A significant casualty of the Liberian civil conflict is the noticeable breakdown in our entire social structure and system. Education and its related activities were no exceptions to the rule. Many principals and teachers fled the country for their lives, while large numbers of students were uprooted from their communities and involuntarily relocated to unfamiliar settings. Although a semblance of educational activities continued in the country, education as a meaningful and purposeful activity became very rare. Liberians were more concerned with just living to see the next day.
Libraries suffered the adverse effects of the civil conflict as did every social institution. Although they did not enjoy full support to impart knowledge in the pre-war days, they lost what little they had during the years of conflict. Therefore, in the new system of things, there is an urgent need for libraries to reemerge with a new proactive mission to facilitate public access to comprehensive collections of information resources that will enhance the educational experience of students and assist in the development of a well-informed citizenry. By doing this, study and research opportunities will be made available to teachers, researchers and the Liberian citizenry at large.
1. Supporting the educational efforts of the Liberian Government
During the war years and even in some schools today, education continues to reflect the subsistence level at which many Liberians live. Students are fed thin, watered down education just to get by. It is of paramount importance that libraries feature supportive educational resources to nurture, develop and upgrade the “stunted products” produced by our weak educational system. Beyond the war years libraries are needed to break through ceilings imposed by textbook-oriented teaching and thus offer a deeper and richer educational experience to those seeking knowledge. As seeds of educational research are planted in classrooms, so too must they be cultivated, nourished and allowed to bloom in libraries around the country.
The Government of Liberia needs to establish a National Library Policy which will promote the development of libraries as focal points in various parts of the country, in an attempt to nurture the habit of purposeful and beneficial reading in Liberia. Concerted efforts should be made to discourage the popular notion that the world of knowledge is encapsulated in textbooks. While textbook- oriented education may be good for tests, exams, WAEC etc. one should also be concerned about the larger world in which one has to live, interact and survive. Out-of-class reading and research through access to libraries will go a long way in promoting appreciation of varying views, tolerance, as well as the inculcation of values so necessary to open democratic societies. Not only must a strong National Public Library be established, a nation-wide system of branch libraries should be set up to cater to the information needs of readers all over Liberia. Where branch libraries are not readily available, regularly scheduled bookmobiles or travelling libraries can serve remote rural areas.
2. Creating an informed citizenry
Libraries should be seen as one of Government’s main efforts to create an educated and informed citizenry. In light of this, libraries should seek to supply “materials on any and every subject to any and every citizen for any and every purpose.” While this can be seen as utopian considering economic constraints and the forever changing state of knowledge, no nation dares to consider the alternatives of breeding ignorance, half-educated products, intolerance, etc. With this in mind, nations around the world depend on libraries to provide resources for self-improvement, enlightenment, culture awareness, civic education, leisure reading etc.
As one of Government’s main stewards for the acquisition and promotion of knowledge, a National Public Library should be actively engaged in the collection and preservation of all substantive resources related to the total Liberian experience, i.e. historical, civic, cultural, literary, etc. With this in mind, a “depository right” should be established whereby laws are passed to ensure that at least 6 copies of resources published by Liberians will be deposited with the National Public Library for posterity. Concerted efforts should also be made to search for and acquire substantive publications on Liberia by international and foreign experts in both print and electronic format.
Historical and cultural committees can be set up in each county to collect historical data, note historical sites, collect documentation on known and unknown heroes, villains, culture, folklore, noteworthy events that occurred in particular counties, etc. Members of the committee can be drawn from traditional elders, griots, local historians, knowledgeable persons, etc.
Because of the lengthy civil war in Liberia, coupled with the attractive glare of Western culture, we as Liberians need to restore our collective memory of who we are and how we are tied to this land. It is through such national efforts that we will forge and foster a sense of national identity and pride in the many disillusioned and rootless adults and youths in our society today.
Multimedia efforts such as audio recordings, videotapes, photographs, slides, oral history interviews etc. are all possible inclusions in the collection of data.
Because of the dire need for libraries in the country, one cannot help but note the eclectic collections that have mushroomed all over the country. Even though they come from well – meaning donors and are better than no books at all, these collections cannot be rightfully termed as libraries. A real library is one organized for ready retrieval and manned by trained library personnel. Library personnel should be discerning and selective in building library collections or risk being seen as simply warehousing reading matter.
There should be a vital training element in any library development program where library personnel can be trained at the collegiate level or in basic library skills in intensive, highly focused seminars. It is from the products of these training programs that one will recruit library assistants, teacher-librarians etc. because not every institution can afford professional librarians.
Another major venture in which the National Public Library could be involved is the production of a National Union Catalog, which will identify and locate research resources available in libraries around the country. This activity can be carried out as the National Public Library gets actively involved in a coordinating role in library services development around the nation. It is imperative that in making this listing that it be done in line with the International Standard Book Description (ISBD) using Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC). In this way, simply speaking, records can be read and manipulated by a computer. This will facilitate on-line sharing of resources and other services with other libraries within and outside the country.
No modern library can negate the transformative effect Information Technology (IT) has had on libraries and the services they offer. It has totally revolutionized the traditional role of libraries and the sooner library personnel recognize this, the better. As facilitators linking searchers to resources, an effective librarian can no longer be limited to an in-house collection. Users need access to various databases, internet searches, etc. beyond the walls of the library for the most current data in various fields of interest. In anticipation of this, library personnel should be trained in the use of computers to assist and/or train library users in on-line searches, use of CD-ROMs, browsing the Internet for authoritative searches, etc. It is vital to any training program for library personnel.
In conclusion, this work represents an input into the discussion of possible ways of enriching the educational experience of students and the Liberian public. It is our fervent hope that a reconfigured and revitalized National Public Library, along with branch libraries in all 15 counties will be a firm step in achieving sound education and producing an informed citizenry.
About the author: Mrs. Hawa Knuckles has worked as a professional Librarian for over thirty years. She currently serves as Dean of Libraries, University of Liberia.