Open Journal Systems

Editorial Speaking Editorially Speaking

Does research have the right priorities?

A journal editor sees the results of research in a privileged way, having access not only to the writings of experienced scholars, but also to the unpolished efforts of newer authors. From my vantage point at TWL I am able to observe something of the process of maturation in research carried out in the developing countries. Both the established scholar and the neophyte tell me, through the articles they kindly send to me for publication, what they think ought to be known about librarianship in their countries. They also demonstrate what they believe to be the appropriate methodologies for gaining that knowledge. After two years of receiving hundreds of proposed articles, I have begun to shape some generalizations and some questions. Perhaps it will be useful to share some of this meditation with my colleagues who write in, and about, the libraries of the Third World.

One realization that has come to me gradually is a troubling one. Library authors in developing countries write almost exclusively from a local point of view, about a local situation. Nearly all the hundred articles that have come to TWL from Nigeria, for example, are about Nigerian library problems, usually studied in a single library. To verify this impression that Third World research is nationally introspective, I looked at the citations in Library and Information Science Abstracts since 1980 — a decade of published research — and found the same pattern. For example, from 1980 to 1989 LISA had 45 citations by Kenyan authors, each of them dealing with a Kenyan situation. Indeed in every nation this is what I find.

Well, most librarian–authors in Europe and America also write about their own countries — but not all the time. Many of the scholarly publications in the industrialized nations pertain to topics with no special geographic base (although they may assume a professional base, a publishing⁄ communications⁄ technical infrastructure). Every year we have a large number of writings on administration and management, architecture, automation and information systems, children’s literature, collection development, library planning, preservation, reference services, research methodology, science technology literature, standards for various types of libraries, use and user studies. Of course the topic of international and comparative librarianship itself is one that is the least geographically bounded, and it is a topic that appears to belong almost exclusively to writers in the advanced countries.

If this is true, how does it happen? And is it something to worry about? Probably it happens because library scholars in the Third World are touched by urgent problems of great immediacy, and want to offer their perceptions and solutions quickly. But a condition of their work is that they will probably have little access to earlier research and thought about those problems — since there are almost no substantial libraries available to them that contain the documents of European–American research in librarianship. So the writing tends to become centered on what the author has in the immediate environment. And yes it is something to worry about, because local studies made without benefit of previous public knowledge are not subject to generalization, and thus do not command interest in the wider research arena.

Having said all this I think I am obliged to offer some suggestions to improve the situation. It would be, I believe, useful for those librarians in developing countries who are inclined toward theory and research to focus on large issues, issues that carry beyond the borders of one country or even of one continent. Although the effort will often be considerable, it is useful also for authors to seek copies of earlier publications; such copies can usually be secured via correspondence with library school professors. (I have sent background materials to numerous prospective authors, and will be pleased to do the same for others on request.) In this context it is satisfying to see in the first issue of African Journal of Library, Archives & Information Science (discussed in Further Reading) many footnote references to non–African literature.

One subject that calls for priority treatment in the Third World, and that has had almost no treatment at all, is the relationship between library development and national socioeconomic development. Many who read this statement will think they have seen the idea somewhere before: yes, it is found in the subtitle of this very journal. Our conviction as professionals that our libraries make a difference in society is not one that has been demonstrated objectively. A valuable beginning has been made in a few studies that concern the role played by libraries in the success of industrial firms. But the grand role of libraries in helping nations to advance — this has not been well explored. TWL, and I believe other journals as well, would welcome such investigations. To be convincing, research of this kind needs to have statistical foundations, and it needs to be comparative.

Let me name just one other topic that cries for research: library education. Here I am thinking beyond the descriptive accounts of single library education programs (interesting as those may be), to broader views of qualitative aspects. How well do library schools in Africa, Asia, and Latin America serve the needs of the profession? How is recruiting done, how is the curriculum established and revised? Is the practice in the Third World similar to practice elsewhere — and if not, are the differences advantageous to Third World library goals? Are there national standards for library education programs, based on the IFLA standards for library schools? Looking again at LISA 1980–1989, I see three articles about the new Moi University library school in Kenya, but nothing else on library education in the 45 total articles from Kenya. For Bangladesh there were 15 articles in LISA, one of them a brief summary of library school development. For Colombia there were 35 articles in LISA, including one on library education trends, and another on distance education.

Studies of this sort require the application of sophisticated methodology. In many cases it is advisable for a prospective author to form a partnership with a person who has advanced training in research techniques.

When a strong research base has been constructed for its librarianship, it will follow naturally that the Third World library profession will gain greater acceptance for its goals, and that the librarians themselves will achieve the status they deserve — in their own countries and in the international professional community. G.A.M.

© 1991 Guy A. Marco.

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