Celebrating a new generation of tech-savvy librarians

The advent of hybrid libraries – in which digital resources play an ever-more important role – captures some of the seismological shifts in information access and use wrought by the internet and digital technologies. While African librarians are not yet in a position to place as much emphasis on digital resources as their Global North counterparts, they still need to think strategically about how to use the technologies at their disposal to help researchers do their best work possible.

According to Theo Bothma, professor emeritus and former head of the department of information science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, the advent of the internet has significantly reduced the information divide historically separating the Global North and South and enhanced the possibilities for easier access to and use of information. However, challenges for African libraries still exist in the form of, among others, journal subscription fees and, of course, the cost of the technology itself.

“The bigger problem, however, is how to use technology effectively. And that’s where training comes in,” said Bothma during a tea break at the recent* Capstone Conference, a gathering of 140 library and information science professionals and academics, 110 of whom were alumni of two unique training programmes initiated by the University of Pretoria department of information science, with the objective of empowering African library professionals working in an academic setting to make use of the digital technologies available to them to improve their effectiveness.

The programmes – a two-year part-time masters in information technology (MIT) and a four-week continuing professional development programme (CPD) – have now come to the end of their funding cycle having produced 103 MIT graduates from six cohorts (over 80% pass rate) and 308 graduates from 10 cohorts in the case of the CPD (96% pass rate) – results that inspired Professor Archie Dick, head of the department of information science at the University of Pretoria, to describe the gathering as “a celebration” rather than simply a conference.

ICT skills

Perceiving a need for high-level information and communications technology (ICT) skills amongst librarians, in 2010 Bothma and his team successfully pitched a proposal to the Carnegie Corporation of New York to run a two-year part-time masters in information technology (MIT), specifically aimed at giving library and information science professionals in academic libraries a better understanding of information technology and its applications.

“It was a specialist form of training; not information technology per se but tailored for librarians who need technology to empower researchers to do better research and disseminate that research through publications,” said Bothma.

The MIT kicked off in the 2011-12 academic year, enrolling 20 students per year. Adapted from an existing MIT programme aimed largely at business students, the new programme placed greater emphasis on knowledge management, the development of digital repositories, working with social media, networking and financial/strategic/technology management – all from a librarian’s perspective.

As part of the school of information technology at the University of Pretoria, the department of information science was able to draw, in the course design, on the expertise of its two sister departments – the department of informatics and department of computer science. It also called on outside expertise from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In addition to its own library staff, the course designers consulted with library staff at various other South African and international universities.

Targeting mid-level professionals working in libraries in a research environment in institutions from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, the programme comprised a three-week in-house programme followed by technology-mediated lectures throughout the year. In the second semester, students spent over two weeks in the United States visiting various information science schools and academic libraries, as well as the Smithsonian Institution.

The following semester the group travelled to Uganda to conduct site visits at Makerere University and other smaller universities. “This was to highlight the work happening in Africa and the fact that you don’t have to be a rich university to do innovative work,” said Bothma.

Hands-on teaching and learning

The start of the MIT in 2011 was followed a few years later by a successful bid to run the four-week continuing professional development (CPD) programme with a more practical focus.

“We proposed the CPD to Carnegie because we saw the need for hands-on training which could look very practically at activities such as advocacy through social media, advanced information retrieval and how to create and populate a digital repository. The CPD also had a strong emphasis on translating the Sustainable Development Goals into actions in a library setting," said Bothma.

The CPD programme is considered too expensive to continue now that the Carnegie funding cycle has ended, but Bothma said two- to three-day workshops are envisaged looking at topical issues such as research data management.

The MIT on the other hand is continuing as a fully-fledged self-funded distance education programme – unfortunately without the international tours component – and currently has 12 students.

Bothma described the process of running the two programmes as “a learning curve” for all staff, not all of whom were tech-savvy in terms of educational technologies but were nevertheless required to adapt to a new way of teaching.

There were also a number of challenges to technology-mediated delivery for the MIT. Bothma said limited bandwidth in Africa meant two-way video to multiple learning sites could not be supported. “So we had one-way audio and typed responses in some cases,” he said. The programme also had to find a way to give students the option of downloading lectures at a later stage in the event of power cuts.

Positive outcomes

“But I’m very happy with the process and we have received extremely good feedback from students and universities,” he said.

“We had a student from Uganda who proved that one person can reshape an entire library and how the library is perceived at a university through the 21st century services they can now provide. The student’s vice-chancellor was very pleased.”

Bothma said ultimately both programmes required library and information science professionals to think more critically about challenges facing them in their own libraries and come up with innovative solutions to address them.

His comments echoed those of Dr Clara Chu, director and Mortenson Distinguished Professor at the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States, who had reminded her audience in her keynote address earlier that day that integrating technologies for efficiency in smart libraries was ultimately aimed at finding “local solutions”.

“The path forward is experimentation,” she said. “We must not simply buy into change and change the whole library but should encourage ourselves to work with others and experiment and see if [those changes] work in our library. And collaborate not only with librarians, but engineers, and programmers… Solutions need to come from within.”

*The Capstone Conference, hosted by the University of Pretoria’s department of information science in the faculty of engineering, built environment and information technology and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was held in Pretoria, South Africa, from 25 to 29 March 2019.