While I’m on Fiction Series break till February, thought I’ll share a series of thoughts I’ve had. Here goes the first one. If you find any of them interesting, please share in all the avenues you can.
I had just rounded off a telephone conversation with my friend, Dipo a few years ago while he was studying for his Masters degree on that evening, when the sun had become a distant red and hazy object in the horizon. It was an hour earlier in The U.K. where he was and this was how the call ended “I’m going into the library, we go yarn (talk) later”. Now, Dipo studied for his first degree in Olabisi Onabanjo University (then Ogun State University) and as strange as things strike you, it struck me out of the blues that my friend had never made reference to going into the library all the while he was in OOU.
Once you notice these things, you are sort of tuned in and you notice more things about them. I realized that when I had conversations with friends in foreign schools, the library formed an important and in fact crucial resource in their academic endeavors. In stark contrast, even at Masters level, the library played no such role for those of us here. I recall what my library card was for in Unilag – a part of my course registration process, that was all. Once we had finished course registration, the library pass was stowed away somewhere my eyes never fell on, in obscura. The few people that went to the library after that did so for the quiet, and not to use its resources for study. I studied computer science, so excuses could be made for me that I should have been spending more time at the computer center (that one is another story) than the library. It is noteworthy that Unilag is one of the prime institutions of learning in Nigeria, yet its library was not in any position to be a resource to the students. When one takes this in context, we realize what must obtain in the other institutions spread across the nation. I had conversations with friends that graduated from universities around the country and the story was the same from Lagos to Abuja to Port-Harcourt and all the places in between – the libraries were comatose and the only real research tool available to students was the internet.
Fast-forward if you will to a couple of years after I graduated and the writer in me had emerged. I’m a fan of the Epic Fantasy genre of fiction, and I read that genre across cultures. One of the sub-genres of Epic Fantasy is the Quest/Adventure fiction and I struck on the odd idea of comparing two fiction works in this sub-genre across cultures and time spans. The Odyssey is a classic Greek work of this genre, written millennia ago in Greek and has been translated to English. D. O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumole was also published in 1938 in Yoruba (the first book to be published in an African language) and translated to English by the Nobel Laureate himself, Wole Soyinka. I wanted to see points of congruence, and points of divergence based on the cultural contexts and the times in which these works were written. The task then was to lay my hands on these books. I had assumed I would easily find them in any of the public libraries in Lagos. I could not be more wrong. Try as I may, these books were not found in university libraries, the National Library and so on. I had to go on extensive searches with private individuals to get the books. I’m having a similar ongoing experience gathering research material for the Kiriji War. The same gathering material on the history of Lagos. Thankfully today, unlike back then, there is twitter. I have been able to get some wonderful material by simply asking on twitter.
This however does not take away from the fact that the library system in Nigeria is in dire straits, unable to live up to what it should do. In reading Dan Brown’s books as well as that of one of my recent favorites Elizabeth Kostova, one cannot but see the crucial role that libraries play in preserving history and creating the platform for the distillation of new knowledge. Some would argue that the digitization drive by companies like Google and free online wikis like Wikipedia are removing the need for physical libraries. This view would be deceptive to say the least. Digitization is limited, and handicapped by copyright issues, a constraint that libraries do not have. There are also texts that in their original form might not be able to go through the digitization process without damage. Only the protected environments afforded by libraries can preserve these documents. Wikis are great tools, but communal user generated information cannot be relied upon for accuracy and completeness. The copyright issues also limit what can be put on a wiki.
Having said these, one wonders why the libraries in Nigeria are in the state they are. Reading Professor Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, I saw that the libraries were fully functional and an integral part of the intellectual as well as not so intellectual space in their day. The decline and decay therefore were not inevitable. Below are my thoughts on why the Nigerian library system collapsed
- First, schools became insistent on students buying all the books on their list of books, up to the point where students were punished for not being able to buy books. And once teachers and lecturers ventured into writing books, it became mandatory to have their books. This enforcement of list of books buying negated the need for libraries. As a student, if books are amongst those that are listed for a subject I am taking, and I am unable to afford these books, I should be able to access them in libraries. But schools have become more interested in selling books, than passing on the knowledge in the books.
- The second point ties into the first, though it is not totally fallout of it. The nature of the assignments and tasks given to students by their teachers determine the types and extents of resources the students draw on to solve the problems. Where the teachers scope their work within the books they have written and/or sold, or in such a manner that the students can easily go online and lift things, they will. As is expected, once I can solve the problems from one source, it follows that I will not expand my search to other sources. It is the job of the teachers to design tasks in such a way that students will need to reference material that is unique, original, wide and varied, in order to break new frontiers. This did not happen to me in school, and many students, from primary to tertiary institutions had and are still having a similar experience. Our teachers simply did not task us in a way that would require the kind of research that would need the resources of a library.
- The third is a lack of respect for referencing. A friend got this shocker when she was doing her MBA in UK. They were given an assignment and she did all the necessary work employing both the internet and library as resources and then submitted. Her lecturer told her she failed even though she answered correctly. She was confused and understandably indignant. How could she have been correct and yet failed? When she probed further to find out why, she was told that she failed because she did not reference the sources she quoted. I am unsure if this would happen here in Nigeria.
The above reasons do not require any monetary investment or governmental sanction to change. They are attitudinal and have grown into a culture – a culture that is leading to a decline in the depth of intellectual discourse and research and paving the way for the attempts to propagate ideas by being the loudest voice. This culture is imbibed right from nursery schools and continually reinforced in us as we progress through primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. And once a culture is all we’ve known all our lives, it take a rude shocker like my MBA friend had to break. But these can be changed if we are truly serious about reviving our library system. It is not impossible, neither is it out of our reach. It will take a concerted and coordinated effort from stakeholders within the educational system – teachers, lecturers, parents and students all working together.
However, it would be unrealistic to deny that there are things that are not dependent on individual attitudes, but that of those in authority.
- A key reason our libraries are in disuse is the lack of relevance. I mentioned two books I was searching for earlier – one a Greek classic and the other a Yoruba classic. It is criminal that they could not be found in libraries here. We need to stock our libraries with relevant books, classics and on the cutting edge of modernity alike. This will cost money undoubtedly. Systems and funding must be put in place for the regular acquisition of new material for our libraries. It is said of the Library of Congress that they strive to have a copy of every book ever produced on earth! We might not be able to attain these lofty heights with our libraries, but we should at least try. Even where a book is out of print and no longer sold in the market, I should have the confidence that I can always find a copy of such a book to use in a library near me.
- The state of the books in the libraries is appalling. We need to modernize the storage and preservation methods in our libraries. I should not pick a book from a library shelf and have a termite invasion of my person. I would then rather stay at home
- A closer cooperation between authors, publishers and libraries should be fostered. This will enable the libraries get as much of the works produced within the Nigerian space as possible. Even if I do not know where to buy Teju Cole’s book, or do not have the funds to buy it, there should be copies in a library that I can at least read.
- Schools must be mandated to have libraries that stock several copies of all the books on their list of books and more. The compulsion with students buying all the books on list of books must be dropped. It has to be mandated.
- We must collect and put books that tell our unique history as a people in our libraries. There are documents, maps and books about Ottoman history I cannot see except I go to the libraries in Istanbul and in some cases other places in Turkey. That should be the case with our own history too – I should not be able to get more research information on Nigerian topics from foreign sources. I should find the best experts and resources in our libraries
- Our library system must be redesigned to encourage book clubs and membership drives within the library’s location. Without people coming to use the resources, the library will go into decay. While the specific experts that man the library are important, it is equally important to understand and harness the collaborative nature of doing things today and engender a sense of true ownership of the library as resource for the people.
- Digitization is key for the future relevance of our libraries. There is not much more that can be said of this
All the above will require a firm commitment from the authorities and all the stakeholders in the business of sharing and acquiring knowledge. Government, parents, schools, teachers, students, authors and publishers. Everyone has a role to play in the revival of the library culture in Nigeria. It is my hope that we will share this and it will ignite the fire in the hearts of those who read to start something where they are. Nigerians go abroad and use libraries to the fullest as shown in the story about Dipo my friend and countless other similar stories. I am absolutely certain, that if we can collectively revive our library system, it will serve us well, and the quality of education we acquire will be significantly improved.