Analysis: MUBANGA LUMPA
PUBLIC libraries have over the years been recognised to be the local gateway to knowledge, provide the basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) have in the past launched two declarations of principles which guide the creation and operations of public libraries and school libraries worldwide.
These include the Public Library Manifesto, adopted in 1994 which proclaims UNESCO’s belief in the public library as a living force for education, culture and information, and as an essential agent for the fostering of peace and spiritual welfare through the minds of men and women. The School Library Manifesto adopted in 1999, also aims to define and advance the role of school libraries and resource centres in enabling students to acquire the learning tools and learning content that allow them to develop their full capacities; to continue to learn throughout their lives; and to make informed decisions. But for libraries, like any other institutions to properly function and flourish, they need favourable social, economic and political environment.
In Zambia, concerted efforts towards the realisation of legislation of public libraries can be traced back to 1985 when the Zambia Library Association, now the Library and Information Association of Zambia (LIAZ) organised a national seminar to consider a National Information Policy (NIP) for Zambia. A follow up seminar under the sponsorship of UNESCO was again organised by the library association in 1987 whose objectives were to; (i) sensitise national authorities on the need for the national policy for Zambia (ii) examine relevant issues on national information policy and problems thereof with particular reference to Zambia’s own social, economic, cultural, political and scientific context and (iii) to produce a draft document reflecting the thinking of information generators, producers, organisers, collectors and facilitators of information transmission as well as information users.
The result of the 1987 seminar was a document entitled ‘National Information Policy for Zambia (1988)’. The document articulated various issues pertaining to the need for a national information policy for the country. It also proposed a draft national information policy document that was to be implemented by a corporate body to be known as the Zambia Advisory Council on Library and Information Resources (ZACLIR) to be established by an Act of parliament. This document was later submitted to Government for action. But for a number of (unknown) reasons this document was not adopted by the government of the day.
However, following the reversion of the country to multi-party politics in 1991 and the subsequent coming to power of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), which proclaimed democratisation, liberalisation, privatisation and free access to information to be the hallmarks of the new era, this immediately saw librarians and other information professionals in Zambia the urgent need for their relevance in the new political and socio-economic dispensation.
Efforts to have a library policy formulated in form of library legislation were thus renewed. Between 1992 and 1993 a draft Bill was submitted to Cabinet. Although a Committee of Cabinet approved the proposed Bill in principle, it was however sent back to the formulators for further consultation and refinements. Discussions of the Bill continued through the intervening years until 1998 when another draft Bill was made. It was during the discussion of the 1998 Draft Bill when it was realised that the Bill needed to be supported by a policy document. Therefore, in November 1998, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education tasked the Zambia Library Service (ZLS) to come up with a library policy document to support the Draft Bill. In mid-November 1998, the ZLS engaged a consultant to draw up a working document on national library policy for Zambia. The consultant submitted the report at the end of November 1998.
Hitherto, Zambia has neither realised a national information policy nor a library legislation to guide public library service provision in the country. As a result, a number of factors have hindered the effective provision of library services in Zambia. The major ones include the limited distribution and access of information resources which are characterised by (i) limited distribution of libraries and information resources; majority of libraries are only concentrated in major towns and cities along the line of rail (ii) lack of awareness among the general public on their right to access information (iii) elitist perception of the library i.e. it is only for the educated in society (iv) low literacy levels among many people (v) high cost of locally published materials among others.
The lack of legislation on libraries has further resulted in uncoordinated library services where in most cases local libraries are unable to share resources, a poor reading culture among many citizens, inadequate bibliographic control and the low levels of information and communication technologies (ICT) usage and application in most public libraries. This has also been compounded by the lack of standardisation and compatibility of library systems in the country.
Therefore, the fact that Zambia is part of the global community entails that our country just like other nations has to compete for the same scarce resources wherever they may be in the world which includes information. It is thus, clear that in this competitive digital information era, the advancement in technology and use of information for production has emerged as one of the major tools for harnessing global resources. Sadly, Zambia risks lagging further behind in the global race for harnessing its information resources due to the lack of a clear policy and legislation to support library service provision in the country. This has a potential to hinder many citizens from accessing to up to date information and thus exclude them from participating effectively in the social, economic and political life of the country.
From this background, it is clear that our country seriously needs a comprehensive library service provision and infrastructure through a legal framework as the current situation reveals a huge gap in the provision of adequate services to the majority of citizens in the country.
The author is a social commentator and blogger.