Librarians essential to social development

24 August 2009

The distinctive characteristic of librarianship in Africa is that there is less emphasis on reading as an entertainment activity and more on its educational purpose, said Professor Peter Underwood at a public lecture at UNISA recently, part of the UNISA/IFLA Regional Office of Africa Public Lecture Series.

Underwood hails from UCT's Centre for Information Literacy, and his lecture dealt with the broad issue of African librarianship in the global context.

The lecture series was instituted in 2008 by UNISA Library, in association with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

This provides a platform for eminent African librarians to deliver lectures on a broad range of issues concerning Africa and international librarianship. Underwood's 2009 lecture explored testament and professional experience. In it, he discussed the nature of librarianship as a profession, and its importance in the social development of Africa.

"Libraries and librarianship have a long history on the African continent; the most notable early example is that of the Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, founded during the Ptolemaic dynasty," he said.

"In the modern era, it is noticeable that many African leaders (such as Nelson Mandela and Kwame Nkrumah) have supported the establishment of libraries and the role of librarians in social development and education. For many people, a public library provides a space for study as well as access to the information resources they need. This is the distinctive characteristic of the profession in Africa: there is less emphasis on reading as an entertainment activity, and more on its educational purpose."

Librarianship has always been a highly "socially networked" profession, he said.

"No library can ever have a stock sufficient to service all requirements, and there is always a need to borrow or gain access to materials held by other libraries. The development of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) provides a more efficient way of creating these important links. The development of electronic sources of information has not reduced the need for this 'social networking', and librarians continue to work together as a worldwide community of practice."

But Underwood also pointed out that, almost paradoxically, ICT had not made the task of finding information easier.

"The searching algorithms used by generally-available search engines, such as Google, are crude; and the skill of the librarian is to be found in the construction of searches that yield relevant information. To understand and express the information needs of a user often requires the twin capacities of a counsellor and Sherlock Holmes!"

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