New National Librarian for South Africa

I can now report on the outcome of the disputed recruitment process that was discussed in a previous post, entitled, “Who should be the national librarian?”

On 18 November the Board of the National Library of South Africa announced that Mr Kepi Madumo has been appointed as the next National Librarian and CEO of the National Library. Mr Madumo holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from the University of Cape Town, and has completed a number of post-graduate management programmes. Since 2002 he has been the Director of Provincial Information and Archives Services in the North West Province. His qualifications and experience should stand him in good stead as he takes over as South Africa’s National Librarian on 1 December 2019.

Congratulations, Kepi!

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My book: brief promotional video

A brief video interview about my book, International and comparative librarianship: concepts and methods for global studies, done during the August 2019 IFLA World Library and Information Conference in Athens, has been released by IFLA.  In the interview, I give some background on why I wrote the book, and why it should be of interest to LIS practitioners as well as to professors and students in the field.

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Who qualifies to be the National Librarian?

Alarm in South Africa

Alarm bells started ringing in the South African library profession in late May 2019 when news broke that the National Librarian and CEO of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simelang, who had been expected to serve a second term, had suddenly left the NLSA. Rocky, as she is known in South Africa and internationally, holds an MLIS from Pittsburgh and a PhD in Library and Information Science from the University of Minnesota.  A respected professional, who was serving as a Vice-Chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL), she was on the cusp of being elected to IFLA’s Governing Board. The profession’s dismay was compounded when the vacant position was advertised by the NLSA Board shortly afterwards, with a closing date of 14 June. The qualifications for the position were set out as follows:

REQUIREMENTS:  MBA or equivalent. A PhD in Library and Information Science will be an advantage. At least 10 years of experience in a senior management position in a related field • Must be a South African citizen with in-depth knowledge an understanding of the PFMA, NLSA Act and government relations.
SKILLS AND COMPETENCIES: Proven track record in the successful development and implementation of turnaround strategies; strategic capabilities; ability to successfully mobilise financial resources; ability to drive the organisation to a performance based culture; proven mature leadership and management capabilities; tactful diplomat and above average negotiator.

What raised hackles was that an MBA “or equivalent” was stated as the primary requirement, with a PhD in Library and Information Science as “an advantage”. The Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) responded promptly and energetically. LIASA has in recent years has been devoting a great deal of energy to ensuring formal official recognition for professional LIS qualifications and saw this as a set-back to its efforts.  A letter of protest was sent to Chairperson of the NLSA Board and to South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture. The Executive Director of the African Library and Information Association and Institutions (AfLIA) joined in on 12 June with a letter arguing that, given “the status and role of the NLSA in Africa, as a pace setter in library development in Africa” the NLSA Board’s step would set “a dangerous precedent that other countries may think as the best and so follow to destroy the gains we have made in library development in Africa”.

A petition calling on the NLSA Board to reconsider its job advertisement was launched on Facebook. It attracted 3607 signatures. Interviewed on South Africa’s main morning news programme, SAFM, LIASA President Nikki Crowster pointed out that advertising for a National Librarian with an MBA qualification as the primary requirement “negates the professional requirements of this post and relegates this huge national responsibility to a non-librarian”.

The NLSA Board doubled down with a statement from the Board Chairperson, Mr Themba Thomas Cyril Dlamini, on 19 June:

The current needs and imperatives of the NLSA requires the caliber of candidate who is able to successfully deliver strategic and executive leadership; sound financial management; implement human resources transformation; foster strategic partnerships and effective stakeholder engagement; and promote a culture of research and innovation. The Board highly values the importance of the successful incumbent possessing LIS expertise, qualifications and experience. The application process is open to all suitably qualified individuals.

As the first incumbent of the position in question (1999-2003), I was at first minded to write a letter of remonstrance. The Board’s initial requirement of an MBA – in my not so humble opinion an overrated qualification – and the emphasis on management expertise smack of uninformed managerialism. But a reluctance to intervene in matters relating to a previous employer stayed my hand.

International practice

On reflection I realized that internationally a fair number of the world’s most effective and respected national libraries are directed by leaders who to my knowledge have no professional library qualifications. As a member of the CDNL (1992—2003), and particularly as its chair (1996—2000) I was privileged to work with many of them. For example, under Dr Wim van Drimmelen, an economist, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands was “punching above its weight” among the world’s national libraries, and Van Drimmelen was respected by national librarians everywhere. Another national librarian who played a leadership role internationally was Dr Brian Lang, a social anthropologist who served as the chief executive of the British Library (1991-2000) during the difficult years of the construction of that library’s new building. He subsequently became the principal of St Andrews University in Scotland. Lang was succeeded by Dame Lynne Brindley, who held professional qualifications and extensive experience in library management. She subsequently became Master of Pembroke College, Oxford University. The current chief executive is Roly Keating, who was a senior executive at the BBC.

It is not unusual for the position of national librarian to be occupied by career civil servants, such as Van Drimmelen, who have extensive senior management experience in other branches of government or in parastatals (institutions funded by government). Often these executives come from a background in cultural or heritage institutions. Others come from an academic background and are well-known as public intellectuals. Both of these career tracks are well illustrated by the French national library. Before its incorporation into the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994, the much older Bibliothèque nationale was directed by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, an eminent historian and writer. During 1989—1994 a journalist and newspaper editor, Dominique Jamet, led the transformation of the French national library. Subsequent presidents were Jean Favier (an archivist and historian), Jean-Pierre Angrémy (a senior diplomat and academician), Jean-Noël Jeanneney (a historian and national media executive), and Bruno Racine (a senior civil servant and author). The current president, and the first woman in this position, is Laurance Engel (also a senior civil servant and author).  All of them have with impressive CVs. In France, senior civil servants are often members of the intelligentsia.

The French example illustrates that, since libraries are associated with culture and a nation’s literary heritage, it is not unusual for the job of national librarian to be occupied by a person of literary accomplishments. One of the most famous examples of this is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, an internationally celebrated literary giant of the 20th century. From 1937 to 1946, to make ends meet, he worked as a library cataloguer in a public library. It was a time for him of “solid unhappiness”, but during this period he also wrote some of his most important short stories (Piper 2001).  His philosophically intriguing and influential short story, “The Library of Babel”, published in 1941 in the collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), describes a library consisting of an infinite number of interconnected hexagonal galleries containing all possible books, most of them pure gibberish, that can be written with random combinations of the letters of the alphabet.  It is sometimes interpreted today as a prediction of the infinite possibilities and problems of the Internet. In 1955, by which time he was already completely blind, he was appointed as director of the Argentinian Biblioteca Nacional and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Although any criticism of his leadership of the national library is overshadowed by his literary achievements, his eighteen-year tenure in the post has not been regarded as entirely positive for the national library or for Argentinian librarianship generally. It appears that he devoted a great deal of his time to his literary activities, and was in the habit of dictating his writings to his subordinates during the time he spent at the office (Sabor 1992; Rodriguez Pereyra 1994).

Another Latin American literary figure, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, a noted Brazilian writer and poet, whom I had to privilege to meet at a colloquium at the New York Public Library in 1995, took his responsibilities as the president of the National Library of Brazil (1990–1996) very seriously. He launched major initiatives for national public access to libraries, including the creation of a national library system comprising three thousand libraries, led by the National Library, and a national reading incentive system known as Proler (pro-reading) (Romano de Sant’Anna 1996). In 1996 he was dismissed. It was rumoured that his tireless advocacy for libraries had irritated his superiors in the Brazilian government.

The contrasting library careers of Borges and Romano de Sant’Anna illustrate two kinds of tension in the working lives of national librarians. One is the tension between the national librarian’s personal literary and cultural attainments – on the strength of which that librarian may have been selected – and the need to attend to more mundane matters of library management and leadership.  The other tension is that between the needs of the institution the national librarian heads, and the national library’s leadership role in the national and indeed international context.

This tension is also evident in the United States. There the Library of Congress plays a dual role as the reference library for the executive branch of government and as the national library, which requires a tricky balancing act. Can this role be better filled by a professional librarian or by a scholar and public intellectual with good political connections? In the USA the pendulum has swung back and forth. The current incumbent, Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first person of colour to serve as the Librarian of Congress, appointed in 2016, has excellent professional qualifications for the job and is respected in the library profession. She has a PhD from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago, has held a succession of  senior management positions in libraries, and served as President of the American Library Association in 2003–2004. She is the first professionally qualified librarian to serve in this position since Lawrence Quincy Mumford, the eleventh Librarian of Congress (1954–1974).  Mumford was succeeded by Daniel J. Boorstin, a lawyer and historian (1975–1987). The next Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington (1987–2015), was an internationally respected historian and an expert in Russian and Soviet studies. On his occasional appearances at the CDNL, Dr Billington impressed me as a somewhat Olympian figure, who mostly left the LC’s representation to his highly competent Deputy Librarian and Associate Librarian of Congress for Library Services, Winston Tabb. Dr Billington, an energetic and charismatic leader, left an impressive legacy at the Library of Congress, but his leadership came under mounting criticism in the years before he retired at the age of 86 – a reflection not so much on his achievements but on the dangers of continuing in the job too long.

The appointment of Dr Hayden reminds us that it is not unusual for national librarians to have master’s or doctoral degrees in LIS. This has been the case in South Africa since the 1960s. However, we may be in the minority. More often national librarians have professional qualifications in LIS but hold their PhDs in other disciplines. Among the members of the CDNL I can recall some outstanding examples, including Dr Klaus-Dieter Lehman, Director General of the Deutsche Bibliothek, who merged that library with its former East German counterpart Die Deutsche Bücherei and the  Deutsche Musikarchiv Berlin to create the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, and his successor, Dr Elizabeth Niggemann, who has played a leading role in European policy on library digitization. Both of them hold their doctorates in the natural sciences. A scientific background is of value in developing analytical thinking and intellectual discipline. A PhD in LIS should do so too, but not all national librarians with advanced qualifications in LIS have been equally successful.


National librarians have to provide leadership not only to their institutions but also to the library and information professions in their countries. They need to have a strategic vision for LIS in their countries, a vision grounded in an in-depth understanding of the role of LIS in their nation’s development and well-being. They should enjoy the respect of the LIS profession. These attributes empower them to be persuasive advocates vis-à-vis their governments and vis-à-vis a range of stakeholders in the book and information industries, in scholarly communication, and in the cultural, heritage, educational, and scientific sectors.

General conclusions

Let’s assume a contingency table plotting success against qualifications:

Contingency table: LIS qualifications v. Success

In the LIS profession we would like to argue that quadrants A and D will be most populous. My personal recollections do not provide adequate evidence to populate such a table, but I suggest that quadrants B and C will not be uninhabited either. There is much more to the job than professional qualifications. To conclude:

The national librarian does not necessarily have to have professional qualifications in LIS, but:

  1. Professional qualifications (at least a master’s degree) and experience at a senior level in LIS are a great advantage. These attributes, and the recognition they bring in the LIS profession, shorten the learning curve for the new appointee and allow her/him to “hit the ground running” and play a leadership role from the outset.
  2. The national librarian should have advanced academic qualifications, normally a PhD. The national librarian’s PhD need not be in LIS.
  3. The national librarian should be a person with an impressive track record in at least two of the following: in scholarship, as a public intellectual, and in a leadership position in government or in an institution comparable to the national library. The national librarian’s stature should be such that s(he) can gain the respect of the LIS profession, even if appointed from outside LIS.

It stands to reason that a person who combines the above three desiderata will be a strong candidate for the position of national librarian. A person who lacks more than one of them should not be considered.

For South Africa and Africa?

I’m aware that the general conclusions I’ve arrived at will not be to the liking of my colleagues in LIASA and AfLIA. However, given that librarians and information workers in many African countries are engaged in advocacy official recognition of their qualifications and expertise, I do support the position taken by LIASA and AfLIA that appointing a person without qualifications in LIS as South Africa’s national librarian would set a bad precedent.

Why? Here are some consideration to be taken into account in our region:

First, many of our institutions do not have the depth of qualified and expert staff needed to ensure continuity when a leader is appointed from outside the field. In wealthy countries with a long tradition of LIS (such as France, Japan, the UK, and the USA) the national library has highly qualified and experienced staff at all levels, right up to the level of the national librarian’s deputy. If a person is appointed from outside the field, there are good people in place who can guide the new appointee and ensure that the national library’s functions are carried out in accordance with professional best practice. In developing countries appointing an inexperienced and professionally unqualified person could have bad consequences.

Second, appointing a person lacking LIS qualifications as the national librarian would be demotivating for talented senior members of the profession who might aspire to this role.

Finally, in many countries nepotism and “cadre deployment” can result in ill-suited appointees who can do a lot of damage to the national library. As AfLIA argues, in South Africa we need to set an example for the continent. The job should not be given to some minister’s nephew, to a member of the ruling party who has made a hash of his job somewhere else, or to a senior but ineffective civil servant approaching retirement. In our region, appointing a candidate with advanced professional qualifications and experience in LIS makes a powerful statement that LIS is not for amateurs.

Outcome of the advocacy effort

In the September 2019 issue of LIASA-in-Touch, LIASA President Nikki Crowster reported to the profession that its advocacy effort had achieved some success. The Board of the National Library had revised its advertisement on 1 August with the requirement that LIS qualifications would be a requirement for eligibility. However, professional membership  of LIASA is not a requirement (Crowster 2019). The outcome of the recruitment process is awaited.


Crowster, Nikki. 2019. ‘From the President’. LIASA-in-Touch 20 (3).

Piper, Paul S. 2001. ‘For Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise Was Not a Garden but a Library’. American Libraries 32 (7): 56–58.

Rodriguez Pereyra, Ricardo. 1994. ‘La Biblioteca Nacional Argentina, 1901-1993’. Postgraduate thesis, Buenos Aeres: Instituto Torcuato di Tella. Available

Romano de Sant’Anna, Affonso. 1996. ‘Libraries, Social Inequality, and the Challenge of the Twenty-First Century.’ Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 125 (4): 267–81.

Sabor, Josefa Emilia. 1992. ‘The Issue of Librarianship in Argentina’. World Libraries 3 (1).


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Technology for social good

Not for the first time, information technology is being touted as the answer to problems besetting developing countries, offering them, it has been thought, an opportunity to leapfrog poor infrastructure. The leapfrogging notion has been debunked among others by Abdelmalek Alouawi in Forbes magazine on 22 October 2014, and by Schumpeter in his 4 August 2016 column in The Economist. But “hope springs eternal”. Currently the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the flavour of the month in South Africa. Whilst I do not doubt that the advent of “cyber-physical systems” is likely to have massive impacts on societies and the world economy, embedding technology in society and even in human bodies (count me out, please), I fear that unrealistic expectations will again distract South Africa’s policy makers from the basic, nitty gritty chores we have to tackle. For example, ensuring that rural schools are accommodated in functional buildings with running water and electricity, and that kids are taught by competent and motivated teachers – and may I add, ensuring that schools are provided with appropriate learning resources, preferably made accessible in properly staffed school libraries.

That does not make me a technophobe. On the contrary, I believe that technology can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Here is a case in point.

On 25 September Benetech, a Silicon Valley-based non-profit organization that develops software for social good, celebrated the delivery of 15 million books to people with reading barriers through its Bookshare online library service and network, which Benetech describes as follows:

Benetech’s Bookshare initiative is an online library and platform that makes reading easier for people with disabilities. Fewer than 10% of all published books are in formats that people with reading barriers can access, and in developing countries, this falls to less than 1%. The lack of accessible content affects the over 250 million people around the world who have visual impairments, and hundreds of millions more who have disabilities like dyslexia and cerebral palsy, who need books in alternative formats to read and learn. Bookshare users can read in ways that work for them with ebooks in audio, large print, audio + highlighted text, braille, and other customizable options. Hundreds of thousands of people with reading barriers have read over 15 million books using the Bookshare platform. Bookshare operates in more than 80 countries, and has a growing collection of books [approaching 760,000 titles] in nearly 50 different languages, with local content added by volunteers around the world. Membership subscriptions are available on a sliding scale based on the World Bank designation of country income levels, and membership is free or subsidized for many people around the world thanks to partnerships with local governments, libraries, and other organizations. To learn more about Bookshare, visit

Benetech was founded some thirty years ago by Jim Fruchterman to develop software and IT for social good, i.e. socially beneficial applications. Jim is an engineer who founded two successful for-profit companies and then decided to turn his entrepreneurial and tech talents to enterprises for social good, becoming a “social entrepreneur” who harnesses advanced information technology to address social problems worldwide. Jim advocates for social responsibility in the information technology industries, and served on the original drafting team for the Treaty of Marrakesh.

Bookshare is but one of Benetech’s products. Among other things, Benetech has developed software which enables activists to document human rights violations, so that their stories can be substantiated in support of their advocacy activities. Benetech has also developed open source software for environmental management and planning, which is particularly appropriate for the developing world.

Congratulations, Jim, and Benetech, on this milestone, and for demonstrating that information technology, creatively developed, can be applied for social good.


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Citation cirrhosis?

Today I chanced to see a post on Barbara Fister’s blog, Library Babel Fish, on the site of the American magazine, Inside higher ed.  Ms Fister subtitles her blog “a college librarian’s take on technology”. I generally like her posts, which are characterized by clear thinking and (un)common sense. This one is entitled “Learning why, not how”, and she makes the point that excessive emphasis on correct citation in teaching courses for first year students detracts from more important learning, namely, “engaging with ideas, or engaging with the humans who share ideas as part of a collective effort to understand the world. “. She goes on to assert that “the activity of constructing citations is used as a stand-in for what academics actually value about ethical and well-sourced argument, but it’s a stand-in that conceals rather than illuminates.”

This rings a responsive chord. When teaching MLIS courses in the USA, I was struck by how anxious my students were to follow, to the last comma and semicolon, the complex rules for citing sources according to Chicago, APA, MLA or Turabian. They were anxious because they were afraid that their assignments would be penalized for errors in their citations. In the USA grades are very important to students, who graduate in a tough job market. In many African countries, by contrast, anyone who graduates with a master’s degree can be fairly confident of getting a job, regardless of their grade. So, when teaching another master’s course in South Africa in which students from various African countries were enrolled, I was often appalled at the sloppy, inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible citations and references in the work submitted by many of the students. This has also been my experience when serving as an external examiner for student theses submitted to various Southern African universities. It would seem that in this region, little if any attention is paid to citation style. This is bad. If anyone should be able to interpret and construct citations and references, it is the librarian. In this field, we are – or should be – the experts on campus. Our LIS schools should set the example.

That said, my experience on two continents illustrates two extremes: in the USA, an excessive emphasis on following the rules; in Southern Africa, a happy-go-lucky, hit-or-miss approach to citing and referring to sources.

In the USA, citation rules are part of a significant academic industry, that of providing style guidance to students, authors and editors – not only on citation style, but on every aspect of writing and one’s work and preparing it for publication. New editions of quite hefty tomes appear at regular intervals. A case in point is the ninth edition of Kate Turabian’s Manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers, which is aligned with the 17th edition of the Chicago manual of style (CMOS). When a new edition of CMOS appears, it is a major talking point in academia. Many university libraries all over the English-speaking world have Libguides or other forms of guidance to students on the intricacies of the various styles. Among resources that can be found on-line, those collected by the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University can be recommended. The various manuals themselves can be accessed online. The body of accumulated rules, interpretations and commentaries is quite extensive, which is why I refer to it as an industry.

In that industry I’m consumer too. I subscribe to the online Chicago manual of style (CMOS). When preparing my book for publication, I followed CMOS for issues of grammar and style as well as for citation practice. (Readers can judge for themselves to what extent I succeeded.) Although I didn’t always agree, I found it really useful. As a subscriber, I regularly get to see the CMOS editors’ responses to the latest questions posed by anxious students, authors and editors. You can get a flavour of these in the CMOS Question and Answer pages. For example:

  • Q. For a book title within a book title in a language other than English, should quotation marks be inserted around the title within the title, just as we would for English-language titles (per CMOS173)?
  • Q. Hi, I was just wondering, how do you format the citation for a translated work if the name of the translator is not known?
  • Q. Hello. I am writing an essay for history in Chicago style, and when I state a fact I have been putting the number of the citation in parentheses after I have stated it. Is this correct? Example: Abe Lincoln became president in 1861. (5) Or do I need to put it as an exponent following the text?

I suppose that for the people posing these questions the answers are important, but I can’t help feeling that the arcane minutiae such as these are, when emphasized by some professors, at best a sort of mystification, at worst, a cop-out – a cop-out in that it absolves the professor from engaging with the substance of the work submitted. In the process it distorts the students’ perceptions of what really matters in scholarly writing.

When teaching in the USA, I informed my students that at the time I preferred the APA (American Psychological Association) style but that they were free to select one of the other manuals. I also advised them that, if they are not already doing this, they consider using citation management software, which will allow you to collect bibliographic data, store it, search it, and print it out in a great variety of bibliographic styles with just a few clicks. I also put in a plug for Zotero, which is free open source software. It has a number of features that are not available in commercial software, and it is portable: you can take it with you when you complete your studies and leave your school for another institution which may not have a site licence for the system used on your current campus.

I added my take on citation style:

Regardless of what style you use, the critical requirements of your bibliographic apparatus are that:

    • sources of ideas and facts are clearly identified
    • each item is readily and unambiguously identifiable
    • each item can readily be located
    • the style is used consistently

There is an additional desideratum, which follows Ranganathan’s fourth law: “Save the time of the reader”.  It is best observed by avoiding abstruse systems that are cumbersome for the reader to use.

Finally: don’t agonize over the outward marks of scholarship. Rather agonize over the content.

Accuracy, clarity and consistency are hallmarks of scholarship. But we need to balance rules with common sense and not allow the scholarly apparatus to get in the way of “engaging with ideas”.


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Libraries and systemic development work

In an earlier post I referred to the development approach known in the development literature as “transformational aid” (Riddell 2014), and which in our context of LIS I prefer to call systemic aid (Lor 2019, sec. 12.7). This involves interventions aimed at improving the overall functioning of a larger system, in this case the system of communication in science and scholarship, rather than addressing an isolated problem area. In this blog, I highlight another example, namely Lubuto Library Partners. (Disclosure: I serve on Lubuto’s Advisory Board.)

Lubuto is a US-based non-profit organization, exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)3 of title 26 of the US tax code, and has a regional office in Lusaka, Zambia, where it is also registered as a non-governmental organization. Lubuto was founded in 2005 by Jane Kinney Meyers, a professional librarian with several decades of experience in Africa. “Lubuto” means enlightenment, knowledge and light in Icibemba, the language of the Bemba people who reside in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


I like to tell students about Lubuto. The organization embodies several key principles that make for sustainable reading and LIS development. One of these is reflected in the organization’s name: partnership. This is discussed in Elizabeth Cramer’s chapter, “Partnering in international library development: Lubuto Library Development Project, Zambia Library Service, and Zambia’s Ministry of Education” (Cramer 2017). (Lubuto’s name was changed to Lubuto Library Partners after Cramer’s chapter was published.) Many well-meant library development projects fail ultimately because the project initiators neglected to consult with the leaders and authorities in the local community, the area and national administrators responsible for education and libraries, and the professional organizations of educators and librarians. In some cases, energetic outsiders have ignored the local library profession or treated its members with a disdain fuelled by perceptions of their shortcomings and lack of success – perceptions uninformed by an understanding of the obstacles librarians in many developing countries have to face. Ignoring local professionals  may work in the short term, but if these groups are not treated with respect, consulted, and given a sense of ownership, the prognosis for the project is inevitably poor.

Lubuto sets LIS development projects a good example, in that the organization has over time developed excellent relations with Zambia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education, with the Zambia Library Service, and with the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of Zambia, whose head serves on Lubuto’s Zambia Board along with other influential persons in arts and culture in Zambia.

Systemic versus band-aid approaches to LIS development

One of the most important and visible forms of LIS aid has taken the form of donations of books, journals and other materials to developing countries. Regularly we read heart-warming reports in the library media of well-intended projects in a community or school in the USA or elsewhere to collect books “for Africa”. Typically, this is an outcome of a visit to a poor community by a librarian or teacher, or of a letter home from a young aid worker, who is appalled at the lack of a school or community library there. Back home, a book donation drive is launched. Various problems have to be overcome. The materials should be (but are not always) critically evaluated for selection to prevent the dispatch of books that are out of date, in poor condition, in the wrong languages, etc.; the donation has to be transported to the recipient community; and that community has to have some scheme in place to manage the donated material. In fact, considerable local resources have to be deployed to receive and process the donated materials – resources which might have been put to better use.  Even if all these challenges are overcome, the long-term prospects for continued use of the asset thus transferred are bleak unless good prior preparation has been done and the various stakeholders in the community willingly take ownership of the project. Since books go out of date, there has to be some means of replacing worn and outdated items. From a systemic point of view, donating large quantities of books to a developing country, even if they are of good quality, can have unforeseen and harmful unintended consequences, for example by inhibiting local book production and reinforcing donor dependence.

It is important to bear in mind that the development of LIS is intimately intertwined with the development of local languages, literacy, reading and the book industries, including the publishing of books in local languages and the distribution system for books and reading matter. For example, lack of books in local languages is an obstacle to library development, but in Africa many factors affect local publishing. In my book (Lor 2019, 715–17) I illustrated this by means of the following diagram:

Illustrates factors affecting book development in Africa

Why few books are published in African languages

Ideally, therefore, to promote books, reading, and libraries, as many as possible of a range of interrelated factors should be addressed at the same time, and in a coordinated manner:Factors affecting reading, book and library development in Africa

In addressing the development of literacy, reading, and libraries, starting with libraries is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horses. Rather, initiatives in all the sectors depicted in the second diagram should be coordinated. That is why I particularly appreciate Lubuto’s work, in partnership with the Zambian education ministry, in developing learning resources in Zambia’s seven indigenous languages. Lubuto also created a digital repository on which out-of-print books in twelve Zambian languages can be accessed. Many of these titles had been found uncatalogued in the pamphlet files of the US Library of Congress. Their renewed availability serves as an example of the repatriation of African cultural heritage.

While Lubuto’s model libraries are intended to stimulate the development of libraries in Zambia and wider afield, Lubuto is involved in more basic socio-economic development work, focussing especially on children not attending school and at-risk youth, thereby tackling the very basic factors that affect literacy, reading and library development. An example is Lubuto’s participation during 2016-2018 in the DREAMS programme, funded by a DREAMS Innovation Challenge grant, focussing on keeping adolescent girls in secondary school and AIDS-free. DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AID-free, Mentored, and Safe. It is sponsored by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

A Lubuto flyer describes a Lubuto programme in Nabukuyu village in the rural Monze district of southern Zambia, where child marriage is driven by poverty and limited educational and economic prospects for girls. Project activities include “makerspace” events for skills training to increase the financial capacity of mothers and female caregivers, enabling them to keep their daughters in school; facilitating meetings of community leader to develop community-led solutions to the problem of early marriage; and provision of comprehensive scholarships to enable adolescent girls to attend secondary boarding schools.

Some librarians may wonder whether such activities do not take us too far out of the library. In my view, public and community librarians need to spend more time outside their libraries, immersed in their communities. Lubuto’s participation in the DREAMS programme is a thought-provoking example of libraries actively intervening to address society’s systemic challenges. Libraries are part of society. They thrive best when societies thrive.


Cramer, Elizabeth. 2017. ‘Partnering in International Library Development: Lubuto Library Project, Zambia Library Service, and Zambia’s Ministry of Education’. In International Librarianship: Developing Professional, Intercultural, and Educational Leadership, edited by Constantia Constantinou, Michael J Miller, and Kenneth Schlesinger, 131–43. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2019. International and Comparative Librarianship: Concepts and Methods for Global Studies. Global Studies in Libraries and Information 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter/Saur.

Riddell, Roger C. 2014. ‘Does Foreign Aid Really Work? Background Paper to Keynote Address’. Conference paper presented at the Australasian Aid and International Development Workshop, Canberra, February 13.

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What were librarians doing while Otlet was inventing documentation?

In August 2014 IFLA’s Library History Special Interest Group (SIG) held a post-Congress Satellite Conference on the History of Librarianship at the École Normale Supérieure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques (Enssib) in Lyon. Attempts to publish the papers unfortunately failed to materialize and have now been given up by the SIG.

I had presented a paper entitled “The end of international and comparative librarianship?” in which I reflected on the development of international and comparative librarianship and on the impact of globalization on the field. Subsequently I developed my ideas on the six intellectual and spatial horizons of librarianship (local, imperial, universal, national, international and global) and on the impact of globalization, in my book International and comparative librarianship: concepts and methods for global studies, published this year and launched at IFLA’s 2019 World Library and Information Congress.

I subsequently did some further work on the topic of the paper I had presented in 2014. Focussing on the period 1850–1914, which includes the Belle Époque (roughly from 1870 to 1914), I examined the growth of professionalization and modernization in the library profession more closely. The result is an article which recently appeared under the title, “What were librarians doing while Otlet was inventing documentation? The modernization and professionalization of librarianship during the Belle Époque”, in, the open access Italian LIS journal:

Here is the abstract:

In the historiography of librarianship and information work, the development of librarianship during the Belle Époque (1871-1914) has been somewhat overshadowed by the heroic and ultimately unsuccessful projects of Otlet, the Royal Society, and others to bring about bibliographic control of the world’s scholarly literature. In this article, an attempt is made to determine the issues which preoccupied an emerging Anglo-American library profession during this period. It is based on evidence provided by a selection of British and American documents and events from the 1850s onwards which were influential at that time, including Britain’s Public Libraries Act of 1850; the first world’s fairs in the early 1850s; Edward Edward’s Free town libraries of 1869; the formative events surrounding the 1876 United States Centennial Exposition; Melvil Dewey’s School of Library Economy (established 1887); and James Duff Brown’s Manual of library economy of 1903. Librarians’ concerns at the turn of the twentieth century are discussed in relation to societal trends affecting the modernization and professionalization of librarianship.

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Global Gleanings #1: inaccurate maps, fallacies & fake news,

From August 2018 LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), carries a column entitled “Global gleanings”, in which I highlight recent publications of professional and scholarly interest as well as quaint snippets from the international literature of LIS and related fields.

Space limitations preclude the publishing of long lists of references. Instead, they will appear in this blog. Here is the first such list.

Had I not become involved in library management and LIS education, I would have liked to be a music librarian or a map librarian. Both music and maps are long-time interests of mine, and my attention was drawn recently to an article by Frank Jacobs (2019) entitled “Maps showing California as an island? Meet cartography’s most persistent mistake”. Jacob writes about the Glen McLaughlin Collection at Stanford University, in California. It consists of more than seven hundred maps collected by Glen McLaughlin over a period of forty years, all depicting California as an island separated from the mainland of North America.

McLaughlin, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, started his collection in 1971when he found a 1663 map of North America on which California is depicted as a large, carrot-shaped island. Intrigued, he started collecting more maps depicting this fallacy. Although an early map dated 1597 showed California correctly attached to the mainland, from 1622 onwards, subsequent maps showed California as an island. This fallacy persisted in spite of contrary evidence. By 1747, King Ferdinand VI of Spain was fed up by this cartographic error affecting his dominions in the New World, and he issued a decree stating that “California is not an island.”  The California fallacy persisted, as fallacies tend to do. The last map showing California as an island is a Japanese map of 1865, well after extensive exploration, settlement, and the gold rush of 1849. Jacobs’ article depicts many of these maps.

This case raises the question: why did the fallacy persist so long? One reason is that cartographers relied a bit too trustingly on the work of their predecessors. Information from seafarers and explorers was used by cartographers as it became available, but for the bigger picture they relied on earlier maps. As a result, errors were copied from edition to edition, and from map to map. (Today we see this in the assignments of students who copy and paste uncritically statements they find on the web.) Another factor is political. For reasons that would take too long to set out here (but see Jacobs), for a time it suited the Spaniards to have California mapped as an island.

For those colleagues who are privileged to work with old maps – here’s a challenge to spot the fallacies that were disseminated in maps of South Africa.

This brings me to the issue of fake news.  Is the depiction of California as an island fake news? It depends. If the cartographers mistakenly believed this to be case, they were issuing misinformation. But if the maps were compiled and distributed deliberately with an intention to deceive, by persons knowing that it is not true, it is fake news (disinformation). Fake news is defined in terms of facticity (whether it is factually correct or not) and intention (the motives of the people spreading it). If the Spanish court deliberately cultivated the fallacy for political ends, it was disinformation. But if ignorant cartographers copied the error in good faith, that was misinformation. Fake news is both incorrect and deliberately misleading. Useful discussions of what constitutes fake news can be found in an article by LIS theorist John Buschman (2018) and in an entry by Bente Kalsnes (2018) in the Oxford research encyclopedia of information.

A great deal of fake news is spread ignorantly by people who believe it to be factually correct. On social media such news can spread like the proverbial wildfire, and once it has been widely disseminated, efforts by fact-checkers to debunk fake news are generally ineffective. Fake news tends to be sensational, while corrected facts are sober and draw less attention (for more on this, see Beck 2017; Meyer 2018; and Funke 2019). Politicians such as Mr Trump have muddied the waters by labelling as “fake news” whatever news reports displease them (Funke 2017). How then are people to know what “genuinely” is fake news, and what is not?

Educational and library bodies have issued guidelines for identifying fake news (see for example Andersdotter 2017; Garvey 2017). IFLA’s infographic (IFLA 2019) has been translated into more than forty languages. Librarians and educators have been engaged in teaching information and media literacy for several decades. In fact, such endeavours are one of the biggest and most popular topics in our profession. Every year scores of books are published about it. How is it then that, after a generation of students has been taught how to evaluate the credibility of news sources, Mr Trump was nevertheless elected and the British voters voted for Brexit?  Many studies have been conducted on how people respond to fake news, and various sociological and psychological factors have been identified. In the USA a study by the Media Insight Project (2017) showed that the degree to which people trust news is determined more by who shared it than by who created it. Another recent study found that people draw a distinction between information sources that are dishonest and those that are biased. If they believe a source of information to be biased, they may dismiss information provided by it even if they agree that it is scrupulously honest (Grabmeier 2019).

Not surprisingly there has been some scepticism regarding the effectiveness of the efforts of librarians and educators in “immunizing” students against fake news. Fake news is an ongoing threat to liberal democracies and combating it is a challenge to the library profession, not least because it is difficult to agree on whose truth is really truth.


Andersdotter, Karolina. 2017. ‘Alternative Facts and Fake News – Verifiability in the Information Society’. IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. January 27.

Beck, Julie. 2017. ‘This Article Won’t Change Your Mind’. The Atlantic. March 13.

Buschman, John. 2018. ‘Good News, Bad News, and Fake News: Going beyond Political Literacy to Democracy and Libraries’. Journal of Documentation, November.

Funke, Daniel. 2017. ‘Should We Stop Saying “Fake News”?’ Poynter. December 14.

———. 2019. ‘Misinformation Transcends Platforms, Languages and Countries. How Can Fact-Checkers Stop It?’ Poynter. May 15.

Garvey, Maureen. 2017. ‘Fake News– How the Library Can Help’. CSI Library Newsletter. May 25.

Grabmeier, Jeff. 2019. ‘Is That News Really “Fake,” or Is It Just Biased?’ Ohio State News. July 8.

IFLA. 2019. ‘How to Spot Fake News’. IFLA. April 17.

Kalsnes, Bente. 2018. ‘Fake News’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, September. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.809.

Media Insight Project. 2017. ‘Who Shared It? How Americans Decide What News to Trust on Social Media’. “The Media Insight Project.

Meyer, Robinson. 2018. ‘The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News’. The Atlantic, March 8.


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Pitfalls and Challenges in International and Comparative LIS Research: proposal for an IFLA satellite meeting

Pitfalls and Challenges in International and Comparative LIS Research: proposal for an IFLA satellite meeting

Today, 24 August 2019, a meeting of the Standing Committee of IFLA’s Section for Library Theory and Research (LTR) discussed a proposal I had submitted. It reads as follows:

The proposal

“While working on my recently completed monograph on international and comparative librarianship , which has a substantial part dealing with research method, I collected, analysed and evaluated many hundreds of publications reporting international and comparative research in our field. Some results of an earlier phase of this research was reported in Journal of Documentation (Lor 2014). I found that, while some excellent work has been done, a great deal of the research is theoretically, conceptually and methodologically naive.

“The thought occurred to me that the Library Theory and Research Section could play a role in improving international research in LIS. In fact, given that we are part of an international organization, and that our section “concerns itself with the continuing development of library and information science through theoretical and applied research in all aspects of the discipline”, it could be seen as squarely within our remit.

“I suggest that LTR organizes an event aimed at improving the quality of international and comparative LIS research, emphasizing how to do such research, and targeting post-graduate students, post-doc and other researchers, faculty supervising graduate research, editors of LIS journals, and the like. The emphasis would be on how to do good research, covering topics such as:

  • Theory in international and comparative research: why is theory important, and where do we look for useful and appropriate theory? There is a huge amount of theory out there in other disciplines which we have not exploited enough.
  • Metatheory and research paradigms: what are they? Why should we pay attention to them? How they can help us surface our assumptions, enabling us to focus our research more clearly when researching internationally
  • Methodology for international and comparative research: choices between quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods approaches
  • Is there a comparative method? Some aspects peculiar to comparative research design and research strategy.
  • Nuts and bolts of researching internationally: any social science/information science research methods can be applied in international and comparative librarianship, but the researcher needs to be aware of the potential impact of national, linguistic and cultural differences – which of course enrich our field enormously.

“I have in mind something more than a standard LTR session with a number of papers and some limited time for discussion. I suggest that we think of an off-site meeting or a pre-conference of a full day or possibly one-and-a-half days, depending on the proposals received and the location. It will be unashamedly about “how to do it good”. Possible components:

  • A few invited lectures on major themes such as phases of research and research decisions
  • A few invited lectures by experts from outside of LIS, e.g. a political scientist, a comparative educationalist, a cultural anthropologist, a development sociologist
  • Critical dissections of some published research
  • Reports by researchers engaged in international and comparative research, volunteering to share with us their challenges, solutions, rationales
  • A research clinic for students seeking advice on what they are trying to do
  • A session for journal editors/reviewers on evaluating international and comparative research”


The proposal elicited many useful comments and suggestions, and it was decided that a group be constituted to pursue this idea with a view to organizing a satellite meeting at the August 2020 IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Dublin, Ireland. A good number of members volunteered to participate in the planning process, and we are trying to arrange an informal meeting of the group in the coming week.


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My Google Scholar profile: automatically generated bibliographic garbage

Some years ago I acquired a Google Scholar profile. I added a photograph of myself, a brief CV, and some keywords describing my research interests. Google Scholar now builds a list of all my publications and on an ongoing basis it updates the number of citation to each. It also calculates an h-index and an i10-index, and lists such of my co-authors as have appeared in my references publications. All quite cool. The idea behind it is to increase exposure to my work. If people are searching for my work on Google, my profile is supposed to come up prominently in their search results and they can more easily find relevant publications of mine. Google Scholar collects citations to my publications on an ongoing basis. It gave me the choice of allowing it to update my publications list automatically, or to check additions and changes myself before they are added.

I decided for the latter, and now I’m in a bind.

Every few weeks Google Scholar pops up with an e-mail message, “Time to update your articles”. This happens when Google Scholar has found some new citations or picked up a new publication of mine, and tells me that it has suggested updates for my profile. Here is where the system is less than cool. Almost every time I am asked to allow a reasonably good bibliographic reference to be overwritten by a garbled version produced by someone who was not taught reference technique in high school. Unfortunately, Google Scholar’s algorithm is not able to distinguish between accurate, complete and well-constructed references and those found at the end of D-rated student assignments. Should it give precedence to a reference contributed by its author? Hmmm. Not every author creates good references, even to own work. Maybe references created by librarians should receive automatic precedence? Same reservation here.

I have no choice but to inspect and correct the new citations, lest my list of references become infested with automatically generated garbage.

All of which reminds me that it is quite some time since I last updated my list of publications on this site. I had to update it recently, so here it is, along with a list of unpublished papers. They are not perfect either, having been built up over several versions of citation management software. The latter is a story for another post.

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