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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Systemic library development aid: INASP and Lubuto annual reports

For those of us interested in LIS development in the countries of the South, two annual reports were published this week that are worth looking at: INASP’s 2017/18 digital annual review, entitled Building equitable knowledge ecosystems, and Lubuto Library Partners’ 2018 annual report, entitled Libraries breaking barriers.  They are quite different organizations, but they share something I appreciate, namely a systemic, approach to library and information development in the developing world.

INASP, originally the International Network for Access to Scientific Publications, is an Oxford-based non-governmental organization which has been involved in the development of libraries, information access, scholarly publishing and scientific research in the developing world for some twenty-five years. Its focus has evolved over the years. Initially it became known to librarians as one of the main players involved in promoting access to knowledge (A2K), mitigating intellectual property restrictions by means of negotiated journal access schemes for developing countries. In such schemes development agencies help libraries in developing countries to provide access to the world’s scholarly journals – largely unaffordable to libraries in less affluent countries – by negotiating with publishers to provide access at significantly reduced rates. INASP’s journal access programme was known as the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERI), the later phase two of this programme being named PERii.  Other organizations and initiatives in this field include Electronic Information For Libraries (EIFL) and The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library (TEEAL). For more on the A2K context of these schemes, see Chapter 8, Section 8.3 of my book.

INASP did not stop here. When it was found that scholars in some developing countries were not making as much use of their free or low-cost journal access as had been hoped, INASP developed programmes to train library users and to improve the expertise of university library personnel so as to better serve their users. Programmes were also developed to help university IT departments to manage their limited bandwidth more efficiently. In a number of countries INASP helped the country’s librarians to set up national library purchasing consortia to negotiate directly with publishers for more favourable subscription costs, allowing the earlier journal access schemes (PERI and PERii) to be phased out.

In order to remedy the imbalance between the North-South flow of scholarly information and the very limited South-North and South-South flows, INASP embarked on projects to provide electronic access to journals published in the South. The first of these was African Journals Online (AJOL), which today hosts 524 journals from 32 African countries, including 261 open access journals. AJOL was subsequently spun off to a non-profit organization in South Africa. In partnership with Canadian-based Public Knowledge Project (PKP), similar schemes were set up in Central America and a number of Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines. Programmes were launched to develop the skills of the developing countries’ authors and journal editors. A Handbook for journal editors was published, and training workshops were held.

In recent years INASP has shifted its focus increasingly to support scholars and scholarship in the developing countries.  This is reflected in the focus of this most recent annual report, which refers to INASP’s mission “to increase the visibility, capacity and involvement” of these scholars, and which focusses on themes such as “employability for social change”, “evidence-informed public policy”, the assessment of journal quality in developing countries, and the building of “global platforms to support strong and equitable research and knowledge”. Equity is a key theme this year, as “inequities within and between research and knowledge systems prevent the full potential of Southern talent from being brought to bear on local and global challenges”. In line with this, gender inequity in particular is being addressed, and a number of dialogues and partnerships were initiated to improve the gender balance in higher education and research.

These activities fit into a development approach which is referred to in the 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 a following blog I’ll expand on this notion, while also looking at the annual report of the Lubuto Library Partners.


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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Libraries burning again

In 2013 I published an article in Libri about the alarming number of cases in which community libraries had been deliberately set alight in South African townships and informal settlements. Reportedly, this was done by individuals or groups from the communities which those libraries were intended to serve (Lor 2013). What was particularly distressing to South Africa’s library profession was that this was happening after the end of apartheid, under a democratic government which has been making considerable investments in expanding access to library and information services.

After the publication of the article and a related article on “Risks and benefits of political visibility” (Lor 2016), my attention shifted to other areas, and especially the imperative of completing my book. Having not paid much attention to events in community libraries, it was with dismay that I read a statement issued on 13 July 2019 by LIASA President Nikki Crowster, reacting to the burning down of the Letsopa Community Library, in Ottosdal, North West Province.  The Letsopa Community Library was completed in 2014 at a cost of ZAR 12 million (approximately USD 1 million) to serve one of the poorest communities in the province. It was reported to be a state-of-the art community library, which included a toy library for children and special facilities for the blind.

A few minutes’ web searching turned up several more recent cases in which libraries have been damaged or destroyed by arson during the last year: at least three cases during July 2018 and three more during July 2019. The fact that these cases occur in July may be a coincidence, or it could be significant.  In July it is winter here, and the frustrations of residents lacking reliable water, electricity, sanitation, and road infrastructure must be aggravated by the cold, dark days. Underlying this comment is the general assumption that these incidents are part of “service delivery protests”, where residents of townships express their dissatisfaction with local conditions in demonstrations which routinely turn violent. During the protests, major roads are blocked by burning tyres, vehicles are stopped, looted, and torched. Schools, youth centres, municipal offices, clinics, and municipal vehicles as well as the homes of some elected municipal councillors, have been targeted, along with factories and businesses in adjoining industrial areas and private vehicles which inadvertently entered the conflict zone. In the nearby coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, it has been estimated that damage caused during recent protests amounted to around ZAR 50 million (approximately USD 3,5 million), and that the town’s image as a popular seaside destination, built up over years, has been severely damaged.

It should be noted that libraries are not the only facilities subjected to arson attacks. They are by no means the most frequent targets. The assets targeted may bear no relation to the subject of the protest. Schools are frequent targets in protests entirely unrelated to education. In the Zebediela area of the Limpopo Province, a primary school library was set alight as part of protesters’ move to shut down all schools in the area – an action which would have dire consequences for learners preparing for their end-of-school examinations. The reason for the protest? Community members are demanding the construction of a tarred (macadamized) road to serve the community. To outsiders it is puzzling that community members seem bent on destroying the facilities which have been provided for them since the end of apartheid, facilities intended to serve as an instrument of development. There is little evidence that libraries – like schools – are being torched for any reason other than they happen to be there, and that they are seen by the protesters as part or symbol of government.

Various explanations have been offered for the frequency of community protests and the violence which accompanies them. The explanation most often advanced is frustration with the lack of services provided by municipal and provincial government, as mentioned above. In May last year the Minister of Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Zweli Mkhize, reported to Parliament that 87, roughly 31% of the country’s municipalities are “dysfunctional or distressed”. In May this year, the Auditor-General reported that only 18 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities audited had “clean audits”, and that the situation had regressed since the previous year. Community libraries, as municipal agencies, cannot fail to be affected by the crises affecting far too many municipalities. Schools, although not run by municipalities, are frequent targets too.

Secondly, it has been suggested that the protests can sometimes be linked to power struggles within the political party controlling the municipality. A position as a mayor or municipal councillor offers tempting opportunities for self-enrichment and nepotism, hence there is intense competition for these positions.

Thirdly, it is often reported in the media that “criminal elements” exploit the popular discontent, officials stating in the case of Plettenberg Bay, that

the overwhelming public evidence is that this is rampant crime, accompanied by violence, looting, theft and the vandalism, malicious damage of public and private property; with a total disregard of the losses and major inconvenience to business owners, their employees and families…

In earlier cases, it was reported that equipment such as computers was stolen before the buildings were set on fire, while theft of computers and other valuables from school premises remains widespread.

Fourth, the violent contestation can also be interpreted as a legacy of apartheid. Frustrated by the lack of response from the post-apartheid authorities, communities are reverting to a repertoire of actions which they had employed during their struggles against the apartheid regime.

Journalists, political scientists, sociologists and criminologists have written extensively about popular protests (summarized in Lor 2013). It has been pointed out that the term “service delivery protests” is an over-simplification, because not all protests are concerned with poor service delivery. Instead, the term “popular protests” is preferred. The various disciplines take different approaches to this phenomenon. One of the more graphic and insightful studies was that carried out by an interdisciplinary team at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. The title of the report, The smoke that calls, reflects the rationale often cited by protesters: setting fire is the only effective means of drawing the attention of the authorities to their grievances. The researchers pointed to the rapid processes of post-apartheid class formation, in which “a new elite is emerging” along with “a large underclass of unemployed and precariously employed persons”. They placed this in the context of the transition from apartheid to democracy, which they saw giving rise to “fierce struggles over inclusion and exclusion within the elite, between elites and subalterns, and within the subaltern classes themselves” (Von Holdt et al. 2011, 6). These struggles involve contestation over what it means to be a citizen, and play themselves out in community protests.

Where does this leave libraries?

There are no easy answers. Libraries need to be embedded in their communities. They need to be physically located there, even if it places them in harm’s way. If communities are distressed, libraries will be affected.  Ultimately, if we as librarian believe that in the long term libraries contribute to the development of healthier, socially cohesive and inclusive communities, that is where libraries need to be.


Holdt, Karl von, Malose Langa, Sepetla Molapo, Nomfundo Mogapi, Kindiza Ngubeni, Jacob Dlamini, and Adele Kirsten. 2011. ‘The Smoke That Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Struggle for a Place in the New South Africa. Eight Case Studies of Community Protest and Xenophobic Violence’. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; and Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2013. ‘Burning Libraries for the People: Questions and Challenges for the Library Profession in South Africa’. Libri 63 (4): 359–72. doi:10.1515/libri-2013-0028.

———. 2016. ‘Risks and Benefits of Visibility: Librarians Navigating Social and Political Turbulence’. Library Trends 65 (2): 108–27. doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0025.


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Resources for open access, open educational resources, open science, and more

In this post I highlight the work of Denise Nicholson, Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Witwatersrand (‘Wits”), who holds a master’s degree in intellectual property law. Denise publishes a free online international information service, [Copyrightanda2kinfo] Copyright & A2K Issues, covering a wide range of topics, including copyright, plagiarism, predatory publishing, and other intellectual property matters, open access, open publishing, open learning resources, institutional repositories, scholarly communication, digitization and library matters, mobile technologies, issues affecting access to knowledge (A2K), particularly in developing countries; World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties, reports and negotiations and matters; free trade agreements and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and attempts to expand it (TRIPS Plus); useful websites, conference alerts, etc.  The content is archived at: One can subscribe to the list at: or email It is kept well up-to-date.

She also maintains a range of useful LibGuides, among others, on Open Access, A2K & Scholarly Communication, Open educational resources, Open Educational Resources for Humanities & Social Sciences: Introduction to OERs, and Scholarly Communication/Publication: Intro. They are well-organized, up-to-date, and crammed with useful links.

While writing chapters 7 and 8 of my book I made good use of Denise’s information service and several of her LibGuides, and I’m indebted to her for constructive comments on the drafts of those chapters. Chapter 7 deals generally with the political economy of information, whilst Chapter 8 is concerned with access to knowledge and global flows of information. To systematize and summarize the huge volume of writing on the latter, I used access to knowledge (A2K) as my umbrella term. Confining myself largely to scholarly communication, I placed attitudes to the intellectual property regime and the positions and initiatives taken in response to it on a continuum ranging from explicit or implicit acceptance of the IP system, through increasing forms of resistance, to rejection of it, as depicted in the following diagram (p.461):

I tend to conceptualize open access as being roughly in the middle of this continuum, since it reflects some ambivalence about intellectual property. Some theorists see the term “intellectual property” as a contradiction in terms, but depending on which model is proposed (grey, green, gold, etc.) there is implicit acceptance of intellectual property along with the desire to combat its excesses. There is much continuing discussion about this,  which is summarized very briefly in my book. Denise’s information service will help you to keep up to date.

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At last! That book

Published at last. Here is the table of contents. For publication details, see here.

International and comparative librarianship book

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