Running a University Library in Africa

University libraries have become complex organisations. In a developing country like Zimbabwe, it is expected that libraries should be professionally administered so that they can meet the expectations they were built to serve within their respective institutions.

The main function of a university library is to serve a campus-wide community that comprises lecturing staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students, researchers and administrators. In Africa, as elsewhere, a university library was once seen just as a storehouse of knowledge, but with current developments in the global village, it has now assumed a new role because of significant changes in the outlook of all members of the university community. They now realise that a university library is an active force in teaching and research.

Given that an African university library is an integral part of the society in which it operates, it must be run in a professional way as part of the university’s set-up, since it exists to serve the objectives of its parent organisation. In other words, it has to reflect the character of the university. Thus, many African universities are now authorised by Act of Parliament, such as the University of Sierra Leone which assumed its present form in 1927, although it was originally founded in 1827 by the Church Missionary Society. University libraries are therefore also government-supported institutions, with 90 per cent of their revenue coming from central government.

To run a university library, there are certain functions that need to be performed, namely teaching, research, publishing, conservation of knowledge and ideas, and extension services. The materials that are accumulated by the library are then utilised to meet the academic and research needs of the University, through the library’s administrative roles and functions.

Administratively, a typical university library has a main library, serving the university community by book lending (circulation management), book acquisition, selection (which constitutes collection development), reference services, inter-library loans, reproduction services, current awareness, and translation services. There are also divisional libraries and departmental or faculty libraries.

To fulfil the functions, duties and activities of these different services, the university librarian is tasked with administration and formulation of the library’s policies, and his/her strategic role is to meet the needs of the different faculties in terms of information provision. The deputy librarian, who acts as the public relations officer of the library, is in charge of the day-to-day running of the library and supervision of the departments. Next are the sub-librarians who specialise as subject librarians and also head the faculty libraries. Reporting to them are senior assistant librarians, assistant librarians, senior library assistants, library assistants and technical assistants. The above staffing structure is the one obtaining in most of Zimbabwe’s university libraries, and is indeed typical of many such libraries throughout the English-speaking world.

With modern computerisation and new ways of utilising knowledge, the library’s role in African universities cannot be overemphasised. Many of the personnel listed above are not only professionally trained to administer their respective units, but also undertake in-house and external training, on a regular basis, to continually update their skills and thus play a very significant role in satisfying the needs of all library clientele, both on the university campus and those who follow distance-learning courses.

However, in present day African universities running the library has become a mammoth task. With high enrolments, limited budgets, and poor resource allocation, various attempts have being made at international library co-operation, so as to make materials available to supplement low budgets. Many of these attempts have failed because of inadequate resources, poor bibliographical services, and undeveloped postal and telecommunication services. The Standing Conference of African University Libraries (SCAUL) was established in 1964 to serve as a forum for head librarians of African universities to discuss concerns regarding the running of their libraries, but it has made very little progress due to poor government funding and limited inter-lending activities. To date, most African university libraries have instead had to resort to receiving donations, mainly from overseas, to supplement their collections.

There are additional challenges faced by the libraries within the parameters of their operations. The most glaring challenges concern the training and recruiting of professional librarians, computerization, acquisitions, Internet connectivity and searching, access to online resources, functional copying and printing services, maintaining audio-visual collections, binding, user instruction, serial collection, and funding.

In order to overcome all these challenges, Africa’s university libraries should now take advantage of the ‘twinning’ arrangements proposed by Universities Overseas. Through exchange programs and research, the libraries can take advantage of professional expertise to revitalize administration of their services. University libraries in Africa should also now move into providing consultancy services, the establishment of desktop publishing CD-ROM units, and provision of database literature searching. These new activities will help to change the image of the library from the traditional role of collector to one of producer, thus helping to sustain and develop Africa’s university libraries in line with current world trends in the art of modern-day information provision.