Lenrie Olatokunbo Aina, the National Librarian/Chief Executive Officer of the National Library of Nigeria, speaks with REGINA OTOKPA about ongoing efforts to reposition library services, challenges of poor reading habit among Nigerians, and plans to bring back library use to the consciousness of Nigerians. Excerpts:
You have embarked on aggressive readership promotion campaign across the country since your assumption of office. What has been the impact so far?
Yes, Nigeria has a poor reading culture and this has negative effects on us as a people. When people get certain information rather than reading newspapers or other materials to cross check its authenticity, they resort to spreading such information either right or wrong like wild fire. The government realised this and has been sponsoring the National Readership Promotion Campaign.
South Africa and Egypt are the only African countries found to have some measure of reading culture in the global statistics on reading culture. Nigeria was not even listed, which means we are far below what is expected of us. So, when I assumed office in 2015, one of the questions I asked was; what are we doing about readership promotion in Nigeria? I was made to understand that it was usually being rotated in one or two cities yearly. But, I thought that with the money the government voted for the campaign, we could do more than that. At that time, we had 23 branches and so in my first year, I said we should carry out the campaign in all the branches of the library. In the following year I decided that we must go round the 36 states since the library is a Federal Government funded organisation and so we cannot exclude any state.
Let me mention that we just concluded the nationwide campaign in Yobe State and the impact has been tremendous. We began with primary and secondary school children, and later extended it to hospitals with specific target on pregnant women, where we educated them on the importance of reading to the child from the womb. If you read to your unborn child, when the child is born, he or she will already be attuned to reading and will be born lovers of books. We also targeted the National Service Youth Corps (NYSC) members.
Since they are young, educated, articulated and deploy to every part of the country, they can help us in mobilising and establishing book clubs wherever they are posted for the one-year mandatory service. They can reach people to donate books to the book club and if contacted, the National Library will be willing and ready to assist them with books.
Since we want to cover the entire strata of the Nigerian society, by next year we will reach out to motor parks and educate drivers, conductors and commuters with a view to occupying themselves with reading a book whenever they are travelling and free, rather than resort to shouting and engage in mundane things. While every country is striving to become a knowledge society, it is unfortunately that majority of Nigerians no longer read after passing examinations. At best they read newspapers, but to pick up a novel becomes a problem.
Despite efforts to revive reading culture in the country, book shelves are merely stocked with outdated books. Why is this so?
In the early 60s and 70s, libraries occupied vital position due to the influence of the British Government in Nigeria, but beginning from the 80s library was relegated to the background. During our primary and secondary school days, there were libraries, or at worst reading rooms. The National Policy on Education states that every school must have a library, but if you go round the schools today, less than 10 per cent of the schools have a library and whenever there is the need for expansion, some of the libraries are closed and converted to classrooms. That is the extent to wh i ch w e h a v e gone i n the country. We need to go back to the era of the 60s and 70s, when library meant something significant to the people.
How can we return to that era?
It is by targeting public libraries. There is public library in every state across the country, but unfortunately most of these libraries are in bad shape. For instance, in one of states we visited, the library bought books last about ten years ago. In fact, we will not get something tangible out of all the plans we mapped out, as well as the readership promotion campaign we embarked upon, if public libraries are not well developed and equipped. We had a conference early this year, where we invited all directors of public libraries, chairmen of library boards to find out about their challenges, which they have stated and we are working on what we can do.
Yes, it is agreed that the government is not doing enough, but we must try and attract users to our library. We need to make library part of our culture and that is why we are working hard to involve as many people as possible. Presently, we are planning inaugurate library ambassadors in each state of the federation. The government is giving us money to buy books for our branches and it is my duty to ensure that those books get to the shelves of all branches and I have been working on that.
To be concise, what is the volume of readership at the national libraries yearly?
Well, it depends on the size of the library. For instance, our major branches are in Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna, Owerri and Ibadan, and in these branches we have a readership of between 5,000 and 10,000 readers per year.
Findings have shown that state library boards have been abandoned by the state governments, and with this situation how best can the libraries be repositioned?
One of the things I do when I visit any state is to meet the state governors and I always point out to them why they must improve their state library. But the good thing is that everywhere we go; the people all agree that they need to have a standard library. During the conference we organised early this year, we were able to identify some libraries and state governments that are doing well such as Kaduna, Bauchi and Bayelsa State Library Boards. These three states are near to what we expect of a state public library. The remaining state library boards are not doing enough and that is why we go to them to encourage them to have standard state library boards.
Is there any ongoing project to improve library services in the country?
Yes there are projects already going on. Formerly, to obtain ISSN and ISBN, it takes between ten days to one month, but we are working to ensure these could be obtained under 24 hours. We are mandated to collect all publications in Nigeria, all publications by Nigerians anywhere in the world and any publication about Nigeria anywhere in the world. In order to save time and cost of transportation, especially for those residing outside Nigeria or Abuja, we have embarked on a government-sponsored project, tagged: “National Library, Virtual Library,” to ensure all publications at the national library are available online on our website.
How much would be required to complete the abandoned National Library building project?
Each time I look at that building I feel bad on one hand and excited on the other, because if that building is completed, it will probably be one of the best national libraries in the world. The founding fathers had good intentions, but funding has been a great challenge. In the last one or two years, there has been awareness on the need that the building must be completed. Last year, the Senate Committee on Education, and the House Committee on Education were here on a visit and they promised that they would do something about it and we are hopeful that very soon work will commence on the library building. On the average or conservatively, between N50 and N60 billion would be needed to complete the project. Though, this is on the high side, the Minister is working hard on this, and we on our part, are trying to get special funding to complete the project. Once we have the necessary funding, maybe in a year or two it will be completed.
Apart from inadequate funding, what other challenges are confronting library services in Nigeria?
Well, we need to recruit more members of staff even for some specialised areas of the library. For example, we buy books every year and we need workers to be processed before they go to the shelves. This is the job of cataloguers, who are special librarians, but they are still in short supply. That is why sometimes in six months, we are still processing a book. But, the government recently approved that we recruit staff to work in that area. So, I am sure that very soon we will all have a library we will be proud of.
Do we attribute the dearth of professionals in the sector to low enrolment of students into library sciences or government’s refusal to employ more hands?
In Nigeria today, we have about 50 institutions, which produce librarians at various levels. We have many librarians roaming the streets in search of job. But, we are hopeful that this will change.
What implications has the budget cut had on library development in the country?
It is true the proper funding is key to every development, but on the other hand, money may be available, but the lack of ability to manage it could be the problem. One thing we have sincerely done here is to manage the funds we were given through prudent management and financial discipline so that we are able to cover our activities. For instance, we used to receive complaints that the branches were neglected, but we are trying to see how to divert the money meant for some activities that are not too productive to those that are productive.
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