National Library and Information Policies for Africa

Anaba A. Alemna

floral device Abstract

African governments have been slow to act in creating library and information policies (as per the UNESCO NATIS pattern). A number of proposed plans are examined, and common elements are described. The prognosis for NATIS plans in Africa is not favorable, however, and in fact most of the thinking about such plans appears to be limited to librarians. Obstacles to national planning include lack of awareness by government officials of the utility of information, the poor image of the library profession, and the low quality of national library collections. Some proposals are offered to ameliorate the situation, one of which is that librarians themselves–as promoters of information–have to show themselves as well informed and capable of useful research into information problems.

floral device Background

A national information policy is defined by Sengupta as “a set of decision taken by a government, through appropriate laws and regulations, to orient the harmonious development of information transfer activities, in order to satisfy the information needs of a country.” [1] The aims of a national information policy are to identify the information requirements of the country, and to ensure that they are satisfied as fully, promptly, cheaply, and conveniently as possible(

During the last two decades, UNESCO has been involved in laying down procedures and guidelines for the development of information infrastructure in different nations of the world. The NATIS report of 1976 justified the need for information policy on the grounds that exponential growth of information sources necessitates that access be ensured. Furthermore, users must recognize the value of this information and discover what they need. The report stressed the importance of cooperation and coordination among different organization involved in information handling. It realized the importance of assessing the national situation and developing an information plan closely linked to the needs of the users, thus emphasized the education of potential users along with training of librarians and other information workers [2].

Information specialists must be as much concerned with the development process as sociologists, economists, and development planners. Information services should give priority to users closely related to the development proces: rather than trying to address the whole population. The economic goals of; country must be examined and the individuals who work to realize them, am their specific requirements, must be identified. A plan should be prepared tc justify how information services can make a contribution to socioeconomic development.

An important first step is building an awareness and respect for information Due to differences in socioeconomic conditions, it is expected that the( UNESCO guidelines will be adapted for use at different levels of economic and social development and in various cultural contexts. For a policy to be successful, it has to be linked to a pragmatic plan of action.

floral device Developing Countries

An examination of proposed information policy plans of developing countries such as India [3], Zambia [4], and Malaysia [5] reveals several common elements, although the local conditions vary from country to country. Mohammed [6] has identified the major elements of a national information policy as it could be applied to Malaysia, and his classification can be used to discuss the elements of information policies for the developing countries in general:

  1. Collection and generation of information resources. Developing countries should strengthen their local resources, especially in their local languages, so that they are not totally dependent on outside sources of information. Local sources are important because they tend to be highly relevant to national priorities.
  2. Documentation of information sources. To make effective use of what is available, the developing countries must strengthen their national information access tools. This requires a commitment of funds, trained human resources, coordination among different information and documentation centers, and effective communication systems.
  3. Impact of new technologies. Governments must be supportive in the introduction of technology. This includes creating an awareness of capabilities and providing training opportunities.
  4. Personnel planning. The information policy must provide for training needs of librarians and other information professionals, taking into account national characteristics and priorities. The policy should address the problem of how to increase the public’s respect for information professionals in general.
  5. Organizational infrastructure for library and information systems. A proper organizational structure that defines roles and functions must be established to ensure systematic and efficient implementation of policies. This structure will vary from country to country, depending on the political environment. The policy should be made compatible with other national policies relating to communications, culture, and education.

floral device The Situation in Africa

There was considerable excitement and enthusiasm in African countries when the concept of NATIS was promoted by UNESCO. Various committees were set up and seminars and discussions held in various African countries on the applicability of the concept. Although various issues and problems relevant to the formulation of a national policy for library and information services have been identified, there have been few achievements in this vein.

Among the recommendations of the Organisation of African Unity’s (O.A.U.) Africa Priority Programme for Economic Recovery (APER), adopted in July 1985, is that the greatest emphasis should be placed on the use of information in economic and resource management, and on the promotion of science and technology [7]. It is unfortunate to note, however, that even in countries likeGhana, Nigeria, and Kenya, which have longer histories of library development, and which are influential members of the O.A.U., this proposal has not been carried out. In Ghana, except for the establishment of the Ghana National Scientific and Information Network (GHASTINET), there have been no serious developments. A recent National Conference on Information Policy held in Accra even inadvertently excluded members of the library profession. The main emphasis on the conference was telecommunications and broadcasting, ignoring other elements of information such as library services. Protests and appeals from members of the Ghana Library Association fell on deaf ears. In a similar situation, but for the singular effort of a determined librarian who happened to be a member of the Consultative Assembly, the Ghana Library Association would have been denied a place on the National Information Commission of the new Ghana constitution. The Commission has now been established, and it is hoped that work will soon begin on an information policy.

Similar scenarios can be seen across Africa when one goes through library literature on Africa. Nigerian librarians in particular have been very vocal regarding an information policy and the professional recognition of librarians in the country. Commenting on the situation in Zambia, Kaniki laments, “Lack of a library bill in Zambia has made librarianship and its members hopeless and powerless.” [8] The information sector in Africa generally suffers from insufficient financial resources and qualified personnel. It is also characterized by widely scattered documentary resources and considerable duplication of effort due to poor coordination among existing systems and services. It is interesting to note that even in the very few African countries, such as Zambia, that have drawn up comprehensive library and information policies, no evidence exists that any action has been taken to implement them.

The following is a summary of what Sturges and Neil [9] see as obstacles to effective library and information policies in Africa:

  1. Government officials, planners, and decision–makers exhibit an extremely low level of awareness in regard to the utility of information, and remain stubbornly unconvinced of its efficacy as a factor in the development process.
  2. Very few comprehensive national information plans and policies have ever been prepared; even fewer have been elevated to the extent that they have become an integral part of a national development plan, or an essential factor in the planning process.
  3. The library profession is generally poorly perceived, and the inability of librarians to prepare the necessary project plans that could give effect to NATIS only reinforces this negative perception. Just as librarians bemoan the fact that planners and decision–makers show a persistent ignorance of the importance of information as it relates to development, so planners and decision–makers complain that librarians know even less about development issues.
  4. Existing national information services and systems are usually based on a single, under–resourced, understaffed, and underdeveloped “focal point”(such as the Ghana Library Board). The services offered are rarely matched to actual user needs, and the focal points have never succeeded in gaining a significant niche in the development process at a national level.
  5. The information collections upon which these national services and systems are based are marginal and inadequate, and over–emphasize biblio graphical and referral information at the expense of resources that could provide quick, accurate, and direct answers. The majority of these so–called national collections have so many problems that they are unable to provide the solutions that Africa’s planners and decision–makers require.
  6. Studies and consultancies conducted by many of the international and multinational organizations are of dubious value. Despite the fact that they are attempting to promote the idea that information is an essential ingredient of planning and decision–making, their own reports are virtually devoid of facts and figures upon which informed decisions could be made.

floral device What Next?

The questions to ask now are: Where do we go from here? Any light at the end of the tunnel? I believe there is some hope, considering the amount of pressure being put on governments by the library associations in Africa. As is the case with other problems in Africa, attempts must be made to find solutions. These solutions may not be immediate, but attempts must be made anyway. As a first step, it is suggested that powerful national committees be established by the library associations (in those African countries that have not already done so) to promote a network of public, academic, and special libraries, and take responsibility for policy–making and the implementation of development plans and programs through different national and regional agencies. These committees should include members from related government ministries and organizations such as Education, Information, Culture, and Science and Technology.

Second, a well–coordinated network should be established by various governments to prevent duplication, make information easily accessible and available, compile and update comprehensive union catalogs, ensure bibliographic control of documents, and maintain compatibility between national standards and the international system. The ability to provide better information depends on more than the infrastructure. African countries should take steps to mobilize and upgrade the existing library and information systems and services, and initiate new programs relevant to their national needs. The education and training programs in library and information studies should be improved. These programs are not only deficient in terms of their content, but also in their ability to recruit suitable faculty and students. They are also clearly failing to provide the appropriate preparation to enable the library profession to communicate with planners, decision–makers, and high–level government officials.

There are so many groups concerned with information policies in Africa. An overall approach therefore becomes a bit complex. In the various countries, individual groups of information professionals should come together to develop policies for their information management systems. Policies should address information technology, especially in regard to the standardization of technology purchases. Equipment should only be purchased when there are local repair facilities, and also when spare parts can easily be purchased locally. Policy–makers in Africa need to be well informed about the need for an information policy. Information professionals should create an informed climate through excellent public relations and media attention within which the issues can be considered. We have to raise the general level of awareness about the role, nature, and functions of information within society.

To inform others, however, information specialists in Africa need to be well–informed. We need to undertake systematic research into information issues in order to draw attention to our problems. Unfortunately, this is an area in which African librarians have lagged behind. A study by Aina [10] showed that a majority of publications on library and information issues in Africa were from Nigeria. He expressed surprise that even in countries like Ghana and Kenya, which have long–established library and information systems, very little research is being done. African library and information personnel need to exchange information and experience, and promote discussion and debate. The international dimension is particularly important, as we have so much to learn from one another.

The final goal of a library and information policy may logically be the establishment of a national library and information system, which will assume the form of an overall structure encompassing all services involved in the provision of information for all sectors of the community, and for all categories of users.

floral device Conclusion

The formulation of a national policy for library and information services is a high–priority task, in view of the critical importance of the information sector as a national resource. Although UNESCO has provided guidelines on this, it would seem prudent for African countries to adapt these guidelines to their local environment, while drawing examples from models from the developed world, as most of the successful libraries are in the developed world.

The Conference of African Librarians, held at Accra, Ghana, 22–26 September 1975, recommended among other things that “for NATIS to operate in practice, national information systems commissions should be established in all African countries to plan its objectives.” It has been almost two decades since this proposal was made, and very little action has been taken. African countries are still handicapped by the lack of coordination at the national level between archives, library, and documentation services.

floral device References

1. N. Sengupta, “Planning of a National Information System,” International Library Review 19–1 (1987): 82.

2. UNESCO, NATIS Guidelines: National Information Policy(Paris: UNESCO, 1976).

3. CONPOLIS, “National Policy on Library and Information System,” Herald of Library Science 26–3/4 (1987): 258.

4. M.C. Lundu and C.B.M. Lungu, National Information Policy for Zambia (Paris: UNESCO, 1988).

5. O. Mohammed, “National Policy for Library and Information Services,rldquo; International Library Review 21–1 (1989): 122.

6. O. Mohammed, Ibid.

7. A.B. Camara, “Implementing an Information Strategy for Sub–Saharan Africa: the First Stages,” Information Development 6–1 (1990): 55.

8. A. Kaniki, “Library Education and Training and the Professionalisation of Librarianship in Zambia,” African Journal of Library, Archives & Information Science 2–2 (1992): 115.

9. P. Sturges and R. Neil, The Quiet Struggle: Libraries and Information for Africa (London: Mansell, 1990), pp. 107–109.

10. L.O. Aina, “Directions of the Information Professions in Africa as Reflected in the Literature,” International Library Review 23–4 (1991): 369.

floral device About the Author

Anaba A. Alemna is Associate Professor, Department of Library and Archival Studies, University of Ghana. He has an M.A.L.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His publications include three books and about 50 articles. Dr. Alemna’s professional interests include management, information technology, and library education.

© 1995 Anaba A. Alemna.


Alemna, Anaba A., “ National library and Information Policies for Africa” Third World Libraries, Volume 6, Number 1 (Fall 1995).