It is frequently said that we live in an ‘Information Age’. The leaders of the USA talk of an Information Superhighway; the EU of an Information Society; academics talk of a network society, and knowledge economy’. Leading business strategists argue that Knowledge is replacing financial capital as a key resource for companies. The current realization is that any society that strives to develop requires increasingly more information and knowledge activities as these facilitate the measurement of change in every fabric of society. What do we understand by the terms INFORMATION and KNOWLEDGE?
Information and knowledge
Two schools of thought exist. We tend to think that Information and Knowledge are synonymous and are thus used inter-changeably. However there is a difference. Information is usually a selection of documents/ideas in a particular subject or range of subjects which may or may not have been digested necessarily. It therefore has the potential of becoming Knowledge. Knowledge, on the other hand, can be of two kinds: tacit and explicit, the latter having greater similarity with Information but not exclusively so. A collection of books, for example, may be described as a body of knowledge and each document representing informed ideas that are likely to influence others when digested. Such knowledge, when acquired serves, among others, as experiences, ideas and skills in the form of Tacit Knowledge.
Information is one of the principle sources of knowledge. It is shared knowledge, having been communicated and usually obtained by study and investigation. Abate (1988) referred to information as intelligence and knowledge that contributes to the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of society, irrespective of the form it is inscribed (eg text; figures); medium stored (eg paper, magnetic tapes); mode of dissemination (eg oral, written); societal activity that gives rise to it(eg research, census); and the institutions that organize and disseminate it( eg library and information centre).
Knowledge, on the other hand, is what one knows. Davenport and Prusak (1998) defined it as a fluid mix of framed experiences, values, contextual information and expert insights that provide a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. That is to say Knowledge involves human reaction to information. For instance if one is able to understand simple written description to a particular illness, that is information. However, if we thought that someone was suffering from that illness, most of us would suggest that the person went to see a medical doctor. This is because the doctor has a body of knowledge which is a combination of information about that illness, information about the human body, about other illnesses and experiences of similar cases and training.
Information and Knowledge are among the world’s most important resources needed daily to solve problems and make decisions affecting the future. According to Mchombu (1995),for any community to function efficiently and productively, a basic minimum stock of usable information is essential. Aboyade (1987) posited that adequate information is essential for strengthening the link between the indicators and the beneficiaries of development effort, and for making rural people understand and appreciate the benefits of the development programmes to their lives. What people accomplish in organizations, he added, depends largely upon the information and knowledge they possess. Increasingly the degree of success enjoyed by organizations and the people who work for them depends on how well they manage their information and knowledge. These are the strategic assets of the enterprise.
The Civil War
The decade long civil war (1991-2001) which caused untold suffering to the people of Sierra Leone was rooted in many years of injustice, bad governance, corruption and mis-management. Currently the country is in the throes of post-war reconstruction with government’s most developmental challenges being democracy and good governance, improved economy, health, education, mining, human rights and food security, rural development, anti-corruption and improved road infrastructure. These challenges require:
o effective public administration and economic management
o development of viable manufacturing, service and foreign trade
o harnessing of Science and Technology including Indigenous Knowledge.
These form the basis of the country’s Vision 2025.
To facilitate the afore-mentioned access to information and knowledge assumes a central role. A cursory historical reference is enough to substantiate this view. When the civil war broke out in 1991 the official explanation shared by Sierra Leoneans was that it was a skirmish between Charles Taylor’s NPFL fighters and Sierra Leone soldiers over a business transaction. Hardly was there any information on the true identity of the RUF, their ideology, ultimate objectives and operational strategy and the international dimension of their activities. Consequently the war was not given the attention it deserved. The lack of knowledge or sufficient information was reflected on some of the terms used to refer to the RUF even when the war swallowed up the country. In fact, regrettably, even the root causes of the conflict were not properly understood or analyzed to form the foundation for peace initiative. Thus the country was destroyed to reckless abandon.
Access to information and knowledge is indispensable to individual advancement as well as to national growth. The right information provided when it is needed, where it is needed and the form in which it is needed, improves the ability of an individual and business, a government agency or some kind of organization to make informed decisions and achieve particular goals. The added value that is derived from access to information and knowledge is that the nation will benefit and it will take less time to be reflected in our output as individuals, as institutions within a country, and as a nation as a whole. What we produce, consume and exchange as a nation determines our status in relation to others across the world. It is the extent that we are able to be creative in our respective spheres of activity that determines how well or badly, we perform against others. The UNDP says it all.
The concept of access to information and knowledge in Sierra Leone has restricted application and interpretation. It is concerned with the machinery of promoting journalists and other media agencies with access to those constituent elements in news making and delivery. Hardly any mention is made about access to information and knowledge outside these parameters. Sadly this much talked about access is severely constrained by many factors to include weak communication systems, low literacy level, poverty, passive and stereotyped services offered in libraries centered on donated book collection, language barriers and above all the lack of political will to bring certain kinds of information to public knowledge.
The library scene in Sierra Leone
Libraries command respect in society as storehouses of knowledge. Their value is acknowledged without reservation as huge sums of money are spent on them especially in advanced countries for the provision of timely and accurate information. Sierra Leone’s library scene is made up of public/national, school, academic, teacher training college, polytechnic and special libraries, documentation, information and resource centres. These institutions vary in size and complexity and collectively they are the foundation on which a nation-wide information network is to be built if they are to provide effective access to information and knowledge in the country’s post-war reconstruction era. It is, however, unfortunate to state here that these institutions are not developing according to national plan and consequently their growth continues to be uneven and lacks cohesion. Also financial support is not keeping pace with increasing cost; the libraries are under increased pressure to give a service in more breath and depth to a wide range of clientele that vary in age, education and interests.
ROLE OF LIBRARIANS IN PROMOTING ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE
Not withstanding these problems librarians have a part to play in order to put the country on a sound developmental footing, especially with the provision of access to information and knowledge. Librarians see themselves as equipped for consideration as integral partners in national development. They regard themselves as knowledge-oriented professionals trained not only to process what we often refer to as Explicit Knowledge i.e. printed and audio visual materials, but also to take active interest in their clients to the extent of providing services that could be of interest to them. Over and above all they are adept at providing order in an otherwise disorderly collection of material to facilitate easy reach.
Sierra Leone is faced with a range of issues like environmental sanitation, democracy and good governance, poverty alleviation, food security, health, drug abuse, unemployment peace and reconciliation, trauma healing and crime rate. Coupled with these is an array of discrete groups of users to include ex-combatants, war amputees, women and children, farmers, carpenters, market women, the elderly, herbalists and Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), all of whom need information and knowledge of varied kind on how to acquire and improve their skills, information on the economics of their trades, marketing strategies, access to social and political information. Political information is of paramount importance as come July 28, 2007 the country will have a General Election to vote for a new Head of State and his Vice, Parliamentarians and a Referendum to amend the 1991 Constitution. The adult population are all voters and most of these are non- literate and depend for information on what they hear. Unless easy access to information is available such people remain vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation by persuaders with selfish agenda. This brings librarians to adhere to the concept of outreach.
As information brokers librarians should be able to provide accurate and timely information and very liberally too, so as to reach all sectors of the population. Information should be provided at all level, in the rural areas and at national level, if not beyond. Development can only be achieved when people have the right perception of what, or how to develop; and the provision of the right information and knowledge will improve people’s quality of life. In their dissemination of information and knowledge to their respective clientele librarians should take a proactive stance. They should organize a range of services and activities in their libraries to sensitize the public on topical issues like voter education, poverty alleviation, democracy and good governance, the IMF and World Bank and their conditions, Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and food security. Also they should organize exhibitions and give public lectures and Talks on development issues, mining, economic integration, adult literacy and environmental sanitation in the local language widely spoken in the community. Documentaries on topical issues like economic reform programmes, foreign trade, health, the Constitution and the Public Order Act should also be done and availed to clientele for use in their communities as awareness raising measures. In such programmes librarians need to work collaboratively with opinion leaders like chiefs, religious leaders, teachers, social and extension workers and NGO officials working with the grass roots. Since there are community radio stations located in all the districts librarians should partake in radio programmes (Information on Air Programmes)where by developmental issues affecting their communities could be discussed.
As professionals, librarians should ensure that they support and promote nation building activities and this could be facilitated with the provision of resources at their disposal to policy makers, researches, those working with the grass roots and even interested members of the community. Provision should be made in the form of print and non print materials like books, magazines, directories, reports, guides recorded cassettes, films, video recordings, educational packs to rural communities and database. They could even use ICT facilities at their disposal and where possible they should place this stock either on separate shelves or close to stock that is frequently used in their libraries. Equally so librarians should use their libraries as publicity centres where posters, notices, job adverts (to cite but a few examples), and meetings could be displayed and held to discuss key community developmental issues. In this regard librarians should be masters of the contents of their holdings. Each should make him/herself something of a specialist over at least some part of the library holdings and should be in position not only to assist users but also to advertise the potential of their libraries.
In a largely non-literate society like Sierra Leone the librarians’ role in stimulating people’s desire for access to information and knowledge is crucial. In the rural areas for example, where librarians deal with non-literates, they need to redesign their programmes to meet the varying needs of their clientele. These programmes should aim not only at improving the quality of life of rural people but efforts must be made to mobilize them. The programmes should, inter alia, guide the rural people to opportunities in occupations, health, housing, education and employment. Libraries should become centres of information to lure patrons to be using their holdings targeting such groups as the economically and socially disadvantaged groups e.g. children, women, the elderly, prisoners; people that want to improve their abilities through self-education like industrial workers, farmers, community leaders and religious groups. Special techniques should be applied to facilitate access to information and knowledge. This could be attained through the establishment of Learning Centers for adult literacy learners and Village Newspaper/ Reading Centers, performance services and theatre groups, groit, praise singers (‘Yeliba’) and other traditional forms of entertainment. The knowledge thus gained could help raise their standard of living such as agricultural techniques, land fertilizing, improved health care, improved livelihood as well as better understanding of their civic rights and democracy.
Networking activities should be developed among librarians for the provision of adequate, relevant and timely information and knowledge. Librarians should, for example, work collaboratively in organizing training sessions for staff, book fairs, exhibitions, production of reading materials for new literates, conducting book donation campaigns and encouraging professional writers and publishers to write and publish for the rural poor, children, women and new literates, and persuading the government to lower tariffs on printed paper to reduce the cost of production. They can even come up with jointly published library manuals and an abridged edition of DDC Scheme. Librarians should also support awareness raising activities, research and advocacy in their communities as a means of attracting support from the government and the international community. These programmes should be constantly reviewed for effectiveness of purpose.
Librarians should provide well designed programmes for specific information so as to bring such groups as women together to discuss topics of common interest such as gardening, health-related issues and their civic rights. They should also make provisions for the youth and those that work with this vulnerable group in society to discuss their problems. Since all these moves are centered on finances librarians should be able to market their provisions and services by introducing public relations services in order to promote their services and garner financial support. Staff engaged in the afore-mentioned activities should be hard-working, dedicated and constantly trained to meet the challenges that may arise. Hence staff should be allowed to be attending conferences, workshops, seminars and even formal courses to keep them sensitive to new roles. By so doing librarians will be able to turn their institutions to focal points through which government and other agencies can be informed about concerns, problems and reactions of the communities they serve. This will enhance development.
Indeed in order to provide access to information and knowledge in post war reconstruction librarians should play a leading role. Their role should not only be limited to the provision of book and non book materials but should go further to help their numerous clientele to make meaningful use of these materials for self enhancement. The fact in the main is that information and knowledge are essential ingredients in the Knowledge economy and for society to develop it is the duty of librarians to bring to bear their skills for individual self enhancement. This therefore calls for collaborative effort to bridge the information /knowledge gap in society.