Effects of the Civil War and the Role of Librarians in Post–War Reconstruction in Sierra Leone

John Abdul Kargbo

Abstract: This article is focused on the role of librarians in reconstruction in Sierra Leone. It outlines present and potential services which librarians can modify and offer to clientele amidst challenging circumstances. No library should underestimate the potential good that its resources can do. The right resources at the right time for the right individual can make a difference. Librarians, therefore, need to find ways in which their resources can be rightly placed and used in [the] post–war reconstruction era.


Sierra Leone covers an area of 72,000 square kilometers and is located along the west coast of Africa bordered by the Republic of Guinea to the north and north–east, by the Republic of Liberia on the south–east and on the south–west by the Atlantic Ocean and between longitude 10.5° and 13° W and latitude 7° and 10° N. The 2001 and 2002 UNDP Human Development Indexes ranked the country as the least developed in the world. The country is divided into three provinces plus the western area; each of the provinces is subdivided into districts. It has an estimated population of 4.6 million growing at an annual rate of 2.6 percent. There are over thirteen ethnic groups, with the largest being the Mende and Temne, while Krio is the lingua franca. The 1980s saw the country in rapid economic decline because of an inefficient trade system and great undiscipline in public sector management. From 1991 to 2001 the country was plunged into civil war which had devastating effects.

The Civil War and Its Effects

The decade–long war, which erupted on March 23rd 1991 east of the country, was a spillover from Charles Taylor's NPFL war in neighbouring Liberia. It arose as a result of unchecked corruption, bad governance, deprivation and the elimination of a vast majority of the population especially those in rural areas, the systematic dismantling of democratic institutions, social injustice and a culture of impunity in plundering state resources. It, however, ended with the disarmament of over 70,000 ex–combatants and the subsequent destruction of arms and ammunition in January 2002.

The war was traumatic for the people of Sierra Leone. Many people lost their lives; properties were destroyed, thousands displaced while others were forced to seek refugee status in the subregion. Coupled with its aroused objective of wiping out corruption, political and social ineptitude, underdevelopment and widespread poverty, was its attendant problem of human rights violation and the break down of law and order. Progressive voices were silenced by brute force, thus resulting in a culture of silence. [i]

". . . the literacy rate fell sharply below 32 percent, since there was no schooling in most parts of the country."

The civil war severely hit the socio–economic and political order. The economy remained precarious; agriculture was seriously undermined while prices of goods escalated and unemployment dominated the labour force. Poverty became widespread as living standards fell especially among the poorer segments of society. Against this backdrop, smuggling, especially of diamonds, remained pervasive and debilitating. [ii] Similarly, the country's physical and social infrastructure was affected. Road networks were destroyed and lack of maintenance resulted in a deteriorated power supply system. Human resources development was neglected while the literacy rate fell sharply below 32 percent, since there was no schooling in most parts of the country. In the civil service, the quality of service declined as the majority of the middle and lower level staff lacked adequate education and were preoccupied with second jobs due to poor salaries.

The public health sector was left in an appalling state: hospitals, health centres and clinics were looted and left unguided, understaffed and riddled with corruption. Health services were limited in many parts of the country and access depended entirely on how much one could afford to pay. So much devastating effects did the war cause that by 2003 the country was ranked 175th in the UNDP Human Development Index, with a life expectancy at birth of 34.5 years (2001), while the adult literacy percentage stood at 36 percent of those aged 15 and over (2001). [iii]

However, the euphoria that greeted the outbreak of the civil war could only be overcome with the creation of a need for a new set of priorities that would address such pressing issues as peace and reconciliation, health, education, infrastructural development, unemployment, agricultural inefficiency and an effective price control system. The provision of adequate, relevant, timely and accessible information is a pre–condition for development as well as the outcome of development. Post–war reconstruction cannot take place without the ideas and notions embedded in documents which form the basis of our informed knowledge. To this end libraries are crucial.

Information and Post–War Reconstruction

As the country is in the throes of post–war reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement, the desperate need for sustainable peace and security should not be overemphasized. The struggle and challenge for peace and its enhancement should be the responsibility of both the state and the citizenry, even though the former is expected to play a leading role in ensuring that all the necessary and requisite mechanisms for achieving peace are firmly in place.

In building peace all over the world and in Sierra Leone in particular, there is a need for accurate, reliable and helpful information. Information is an essential resource for development, human rights promotion, conflict resolution, peace and security. The availability of information is, at the level of governance, a major yardstick to measure accountability, transparency and predictability in a democratic society besides its impact on the economic sphere. Regular and smooth communication channels through which healthy and sound information flows can lay the foundation for the effective functioning of a democratic system. Information promotes and empowers citizens' participation in the democratic process; it maintains the Rule of Law and creates a viable outlet for the injection of public opinion. Information informs the policy–making process of political leadership, all of which nurtures the building of sustainable peace for the enhancement of the State. [iv]

No nation can progress significantly without the availability of sound information networks such as the media, libraries and information services, educational institutions at all levels, and vibrant and relevant professional bodies. The unique and inestimable role of these information agents for learning and information dissemination for the achievement of lasting peace should not be ignored in any society. Rather, they should be seen as crucial for effectively supporting research, advocacy, and awareness raising and as a means of attracting appropriate support from the international community. In particular, this will no doubt accelerate the speedier implementation of the provision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as essential requirement for building peace and reconciliation and post–war reconstruction as provided for in the 1999 Lome Accord in Sierra Leone.

"If the country's hardwon democracy is to be nurtured . . . librarians should collaboratively and assiduously work for lasting peace."

A state of peace involves the practice of democratic norms and values, justice, universal economic and social well– being. Sierra Leone is going through a period of transition with the implementation of innovative peace building and peace education activities. The rationale behind these is that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in their minds that the defence of peace must be constructed. Sierra Leoneans, therefore, must not only participate, but should also be proactive to enable the government and policy makers to adopt robust policies and strategies to finally attain a lasting peace. In this regard librarians and their respective institutions have a role to play in the dissemination of information. If the country's hard–won democracy is to be nurtured, if its socio–economic, educational and cultural sectors are to be developed, and if indeed Sierra Leoneans are to prevent another such deadly and meaningless conflict, librarians should collaboratively and assiduously work for lasting peace. They should pool their collective strengths, share the national burdens and labour symbiotically for progress.

Library Scene in the Country

Libraries are derivative agencies. They rise from particular needs within a society and their types and functions reflect the diversity within that society. In Sierra Leone, however, libraries form an important part of the country's information services. Their general aim is to collect and store whatever information that is likely required and to provide access to information as speedily as necessary and to arrange its supply in the most useful manner. The principal types are public, special, academic and school libraries.

The public library (The Sierra Leone Library Board), which also doubles as the country's national library, was established in 1959. Its functions as outlined in the 1958 Government White Paper on education development are as follows:

  1. To support and re–enforce programmes of adult and fundamental education.
  2. To provide effective service for children and young people including requisite services for schools.
  3. To provide much–needed information and reference services.
  4. To promote and stimulate reading for pleasure and recreation.
  5. To provide, where needed, adequate services for special groups, that is, women, language groups, the disadvantaged, etc.

In addition to the Lending, Reference, Cataloguing and Children's Departments at the headquarters library in Freetown, the library also runs a primary school service concerned mainly with the provision of books in areas where there are no libraries. There is a branch library in the capital city, Freetown, and regional libraries in the district headquarters towns although most of these have ceased operation due to the war.

"Experience has shown that a country's educational system could be as strong and as weak as the library resources that support that system."

Also, there is a wide variety of special libraries concentrating on limited subjects. Their organization falls into three major categories:

  1. Special libraries, which are associated with professional and learned societies, government departments and research centres. Some of these contain not less than a hundred and fifty textbooks plus a handful of periodicals as at the Sierra Leone Parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation libraries. At the extreme are those like at the Bank of Sierra Leone which have the best collection in their specialties
  2. Documentation centres such as the National Agricultural Documentation Centre (NADOC) and the Development Documentation Centre (DDC) at the Ministry of Economic Development and Planning which process the literature in their respective fields
  3. Information centres, which are principally associated with government departments and research and industrial establishments which provide specific information like Shell (Oil Refinery) library and the Gender and Research Documentation Centre (GRADOC). Access to most of these institutions is sometimes restricted.

Academic libraries are those libraries of the university and teacher training colleges which have the predominant function of servicing the teaching and research activities of their respective institutions. The size of these libraries, especially university libraries, exceeds over seventy–five thousand volumes excluding periodical publications. Their organization, subject coverage, acquisition policies and services reflect the responsibilities of their parent institutions. Facilities are limited to bona fide clientele, that is, faculty, students, researchers, scholars, and the administration while lending facilities to individual members of the public is exceptional.

School libraries give the children their first exposure to information resources and mould their information behaviour for the future. Their services are limited to a few textbook and magazine collections. In addition to pupils, they serve teachers and provide service to parents and the public as well.

Librarianship is a professional activity concerned with information—its acquisition, storage, organization or use and its supply to the inquirer. In Sierra Leone, however, the physical formats of the contents of libraries are mostly books. While books and journals represent the accumulated record of mankind's knowledge and information, librarians believe that change is the key–word in society. Supporting post–war reconstruction requires an environment rich in learning stimuli. Experience has shown that a country's educational system could be as strong and as weak as the library resources that support that system. The progress of education is dependent on the progress of the country's economy. This in turn depends on agriculture, technical, medical, commercial, and industrial change. Similarly, if a more sophisticated culture should emerge institutions such as libraries have a vital role to play. This was the rationale behind the Sierra Leone Association of Archivists, Librarians, and Information Scientists' (SLAALIS) hosting of their fourth annual conference on the theme "Information for peace building in the 21st century," on 21st–23rd March 2001. At the close of the conference it was resolved amongst other things that:

Librarians and Post–War Reconstruction

The refrains in the country today in conference, workshop and seminar halls and on radio and television discussion programmes are exclusively democracy, good governance, human rights and peace building. On these depends the attainment of sustainable peace for the survival of the nation. Similarly, a noticeable trend in the activities of librarians to date is the growing interest in the role their institutions should play in post–war reconstruction. This switch in professional direction is not so much a change in direction as a change in emphasis following on a reappraisal of traditional library goals and practices. But how much dedication have librarians to successfully transmit the required message for post–war reconstruction? Very little. True, indeed, that information is power and power belongs to the people; that information leads to understanding and this in turn generates sound judgment and decisionmaking; the benefit of this is productive action. Precisely these ingredients are missing in librarians' efforts in post–war reconstruction. Apart from the unavailability of adequate funds, librarians have not been able to identify the issues at stake, their target groups and the necessary channels to get on to their targets.

Sierra Leone is a poor country with a high level of illiteracy and limited high–tech communication facilities almost entirely confined to the capital city. Librarians, therefore, should start to identify and utilize the basics of information dissemination channels and agents the citizens are familiar with, such as religious occasions and gatherings where pastors, imams and other religious leaders are powerful information agents. Also trade fairs, periodic markets, sports, secret societies, court sessions and trade unions to cite a few, are indispensable to information dissemination.

Besides, the very concept of service in post–war reconstruction is in itself testimony to many divergent interpretations of the nature of library service. To date discrete groups of readers, such as ex–combatants, war amputees, women, children and young people, the traumatized, and the old, are emerging as targets for specially oriented library service. This brings librarians to adhere to the concept of outreach. In reaching out to these clientele groups, librarians will be operating in an area of activity already occupied by other public service departments, like Health, Education, Agriculture, Labour and Social Welfare, where efforts are being made commensurate with community demands. The old passive role of libraries as minority service will start to diminish. In its place, libraries would be viewed as part of a group of several institutions working within society whose overall aim is the improvement of social conditions and the development of human resources in post–war reconstruction. Librarians, therefore, should begin to hold talks, organize seminars, conferences and meetings to sensitize themselves about these new and challenging issues in order to gain a new direction if their services in post–war reconstruction are to be worthwhile.

Information has become such a vital raw material in the country today that the increasing expense of obtaining and exploiting it should stimulate librarians in post–war reconstruction. As professionals it is incumbent upon them to not only support and promote the rebuilding process; it is their responsibility, as purveyors of information, to ensure that they facilitate that process through provision of resources at their disposal to policy makers and citizens alike. They should regard themselves of being in a position where they can make an impact, but, at the same time, the onus of the level of impact is not solely theirs. Users should recognize their worth within their midst, especially since they are entrusted with the task of collecting, storing and disseminating such resources they may have in their charge.

Libraries are service institutions and librarians the world over are emphatic in making their materials available to the public. Librarians in Sierra Leone should realize that printed formats, which largely dominate their institutions, are not the only means of storing and disseminating information. Consequently they should have a choice to house and make available new media technologies, such as computers, CD–ROMs, facsimile, telephone, reprographic facilities and Internet services. Besides, they should integrate their institutions in large networks with information centres within and outside the country, using computers and tele–links for information processing and transmission for advanced information systems. In addition to their traditional services, they should offer customized services of relevant literature, provide bibliographic services, offer Selective Dissemination of Information and Current Awareness Services culling relevant material from current literature for the attention of their users, with minimal fees charged for their work.

It is the place of librarians to provide the public with the full range of services, book and non–book materials alike. Equally certain is their duty to add their expertise to the struggle against poverty, bad governance, democracy, inequality, crime, discrimination and illiteracy, especially as the UNDP Human Index has ranked the country as the least developed in the world for 2002. To this end librarians should bring their skills and training and begin to discover where they will not have effect. In other words, they must seek recognition by the public if their libraries are properly placed in the overall schemes of community service. They should, therefore, go out to the country and seek out the social problems of the day; they should identify those suffering from these problems and endeavour to bring them into contact with total community resources through the resources of their libraries.

"... the UNDP Human Index has ranked the country as the least developed in the world for 2002."

Librarians, especially those in the public library, should broaden their concepts of library service and build up relationships within their community. These should be built with existing groups like Non–Governmental Organizations, both local and international, community development workers, social workers, teachers, youth workers, medical teams, child guidance workers, trade unionists, Peace and Reconciliation Commission officials, Civil Society Movement and community lawyers. Librarians should encourage these groups by making their rooms and services available for seminars, conferences, workshops and community development meetings.

There is every justification for librarians to get involved in eradicating illiteracy in the country by providing space, materials and guidance in developing the reading skills of adult learners. It is a truism that the only significant activity of librarians, especially those in the public library, is book lending. As this view is becoming obsolete, provision should be made in the form of non–book materials like cassettes, films, tape and video recordings, reading kits and pamphlets. Not only should librarians strive to maintain a high degree of responsiveness to clientele seeking help but they should liaise with development committees, adult education committees and animators for voluntary service. These public–spirited people should be encouraged to use libraries as a means of introducing their profession, explaining what they hope to achieve and what they can meaningfully contribute to overall community education and development.

Librarians need to work with community agencies and professional persons to develop programmes that will promote good health principles. It helps to have librarians assist medical professionals in an analysis of ongoing programmes to see exactly the repercussions of such issues as drug abuse, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, maternity and HIV/AIDS. To be effective, librarians should develop an awareness and understanding of the range of health–related problems. Where possible, they should function as members of community health teams and should use their institutions as publicity centres for health programmes by displaying posters, advertisements, community radio programmes and media publications on health related issues in their libraries.

Sierra Leoneans are faced with broad issues like environmental pollution, democracy and good governance, peace and reconciliation, trauma healing and counseling, awareness raising, and agricultural development in post–war reconstruction. Librarians, therefore, should modify their provisions and services towards this goal. Libraries should not only be seen as places to study for examinations and leisure purposes, but also as information centres for key national issues as outlined above. These institutions, in addition to the provision of relevant materials, should also promote the aforementioned programmes by creating special collections, such as newspapers, flyers, and brochures, posters and radio/television interview documentaries. If possible, exhibitions and displays on these activities should be organized while personnel involved in these programmes should be allowed to hold talks, seminars, conferences, workshops, and meetings in the library. The provision of mobile library units could be essential; the public library can play a crucial role in this direction.

Librarians should also pay attention to the information needs of women, most of whom are less educated and have fewer employment opportunities and suffered the brunt of the civil war heavily. Currently, women in the country are advocating for their civic rights and the role they can play in post–war reconstruction. Hence, there is the formation of such groups as "50–50" which advocates for equal rights with men; they are also deeply involved in civil society movement activities and the campaign for good governance, the rights of the girl child and against female circumcision. Librarians can make their institutions access points for this vulnerable group by providing relevant and timely information as essential support for coping with life crises and the changing concerns of everyday life. Such information could come from books, magazines, guides, directories, newspapers, special reports, educational group programmes and audiovisual materials. Many women could be encouraged to use libraries as sources of information and for individual and group leisure. Librarians should provide well–designed programmes for specific information so as to bring women together with their peers to discuss topics of common concern like health–related issues, gardening, cooking and their civic rights.

However, the attainment of these programmes is centred on the availability of adequate funds and the determination and devotion of librarians to effectuate them. Librarians and their institutions do not function in isolation; they depend on their parent organizations and other funding agencies for financial support. Incidentally, the country is going through drastic financial constraints and under such circumstances libraries are not a priority. But with the limited funds availed to them, librarians should find ways of raising income like charging for services rendered, sales, sponsorship, support from friends of the library groups, and soliciting external financial support. In addition, they should be research oriented to be able to identify those services that society needs and can provide. Together, they should be able to market their provisions and services through the creation of public relations offices. Any service designed to reach out to people in post–war reconstruction should have high visibility, both inside and outside the library and those in charge of such services should use available avenues to promote their services.


It is apparent that the culture of librarianship in the country tends to be responsible only to itself. That is to say, the structure of its work, its commitment and loyalties are defined institutionally and professionally rather than in relationship to the community which is the focus of its work. It is a truism that the country's libraries are what they are because society has perceived them as negligible. But, aspirations to redirect librarianship from what it is can be a powerful lever for change, especially in post–war reconstruction. In order for librarians to attain their goals in this era they should provide quality service tailored to the immediate needs of their respective communities and sensitize people to the availability of such services. To this end, they should cooperate with government and other community development agencies to acquire legislation and financial support so that relevant and needed services for nation building could be provided. Only through this can librarians contribute meaningfully to post–war reconstruction.

End Notes

[i] Butscher, Mike. "Things fall apart." West African Magazine 3888 (March 23–29, 1992): 494–498.

[ii] Fofanah, Lansana. "A ding-dong fight." African Event, 9–4(1993): 11.

[iii] United Nations Human Development Programme. Human Development Report 2003. Human Development Indicators 2003: Sierra Leone. Online at http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2003/indicator/cty_f_SLE.html.

[iv] Wright, Professor E. H. Opening statement on the fourth annual SLAALIS conference, 21st–23rd March, 2001. British Council, Freetown (unpublished).

[v] SLAALIS. Resolutions of the fourth annual SLAALIS conference, 21st–23rd March, 2001. British Council, Freetown (unpublished).

About the Author

John Abdul Kargbo is at the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone.
Email: johnabdulkargbo [at] yahoo [dot] com

© 2002 John Abdul Kargbo


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