Editorially Speaking

Dejection, with an Inspirational Ending.

When I am reading so‑called development literature I feel like a member of the flat‑earth society, or a UFO tracker. My views of national development, shared I think by most Third World librarians, are so dependably absent from the mainstream literature that I wonder whether I might represent some freakish sector of the population, an intellectual lunatic fringe. Convinced as I am that socio‑economic development will advance more rapidly as libraries are perfected, I am astonished—still astonished after several decades—to observe that national governments have rarely noticed this connection.

A recent dismal example of development literature without a library element is Social Development in Africa: Strategies, Policies and Programmes after the Lagos Plan (edited by Duri Mohammed; London: Hans Zell, 1991). The book the fourth in the series “African Social Challenges,” issued by the African Centre for Applied Research and Training in Social Development (ACARTSOD), an entity established in 1977 by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. ACARTSOD intends to identify and analyze problems of social development, or human resources development: it distinguishes this area of concern from purely economic development. In the net of social development we find the primary topics of health, education, housing, and welfare. The efforts and achievements of each black African nation with regard to those human‑centered problems are thoroughly detailed in the book, with a general conclusion by the editor that progress has been disappointing:

Why, we may now ask, has performance lagged behind the declarations? Part of the answer has been alluded to earlier, and concerns the fact that social development is invariably forced to yield priority to more immediate preoccupations with defense and security, regardless of whether the need for such preoccupations is real or assumed. But an important part of the answer also resides in a lack of commitment to social development, or the absence of what we have called political will (p. 249).

I would like to think that social development activities—surely requiring political will—also need the work of libraries, and that library presence has marked the more successful programs. But what documented role have libraries, libraries of any kind, played in the social development thinking of African governments? If this book is a fair indicator (and I know of no contradictory evidence) the answer is in the zero range. There are only two references to libraries in the book: in the section on Republic of Congo it is noted that “public libraries, newspapers and pamphlets on such topics as health, family life, employment, and so on, provide a continuum of reading materials and important practical information to enable the newly literate to consolidate their reading skills” (p. 59). This is a statement that brings me more curiosity than satisfaction, considering that there are only 10 public libraries in the Congo, with total collections of some 25,000 volumes, serving about 30,000 of the nation’s 1.7 million people. But at least it hints at some level of recognition for the library role in dealing with illiteracy. The other library mentioned in the book is a proposed “National Photolibrary” for Cameroon (not implemented).

Our vision, mine and yours, my fellow‑librarians, is clearly not shared by ACARTSOD. (Another book in their series is reviewed in this issue of TWL by Hans Panofsky; it offers a similar perspective on libraries.) We would place an infrastructure of school libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, and special libraries for industry and government at the center of development planning. We would justify this placement with a review of benefits that advanced countries have derived from a systematic flow of information to all segments of their populations, and from the positive contributions of library decision bases to the deliberations of more successful governments. We could select as an outstanding example of governmental attention to libraries the Norwegian national system (TWL 1‑2). We could mention the hundred million dollars spent by the U.S. government annually for public library programs, supplementing local governmental expenditures of (in 1991) $17.83 per capita. But—here is the difficulty—we could not prove that such policies and expenditures have in fact enhanced socio‑economic development. It would be even more daunting to prove that in a Third World situation libraries deserve a high priority in government planning.

So we are left with different visions, different ideas of what is true and right. Not many librarians are good at missionary work—the work that propagates visions. But this is work we have to master, if we are convinced that our vision is the true one. We must incorporate in the scope of each government’s political will the concept of a library and information service. That kind of governmental will can be expressed in three modes: policy statements, direct financial aid to libraries, and auxiliary legislation that benefits libraries (such as reduced postal rates, removal of import duties on books and printing materials, etc.).

In the next issue of TWL there will appear a variety of opinions and experiences bearing on this matter of vision. I have invited a cross‑section of world librarians to contribute their views and specific experiences on the question of library impact on government decision making, Already a number of encouraging examples of such governmental participation in the library vision have come in. Strong rationales have been voices by several librarians for further governmental participation. Any reader of TWL who wishes to join in this “symposium” is welcome to send me an account of any specific instance where a government decision was shaped to some degree by information from a library.

We are not at the end of our tether, like goats chained to the same patch of grass. We have the ideas, with the intellects necessary to shape them into acceptable programs. We should now gather appropriate facts, and organize data for bureaucratic consumption, and we should see that we are included in planning and policy. We have to stop talking among ourselves only, like the flat‑earth people, and we have to stop passing around fuzzy photos of unidentified flying objects. We must be missionaries with portfolios of reality.


Those who generously participated in the formation of the African Experts Database are advised that the project has been transferred, at the request of the IFLA Secretariat, from Rosary College to the IFLA Regional Office for Africa. University Library, POB 2006, Dakar, Senegal. Further activity regarding the project will be carried out by the Regional Office. I would like to thank everyone who sent their biographical information to me and expressed willingness to assist in this important work.


A pair of comments came in regarding my editorial in TWL 2‑1 deserve to be shared with readers. The point I wanted to make in the editorial was that Third World librarians seemed to concentrate their research too much on purely local situations. Shusma Gupta (Addis Ababa) justifiably notes that there is a need for locally‑centered research by librarians in developing countries. Without such gathering of facts about single institutions there is no foundation for more universal studies. The local studies are needed as parts of a large picture to be constructed later. I fully agree, and who could disagree? This is how histories are written, after all. It should only be added that the small studies need to be sturdy enough in methodology to support the weight of larger scale research; and that they should not replicate each other or work that has been done elsewhere. This issue is approached from a different angle—why journals fail in the Third World—by Sam I. Ifidon, in an article in this issue of TWL.

Grete Pasch (Austin, Texas) writes that Third World authors may be “more sophisticated than you suggest”; this is the case when they “talk about adapting to their own countries whatever they have learned about librarianship in other, more developed countries.” Indeed, there are fine studies of that kind, but not many. The idea suggested is excellent: that from the literature (or from direct experience) a librarian forms a conceptual framework for a type of library situation, and then examines a local situation in regard to that framework. Without the framework, however, we are left with unreliable building materials. There is more about this point in The Quiet Struggle, a book reviewed in this issue of TWL.

Reader opinions on this or any matter (whether from editorials or not) are invited and welcome.

G. A. M.

© 1993 Dominican University


“Editorially Speaking” Third World Libraries, Volume 3, Number 2 (Spring 1992).