After several drafts and revisions, and meetings with the Library director, and then more revisions, and then another meeting, and then more revisions, and then finally his somewhat reluctantly given approval due to the not unfair critiques I make of the Central Library, and the Lao Ministry of Education, which I mostly had to remove, I have finished my paper for CONSAL. Here is a preview, if you don’t want to wait around for the conference:
Due to a variety of factors, such as a lack of financial resources or governmental prioritization; the structure, mission, and functions of many libraries in some South East Asian nations have been left largely in similar conditions to those of the end of the colonial period. This has resulted in a lack of library services considered “modern” by western standards; and essentially out-dated institutions that cannot respond to the needs of the users in the 21st century. Several potential strategies exist that can help modernize the functioning of libraries in countries such as the Lao PDR. This paper outlines some of the key elements in developing effective strategies to create dynamic, user-friendly libraries that encourage educational development and information literacy. The majority of these strategies are aimed at training not only the library staff in more responsive and contemporary methods of providing library services, but also educating the end-users as to becoming information literate individuals. As the largest library in the country, the University Central Library (UCL) of the National University of Laos (NUOL) plays an extremely important role in creating a more information literate, educated population that can effectively pursue sustainable development. The development of new strategies aimed at encouraging information literacy and dynamic library services will result in a more knowledgeable, better informed public, capable of not only critical thinking, but also of participating and contributing to a greater extent in the global information society.
In the current post-colonial environment, many countries are implementing educational reforms and restructuring the educational systems that are largely the legacy of foreign regimes. The process of developing a successful and culturally appropriate educational policy takes time and is the result of trial and error. Since the 1990’s, huge national resources have been invested into education and related initiatives in nearly every country in Asia to bring about substantial improvement and development in many different aspects of society (Cheng & Townshead, 2000). Not all of these educational reforms have met with success, and many people must receive training abroad to meet the demand for well-educated professionals in their home country. Many countries’ university systems lack adequate programs in certain disciplines to meet the need for trained professionals. The lack of a Library and Information Science university program in Laos is one example of this.
The library is of course very closely tied to education, both formal and informal. There exists a great opportunity for libraries to supplement traditional and western-based educational methods, and improve not only the general knowledge and literacy of a country, but also to encourage critical thinking skills and encourage educational development during these times of transitions. As the central library for the only university in Laos, and the largest teacher-training college in the country, the University Central Library (UCL) has great potential to have a significant impact on the knowledge of a large part of Lao society. However, despite this recognized potential, and the trends to modernize education systems, many countries’ governments have neglected to consider the need to update their library facilities as well. In many western countries, such as the United States, libraries and information professionals are taking a much more pro-active, progressive approaches to librarianship. This includes a shift away from the traditional library model, to a new, more dynamic one that aims to encourage information literacy (IL) and learning in new, unconventional ways.
While these trends have affected certain Asian countries, there remains a great deal of progress to be made in others. While many libraries may lack sufficient resources, including physical, electronic, and human resources, they still represent valuable community assets in many places. The library has the potential to play an extremely important role in many people’s lives if a more dynamic model were adopted.
What is a dynamic library?
Essentially, dynamic refers to a library that is not static; meaning one that changes as needed. The dynamic library should change as a variety of cultural, social, economic, educational, and technological changes are also taking place. Culture, society, and the other aforementioned factors are not fixed influences, but rather change and transform over time; sometimes moving progressively towards the future, other times reacting to outside influence by implementing tradition-orientated policies. Thus, the library must also be prepared to respond to cultural and societal factors. A library that adapts to the current needs of its users is the one that is ultimately the most indispensable and successful. Research has shown that libraries that implement policies based on user suggestions or user-needs surveys are more successful than those that act without consulting their users. According to a study conducted by the US governmental organization, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, although a number of projects participating in the study pointed out how difficult it can be to gather information about current and potential users and their needs, the level of success of the projects with responsive users show that the results are worth the effort (4). Periodic self-evaluations of library use and user satisfaction provide excellent ideas and models for necessary modifications to ineffective or obsolete practices that must be altered. The needs of library users change as their living conditions change; it is the alteration of such practices in response to user-needs that creates the dynamic library.
What is Information Literacy?
If a dynamic library is one that adapts to changing user needs, then information literacy could be described as the processes through which the user defines his or her information needs, and then tries to fulfill these information needs. Most western-orientated models describe information literacy as a set of skills, many of which are related to information and communication technologies (ICT), that imply that a person is able to effectively define their information need, locate, evaluate, and use the information as needed. However, this standard definition is not contextually relevant in many developing countries. Therefore, this definition has been modified to more accurately describe the processes required to become an information literate person by Drs. Gorman & Dorner. The have arrived at the following operational definition, more appropriate to the South East Asian context:
The ability of individuals or groups
• to be aware of why, how and by whom information is created, communicated and controlled, and how it contributes to the construction of knowledge
• to understand when information can be used to improve their daily living or to contribute to the resolution of needs related to speciﬁc situations, such as at work or school
• to know how to locate information and to critique its relevance and appropriateness to their context of knowledge (Dorner & Gorman 284).
The link between information literacy and critical thinking is clearly made in the above definition. We define critical thinking as the ability to make judgments and process ideas critically, that is; with a critical thought method that requires the synthesis of information, as well as introspection and rational evaluation (Moore & Parker 3). The obvious relationship between IL and critical thinking is that they both encourage individual thought processes aimed at not only understanding information, but also being able to evaluate it and form new knowledge and new ideas. Critical thinking is an integral part of learning and education, and IL has the potential to encourage deep, rather than surface learning, and to transform dependent learners into independent, self-directed, lifelong learners suggests Christine Bruce (np).
Why are these skills valuable?
According to UNESCO “Education is the primary agent of transformation towards sustainable development, increasing people’s capacities to transform their visions for society into reality. Education for sustainable development teaches individuals how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities.” (UNESCO) Thus, one can argue that education is the most important tool that increases a country’s social and economic development. An information literate population not only seeks out new knowledge, but also creates new information and is engaged in the educational process. According to a 2001 report by K. Sisavanh, the Lao government has officially encouraged the learner-centered approach in public schools and revised its teacher training curricula to reflect these new teaching/learning strategies (265). However, many schools are finding it difficult to integrate learner-centered approaches into their day-to-day teaching in public schools. Despite being trained in the new methods, sometimes resources or supplemental materials are not available. Also, the tendency for Asian cultures, such as Laos, to be collectivist rather than individualist according to Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, may also be a hindrance to developing effective information literacy education (ILE) programs in Laos (Dorner & Gorman 288). Therefore one must consider the following question : In encouraging independent, individual thought, are we discouraging traditional values and societal norms? Perhaps information literacy and critical thinking skills are values that are held with higher regard in western, individualist cultures, and these values cannot be imposed on non-western or collectivist cultures. However, one can argue that even in developing countries, regardless of their traditional values, most individuals will encounter western influences, multi-national organizations, and participate to some degree in the global economy of the 21st century. Thus, it can be assumed that even in developing countries capacities such as critical thinking are essential.
How can Laos libraries adopt a more dynamic model that integrates information literacy education (ILE) ?
Bruce suggests that education centers all over the world need to pursue the pathways of information literacy education, in order to support, and bring to maturity, the embryonic educational systems that are emerging in response to the lifelong learning vision (np). This statement makes evident the extremely important role of the Central Library of the National University of Laos, in creating a more information literate, educated population that can effectively pursue sustainable development.
In my experiences as a volunteer at the Central Library of the National University of Laos, I have had the opportunity to witness first hand the challenges faced by libraries in developing countries in South East Asia. Due to many historical factors as well as present conditions, Lao libraries fall behind the modern standards for libraries in many western countries. This is of course, to be expected considering the developing state of the country; and it is important to mention that many improvements have been made, and are continuing to be made to the present situation of libraries in Laos. Despite the limited support, limited training, and limited resources available to libraries in Laos, there are ways in which Lao libraries are modifying their services and collections to respond to the needs of their users. Recently the UCL implemented a variety of new procedures and practices to aimed at offering improved library services and promoting IL. This includes the creation of an electronic catalogue, and the adoption of new ILS software, as well as the development of an OPAC, accessible from anywhere in the world, and more. According to research done in other developing countries under going similar times of transition, the non-dynamic library risks becoming irrelevant as the emerging new educational system is redeﬁned, reshaped and refocused (Oladokun 104). This study argues that the least the library can do is to be proactive, swift and responsive, and to adapt and transform to meet the new demands (ibid).
Therefore, through developing strategies to encourage information literacy and provide more dynamic library services, the Lao library will be able to more effectively provide educational resources to the Lao people. This can be done in a number of ways. Knowledge sharing is a systematic process for creating, acquiring, synthesizing, learning, sharing and using knowledge and experience to achieve organizational goal (Sethumadhavan 1). Currently, library staff in Laos tend to guard their unique knowledge and skills as professional secrets. However, according to research published by Statistics Canada, a knowledge-sharing culture is extremely important for business success (Earl 10). A knowledge sharing culture includes having a “value system or culture promoting knowledge sharing”; “encouraging experienced workers to transfer their knowledge to new or less experienced workers”; and “using teams which bring together people with different skills” (ibid). One of the biggest challenges changing the mindset of people from believing that “knowledge is power” to believing that “knowledge sharing is power”, and that an open exchange of information will in the end produce the best results for the entire organization (Sethumadhavan 3). According to Statistics Canada, for the past 10 years many organizations have begun implementing knowledge-management programs aimed at increasing the amount of knowledge sharing among their staff, the majority of which have been very successful (Earl 10). If an exchange of knowledge were to take place between library staff throughout the country, as well as external consultants or experts, this would facilitate the development of effective strategies for improving library services. The development of such strategies must be an iterative process, and involve input from all parties, based on factual data about available resources and user needs.
I am of the opinion that there are two main areas in which new strategies could be developed based on my observations. The first area is the administrative and procedural function of libraries, in particular the NUOL Central Library, due to my personal experiences there. The second area is professional development and end-user training. All of the strategies I suggest are merely based on my own experiences, and I am well aware of the fact that it would only be in a close partnership with my Lao colleagues that effective strategies could be developed. My aim is not to criticize Lao libraries, but to be realistic. I have kept in mind the realities of the extremely limited financial resources available to the UCL while drafting this paper, and I realize that many of these strategies might be difficult to implement at the present time, so I offer them only as suggestions based on my opinions. Also, I find it important to mention that many of the suggestions below are already part of the library’s strategic plan and will be implemented in the near future.
1. Adapt Policies and Procedures to Respond to User Needs More Effectively
Strategies aimed at improving library services will only be effective if they respond to actual user needs, and should be developed and prioritized accordingly. By responding to its users suggestions and critiques, the dynamic library will ensure user satisfaction and promote life-long learning.
1.1. Conduct informal user needs surveys
As previously mentioned, research has shown that user needs surveys are among the best tools in developing effective library services. The University Central Library collects data regarding user satisfaction once a year. If the users were encouraged to provide informal data about their perceptions of the library, this might offer staff a more candid, realistic view of the user’s satisfaction with the services provided. The library has already implemented several important new services to respond to user needs, and have recently had success with a variety of new practices, including offering internet access and an OPAC of all the library materials available on any computer with internet access, in Lao and English.
1.2. Encourage staff and user interaction
Many library users are quite reluctant to approach library staff. This can be the result of a number of factors, including cultural barriers. If the users were encouraged to interact with the staff more, and not be shy about asking questions or for assistance, not only would the valuable knowledge of the staff be transferred, but the user’s overall satisfaction of the library would also improve. By interacting more with the users, the staff could also develop a clearer idea of user needs, and respond to them in a dynamic fashion.
1.3. Improve hours of service
Academic libraries in North America have been successful at providing high levels of user satisfaction by responding to user needs, with particular regards to opening hours. Many academic libraries even offer 24-hour access to the library during examination periods. Due to limited support, the UCL’s hours of operations are roughly 50 hours per week, and this may make it difficult for some end-users to access the library’s resources.
1.4. Relax borrowing/membership regulations
Intimidating membership regulations may discourage library use. Currently, students must re-register for library membership each academic year. The current registration and borrowing procedures at UCL are remnants of the extremely bureaucratic and excessively complex systems employed by many governmental organizations in developing countries. The simplification of such practices would encourage use of the library, and save time for library staff.
1.5. Reorganize library / Create an “Information Commons”
The “Information Commons” is an area in which discussion and interaction is encouraged, and computers and electronic resources as well as library printed materials are used in a more relaxed environment. A room designed for such purposes has already been suggested by the library director in the design of a new library building, pending funding. This would encourage knowledge sharing and user interaction.
1.6. Provide wireless internet
Many libraries in Thailand and other neighboring countries have successfully integrated wireless internet access into their services offered. This allows for greater access to e-resources and will encourage students to use the library more often. The library already offers internet access from a computer lab in the building, and if wireless internet were offered, this vital aspect of modern libraries could be expanded.
1.7. Unify fragmented library system
At NUOL, several branch libraries exist, yet the system is quite fragmented and generally, the branch libraries also require individual membership, separate from student enrollment fees or membership fees for the UCL. Not only could some tasks be centralized, such as cataloguing, but it would also eliminate duplication of certain materials or tasks, and therefore be more efficient than the current system. The creation of such a unified system is part of the UCL’s strategic plan, and the administrative nature of the current system is a result of the previous structure of the university system prior to the creation of the NUOL. Libraries in North America have been successful in increasing efficiency and offering more user services through cooperative working partnerships with other libraries.
2. Encourage Staff and User Development
Staff development is an essential component of providing dynamic library services and encouraging information literacy. The low level of professional education of public library staff was found to impede innovation in library programming in South Africa (Hart 48). The same is most likely true for academic library staff. Improving professional education in librarianship for staff and training for end-users will also encourage information literacy and result in a more dynamic library environment. However, most research has shown that the most effective way to increase information literacy among learners is by curriculum integration. Therefore the suggestions for the UCL library are as follows:
2.1. Provide more adequate training to library staff in information literacy and librarianship.
Staff development, in the Lao language, and in the area of librarianship, could be greatly expanded. Certain staff could be provided with additional training in the English language, which is particularly important for effective use of e-resources and to take advantage of potential training opportunities abroad.
2.2. Encourage knowledge sharing among library staff
As mentioned previously, knowledge sharing is an essential component of effective organizational management. Many library staff members are extremely knowledgeable, and with some motivation, could easily be encouraged to share this knowledge with other staff. This would improve over-all functioning of the library, and offer better service to end-users.
2.3. Focus on customer-service/reference skills
Dynamic libraries in many parts of the world are taking proactive, progressive approaches to customer services. This includes changing some library staff’s perceptions of the end-users, and emphasizing user satisfaction. Some Lao library staff may also require their perceptions of end-users to be altered to fit the 21st century model of a dynamic library.
2.4. Advocacy for librarianship
While several professional associations exist (LLA, LALIC), librarianship is still a relatively unknown profession in Laos. In fact, in the Lao language, many people are not familiar with the term “librarian”. While a Lao word does exist, many people do not know what it means, and instead “I work in a library” is the most widely understood way of describing librarianship in the Lao language. The distinction between library staff and a librarian is not understood by some Lao people, just as in many developed countries. This is due to the still under-developed nature of libraries in Laos. Library staff could work towards promoting libraries and advocating for their profession.
2.5. Encourage faculty or community collaboration
Oladokun and other researchers on ILE in developing countries suggest that Faculty-Library collaboration is an essential tool in creating information literate students (104). He also suggests that collaboration among libraries is crucial to successful information literacy education program implementation (ibid). Collaboration between library staff trained in ILE and university faculty to develop curriculum-integrated information literacy programs can take advantage of the library’s human and material resources. This will result in the library adapting to user needs, thus becoming more dynamic, sharing knowledge with faculty members, and fostering an information literate student body.
2.6. Training for end-users
It would benefit the entire academic community of Laos if the library increased training opportunities for end-users beyond the simple “library orientation”. Workshops on a variety of different library-related topics, as well as information literacy could easily be offered to end-users. Short workshops, or “Info sessions” could easily be held regularly in the library, with different staff taking turns teaching different skills or knowledge. Many important academic skills, such as citation, are often not taught by the faculty due to time constraints, and therefore the students are not familiar with some basic academic skills.
2.7. Advocate for Information Literacy Education in schools and libraries
As of yet, ILE is a relatively unknown term in Laos. By advocating for ILE in schools and libraries around the country, introducing ILE-integrated curricula into existing primary, secondary, and post-secondary teaching will be made much easier. Once library staff are sufficiently trained in ILE, they can act as champions for IL throughout the country.
Western countries have had a lot of success and seen massive increases in the number of library users due to the simple adoption of new, more user-friendly policies. The adoption of these policies was a response to user needs, and has been effective in promoting information literacy and increasing knowledge among the population of these countries. In order to effectively develop an information literate, well-educated population, South East Asian nations must also adopt innovative approaches to library services. This means a variety of steps need to be taken, from staff training and human resources development, to more flexible registration procedures, and providing materials and services that are relevant to today’s library user. The suggestions and considerations mentioned in this paper are written from the perspective of an American, trained in information science in Canada, with first hand experience working in an academic library in the Lao PDR. All of these combined experiences have resulted in a unique perspective on information science, and the challenges and opportunities to developing a dynamic, effective library in South East Asia.
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