23, No. 18, April 22, 2004
librarians working to rejuvenate African libraries
Forrest, Assistant Editor
by Bill Wiegand
Susan Schnuer (left) and Barbara Ford, assistant director
and director, respectively, of the Mortenson Center
for International Library Programs, spent the month
of March traveling to several African universities
to assess their staff training needs as part of the
Carnegie Corp. of New York's Partnership to Strengthen
African Universities grant program. Schnuer and Ford
found that the librarians at the institutions they
visited struggle with issues such as underfunding,
outdated resources and overcrowding because of escalating
Staff members at
the UI Library's Mortenson Center for International Library Programs
are helping bolster educational, social, economic and democratic development
in African countries through a Carnegie Corp. of New York initiative
aimed at rejuvenating African universities' libraries.
Barbara Ford and Susan Schnuer, director and assistant director, respectively,
of the Mortenson Center, recently traveled to Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania
and Uganda to assess the needs of seven university libraries that the
corporation and its partners hope to regenerate through a 10-year initiative
called the Partnership to Strengthen African Universities.
A case study commissioned by Carnegie and its partner foundations in
2000 revealed that Africa's university libraries and public libraries
were drastically underfunded and underutilized, partly as a result of
a lack of government support since the mid-1970s and the failure of
external organizations to create facilities, invest in materials and
provide services relevant to the lives of the majority of African citizens.
University libraries in particular suffered erosion of resources and
staff attrition because they were generally overlooked by the organizations
that provided at least sporadic external funding to public libraries.
Through its initiatives in Africa, the Carnegie Corp. also hopes to
democratize scholarship for women, who make up an average of 30 percent
of the student populations and less than one quarter of the instructors
at universities in some African countries.
Carnegie Corp. hopes that supporting strategic development at universities
and libraries will spark similar improvements at universities throughout
During March, Ford and Schnuer visited with library staff, technical
staff, university administrators and Carnegie program administrators
at the University of Ghana Legon and the University of Education at
Winneba, Ghana; Ahmadu Bello University, University of Jos and Obafemi
Owolowo University in Nigeria; Dar es Salaam University in Tanzania;
and Makerere University, Uganda.
At each location, Ford, Schnuer and Joyce Latham led discussions among
staff about their training and technology needs. Latham, an instructor
in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, accompanied
Ford and Schnuer for the first half of the trip. Ford said Latham's
expertise in technology was vitally important because most of the libraries
are just beginning to use computer technology to provide services such
as online catalogs and access to article databases, services that are
commonplace to library patrons and students in the Western world.
African university librarians also struggle with outdated computer equipment,
a lack of basic computer skills among some staff members and problems
such as unreliable public utilities.
An unprecedented demand for higher education also is placing tremendous
pressure on staff members to meet the demand without additional resources.
Student enrollments at some universities are triple or quadruple what
the universities were designed to accommodate. In some of the lecture
halls, students sit two to a chair, and up to nine students may share
four-person rooms in the hostels. At one university, the librarians
shut the doors at certain times of the day to prevent additional people
from entering because the library is packed with people, Ford said.
In addition to needing support to help bridge the digital divide, librarians
also may face institutional challenges, such as officials who believe
the libraries are unimportant to the university's mission or who think
that technology will be a panacea.
"They needed some help learning how to advocate for their needs
on campus because it was pretty clear to us that some of the university
administrators thought that once the technology was in the libraries,
they wouldn't need to buy new books or hire new staff," Schnuer
said. "We needed to really work with the librarians to say that
their role is going to change, but they're still going to be needed
and they're still going to need the materials in the library."
Ford and Schnuer also observed that library staff members are hampered
by professional isolation and could benefit from networking with colleagues
at other institutions to help them solve problems or evaluate new technologies.
In their final report to Carnegie, which they will submit in June, Ford
and Schnuer will recommend training strategies that can be delivered
locally, nationally and internationally.
Ford and Schnuer said they were most impressed by African students'
determination to get an education and by the resourcefulness of the
librarians, who are determined to maintain high-quality service with
"It's incredible what people can accomplish with very few resources,"
Ford said. "Many of these universities have been in a situation
where their libraries have not had funding for acquisitions for quite
a while, and the exchange rate is so bad that even if they do get money
it doesn't buy much in the library market. What they're really hoping
for is technology to change that balance so that once they have access
to some resources over the Internet, they'll be able to leapfrog whole
Schnuer said: "I really saw in the librarians this incredible willingness
to take risks. They have nowhere to go; they must change, so you have
this vibrancy and this feeling of energy. All they need is information,
and they can move to the next step."
The Mortenson Center, which was established in 1991 with gifts from
C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, seeks to strengthen international
ties among libraries and librarians worldwide for the promotion of peace,
education and understanding. The center specializes in short-term training
for librarians outside the United States and has hosted more than 600
librarians from 85 countries.