

  4. Information Resources, which provides a comprehensive listing of all the relevant agencies, their functions, locations, officers in charge, addresses, branches, and publications (if any) available. These agencies were to have direct linkage with CAINS and be referred to at any particular time.

There is no evidence that this model was further discussed, debated, or adopted.

It seems that the CIS situation in Malaysia has not so far come under close scrutiny. The information needs of the rural population are simpler and easier to identify and satisfy than those of the urban society, which are highly complex and difficult to meet. Urban population in Malaysia is 51% at the present time and is growing much faster than the rural population [5]. Accelerated growth of urban communities has created a variety of problems, especially for the disadvantaged segments of the society. Public libraries have a legitimate role to play in alleviating these problems. It is, therefore, imperative that the information needs of the urban population be investigated as soon as possible.

floral device Present Study

Before urban public libraries in Malaysia venture into CIS, it is essential to study the survival information needs of both individuals and groups. A limited and exploratory study of one segment of the potential market will indicate general trends and will, it is to be hoped, act as a catalyst for further comprehensive studies. It was, therefore, decided to conduct a survey of Community–Based Organizations in order to find out:

  1. What types of CBOs are active in Malaysia?
  2. What sources of information do they use to support their activities?
  3. What role, if any, does the local public library play in supporting these activities?
  4. What role do the CBOs expect the local public library to play?

Luckily, a fairly comprehensive and up–to–date directory lists 327 non–profit welfare organizations active throughout the country [6]. Because of time constraints it was decided to limit the study to all 83 CBOs located in the Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur and cities surrounding it). This figure is 25.38% of the total population and is fairly representative.

A seven–item questionnaire was developed and dispatched by mail with a covering letter and self–addressed stamped envelope on 3 February 1996. By the end of March, 33 (39.7%) were received. One questionnaire was returned undelivered. If the covering letter and the questionnaire had been in the national language, the response rate would probably have been much higher. Even so, the response was very good. All of the 33 returns were usable.

floral device Analysis of Data

The respondents were asked to classify their organizations according to one or more of the 16 listed categories, and to add another if necessary. A number of categories were added, and they have been consolidated by the author into these three: Physically and Socially Handicapped, Population Related Issues, and Welfare. Table 1 presents the categories and the number of organizations for each, arranged in order of frequency.


Table 1:
(N33, Multiple Responses)
1.Children and Youth15
3.Physically and Socially Handicapped11
4.Senior Citizens7
5.Human Rights5
7.Women’s Issues5
11.Drug Abuse1
12.Population Related Issues1
13.Vocational Counseling1
14.Business and Industry0
18.Legal Aid0


It seems that these CBOs are more concerned with problems related to Children and Youth (45.5%), Health (36.4%), and the Physically and Socially Handicapped (33.3%), than with Drug Abuse, Population Related Issues, and Vocational Counseling (each only 3.0%). This attitude is understandable in view of the extensive official rehabilitation programmes for drug addicts, the current situation of full employment, and the fast–growing economy. It is, however, surprising that none of these 33 organizations targets issues related to consumers, the environment, and legal aid.

What sources of information do these organizations use to support their activities? Five possible sources were listed, and the respondents were asked to check as many as were applicable. The following table presents the responses in descending order of frequency.


Table 2:
(N33, Multiple Responses)
1.Government departments and agencies2884.8%
2.Media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines)2781.8%
3.Other related organizations2575.8%
4.Concerned citizens1751.5%
5.Local public library618.2%


The major sources of information for these organizations are the government, the media, and other CBOs. Only 18.2% of the respondents use the local public library as a source of information. One of these responses was qualified by adding, “not much.” Another way of looking at these responses is that five organizations use all the sources, 10 use four sources each, eight use three sources each, five use two sources each, and five use only one source each. How important is the local public library as a source of information? Out of the six CBOs that use the local public library, only one (16.7%) considers it “very important,” while the other five (83.3%) consider it as only “important.” In what way does the local public library assist these organizations? The responses of the six CBOs are tabulated below in order of frequency.


Table 3:
(N6, Multiple Responses)
1.Provides information relevant
to the needs of your organization
2.Maintains a directory of organizations
and groups active in the community
3.Assists in creating greater awareness of
your activities among the general public
by displaying your publicity materials
4.Loans information materials to your
5.Provides space for meeting and other
activities of your organization
6.Refers individuals who need assistance
to organizations such as yours


Considering these responses, the role of the local public library in CIS, which is already minimal in terms of all organizations in the study, is not significant at all.

The organizations which do not use the public library as a source of information were asked to indicate which activities they would like the public library to engage in to assist them. One respondent did not answer this question. The responses of 26 CBOs are presented below in order of frequency.


Table 4:
(N25, Multiple Responses)
1.Provide information relevant
to the needs of your organization
2.Assist in creating greater awareness
of your activities among the general public
by displaying your publicity materials
3.Maintain a directory of organizations
and groups active in the community
4.Refer individuals who need assistance
to organizations such as yours
5.Loan information materials to your
6.Provide space for meeting and other
activties of your organization


These responses clearly suggest the expected role of the public library in CIS. It is interesting to note that not all of the CBOs (including those which use the library) emphasize the role of lending information materials or providing space for their activities. They indicate a strong need to “provide information,” “assist in creating greater awareness,” “maintain a directory,” and “refer individuals ... to organizations.”

Why do these CBOs place less emphasis on borrowing materials and using library space for their activities? Twenty–three (69.7%) of them maintain their own resource collection or library, whereas 10 (30.3%) do not. These CBOs seem to have enough space for their activities. Out of the 23 CBOs which possess their own resource collections, eight (34.8%) allow the general public to use these resources (three with some restrictions), whereas 14 (60.1%) do not. One (4.3%) did not respond.

Would these organizations like the local public library to develop a strong Community Information Centre within the library? Thirty–two (97.0%) CBOs responded in the affirmative. One (3.0%) responded, “We are not yet ready for this.”

floral device Findings in the Study

The main focus of this survey was on the nature of CBOs, the sources of information they use, and support received from the local public library. These CBOs are active in 13 different areas (Table 1) but their prime concern is with problems faced by Children and Youth, Health Services, and the Physically and Socially Handicapped. They use a variety of sources of information (Table 2), but the local public library is the least–used source. They would like the public library to support their activities by focusing on “providing information,” “assisting in creating greater awareness,” “maintaining a directory,” and “referring individuals to organizations” (Table 4). There is very strong support for the public library to launch a community information service programme.

floral device Programme for Action

Based on what has been presented above, it is reasonable to conclude that CIS activity in Malaysia, and for that matter in Southeast Asia, is almost nonexistent. It is pertinent to ask ourselves whether we, as library professionals, are ready to initiate CIS in public libraries. One of the respondents, while answering the question on whether CBOs would like the local public library to develop such a service, said, “We are not yet ready for this.” Does this “we” refer to the CBOs, to the nation as a whole, or to the library profession? If the library profession is ready to take up this challenge, then it will have to adopt some tangible measures which should lead to the development of CIS in public libraries in the near future.

The following line of action, to be carried out over a period of several years, is proposed.

  1. Professional Commitment
  2. The first step should be taken by the P.P.M. (Library Association of Malaysia) to make and declare a strong commitment to CIS, and to proclaim its development as one of its primary goals.

  3. Creation of CIS Working Group
  4. P.P.M. should, in coordination with the national library, create a permanent CIS Working Group. This group should be assigned to work on the following programme:

    1. It should conduct a comprehensive study of the information needs of the society in the area of CIS. Studies conducted by Giggey [7] and Costa [8] can be used to develop the framework for such an undertaking.
    2. It should study the professional literature carefully and develop a prototype CIS model to suit local needs and conditions. The work reported by Nebo Legoabe [9], Bovay [10], Katni [11], and Garner and Haynes [12] will be of much help.
    3. It should develop prototype databases which could be of use to public libraries throughout the country. The paper of Roux and Pearce [13] can provide a basis for such work.
    4. It should consider the use of the information highway to provide CIS on a national level. The ideas discussed by Civille [14] and Skrzeszewski [15] will provide useful approaches.

  5. Develop Guidelines for Setting Up CIS

  6. Once the Working Group proposed above has done its work, P.P.M. should develop guidelines for setting up and providing CIS. Guidelines developed by the American [16] and the British [17] library associations can be used as models.

  7. Staff Development
  8. Staff development will be a crucial element for the success of the CIS programme. Continuing professional development programmes should be designed for those professionals who are interested in working in this area. The present curriculum of library and information science programmes should be reviewed to accommodate a CIS component. Staff development should also include a package on how to work with other professionals, e.g., social workers, who are involved in community development activities.

  9. Evaluation Mechanism
  10. Finally, the profession should design a continuous evaluation mechanism to review the progress of the CIS programme and take corrective measures if and when deemed necessary.

What has been proposed above is a very tall order. A beginning, however, must be made. If professional concern and commitment are there, other elements will follow.

floral device Note

This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Tenth Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians, 21–25 May 1996, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

floral device References

[1] Joseph C. Donohue, “Community Information Services: A Proposed Definition,” In Information Politics: Proceedings of the 39th ASIS Annual Meeting (Vol. 13, Part 2, Fiche 9), as quoted in Allan Bunch, The Basics of Community Information Work, 2nd ed. (London: The Library Association, 1993) p. viii.

[2] The Library Association, Working Party on Community Information, Community Information: What Libraries Can Do: A Consultation Document (London: The Library Association, 1980) p. 12.

[3] Katni K. Kibat, “Community Information and Referral Services for Rural Areas of Southeast Asia: A Conceptual Framework,” Third World Libraries 1–2 (1990–91): 38, at

[4] Ibid., pp. 39–40.

[5] Information Malaysia Yearbook 1995 (Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing, 1995), p. 54.

[6] Malaysia, Social Welfare Department, Non–Profit Welfare Organizations in Malaysia: Names and Addresses (Kuala Lumpur: Social Welfare Department, 1994).

[7] S.E. Giggey, “Research into Community Based Organizations’ Information Needs in Swaziland,” COMLA Newsletter 82 (1993): 10–13.

[8] M.N. de Morais Costa, “The Public Library as a Community Information Centre: A Project in the Municipality of Santa Rita, Brazil,” Revista de Escola de Biblioteconomia de UFMG 13–2 (1984):179–95.

[9] F. Nebo Legoabe, “The Design of Community Information Centre for Mamelodi.” Unpublished report. Vista University, Mamelodi Campus, 1992. (PB X03, Mamelodi 0101, South Africa).

[10] Sue Bovay, “Community Information Service in the Monroe County Library System: A Model,” Drexel Library Quarterly 12–1/2 (1976): 93–106.

[11] Katni, “Community Information.”

[12] Marilyn Garner and Karen S. Haynes, “Statewide Information and Referral: A Conceptual Model,” Information and Referral 2–2/3 (1980): 22–35.

[13] P.J.A. Roux and R.J. Pearce, “Prototyping a Resource File of Human Services Agencies in an Urban South African Community: A Case Study,” South African Journal of Library and Information Science 59–1 (1991): 1–9.

[14] Richard Civille, “A National Strategy for Civic Networking: A Vision of Change,” Internet Research 3–4 (1993): 2–21.

[15] S. Skrzeszewski. “Study to examine public libraries and community information centres as public access points to the information highway,” Toronto: Ontario Library Association Coalition for Public Information, 1995. (Research in progress).

[16] American Library Association, Public Library Association, Community Information Section, “Guidelines for Establishing Community Information and Referral Service in Public Libraries,” Public Libraries 25–1 (1986): 11–15.

[17] The Library Association, Working Party on Community Information, Community Information: What Libraries Can Do: A Consultation Document (London: The Library Association, 1980).

floral device About the Author

Muntaz Ali Anwar is Professor, Dept. of Library and Information Science, International Islamic University, Selangor, Malaysia.

©1996 Muntaz Ali Anwar.