header image
Home arrow Higher Education Policy arrow ROLE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LIBRARIAN IN THE INTELLECLTUAL LIFE OF THE UNIVERSITIES

ROLE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LIBRARIAN IN THE INTELLECLTUAL LIFE OF THE UNIVERSITIES

A text of a speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, Minister of Higher Education at the Third Annual Conference of the University Librarians' Association held at Galadari Hotel on 8th June, 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

It is with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation for the Third Annual Conference of the University Librarians' Association of Sri Lanka, and the theme of the Conference is Librarians in Higher Education. This, in my view, is very relevant and pertinent a theme in the given context as our Government is presently engaged in evolving a development-oriented Higher Education Policy for Sri Lanka. Before I embark on a discussion of the need to formulate a new Higher Education Policy, it would not be inappropriate to refer to certain aspects of the Library tradition and Library development in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has had a very rich library tradition from very ancient times, and this great tradition was integrally associated with the unique monastic literary tradition of Sri Lanka. Historically speaking, the ancient library tradition could be traced back to the first century BC, and the concept of the ‘Pot Gula' - a library in its incipient form - came to be accepted and every monastery or Buddhist temple maintained a library in its rudimentary form. It was in this form that monastic libraries developed in the country and they became part and parcel of the island's library tradition. In addition to the religious -oriented monastic literary, the religious and monastic needs demanded a compilation of bibliographies as well, and the system though primitive in character and methodology, explained some vital aspects of the intellectual life of ancient Sri Lanka. These things amply demonstrate that Sri Lanka has had an intellectual tradition, according to which there was both production and dissemination of knowledge, and the ancient Library probably played the key role in the process. It was on this ancient tradition and institutions that attempts were made to build several important Libraries in Sri Lanka during the colonial period. It was during this period that there was an interest in discovering intellectual wealth of the nation and a programme was initiated to collect the ancient manuscripts which, more than anything, showed the nature of our intellectual wealth, and the search for such documents, in the end, resulted in the establishment of the Government Oriented Library in 1866 and the Colombo Museum Library in 1877. The primary function of the former was to collect and preserve Buddhist manuscripts, and every Buddhist monastery of the ancient period with their pantheon of scholarly monks, had their own Library which, then, was a store-house of knowledge; the access to it, of course, was limited. It was in this form that Sri Lanka' s library culture began to develop, and it, as expected, took a new turn with the establishment of the University of Ceylon, which, in fact, provided leadership for the professional development of the Library science in Sri Lanka.

The whole process of Library development in Sri Lanka came to be consolidated with several innovations by the Government, and the relevant legislation was enacted in the late fifties. Such institutions as the National Book Trust and the Sri Lanka Library Sciences Board came into existence, and the network of Public Libraries were established. Today there are 6584 Libraries in the country, out of which 1386 are in the Western Province. This could be attributed to the nature of economic and social development in the Western province. One can say that there is a fair distribution of libraries in all the provinces but the question is whether they are properly equipped modern libraries. They still remain in the traditional mould and the impact of modern technology is not felt within these institutions.
With this information in the background, I would like to advert my attention to the role of the Library in the sphere of Higher Education, primarily in the Universities sector of the country. It is relevant in this context as this is the Third Annual Conference of the University Librarians' Association which, in the last 25 years had done a considerable amount of work to promote high professional standards in the field of University Librarianship. In my view, the University Librarian has to perform a unique role in the production and dissemination of knowledge, and this is of fundamental importance because the Library, as a knowledge institution, has undergone a tremendous change due to the impact of modern technology. Modern Library is primarily technology-oriented and it is no more a collection of books and catalogues. Sir Ivor Jennings, writing his Student Guide to University Educatin in Ceylon in 1948, stated that - "in very large measure a University education is built on books. In University language an undergraduate does not ‘study' History, he ‘reads' that subject. Even that part of University education which lies outside the chosen ‘subjects' is dominated by books. A graduate is not educated unless he has covered a wide range of reading in many fields of knowledge and experience which are not directly tested by examinations'. This clearly explains that an undergraduate has to read, and the University library has to provide the required facilities for the undergraduate to acquire knowledge through reading and research. It needs to provide facilities for both the undergraduates and lecturers, and it is in this connection that one can say that the University Library is not a collection of text books. It is a working library which provides for teaching, reading and research. In this respect, the University Library has a special role to play in promoting reading among students and research among the academic staff; in order to achieve this objective, the University Library has to collect material relevant for research and this task, as I understand, should fall on the shoulders of the Librarian, who, apart from his professionalism, needs to be an intellectual.

I would like to bother you with another quotation from Sir Ivor Jennings , which I think is relevant to my assessment of the role of the University Library in the area of research. - ‘For the research worker and the post-graduate student, the Library is indispensable, because he cannot possibly be expected to possess all the necessary books himself. In fact, unfortunately, even the University Library may not be able to satisfy all his needs at present, and his research may be handicapped thereby'. Jennings expected the University Library to develop into a main research Library, and the responsibility was with the Librarians who adorned the Peradeniya Library in the last fifty years. Ian Goonetilleke, the doyen of bibliographical studies in Sri Lanka, was the one who converted the University Library at Peradeniya into a fully-fledged research Library, from which many a researcher has immensely benefitted. The Library at Peradeniya, with its unique collection on Sri Lanka, became a centre of excellence which maintained highest professional standards in the field of Librarianship.

The Libraries in the Universities are being transformed as institutions in an information society. Information technology has converted the Library into a very modern institution, and several innovations have been made under the computerization programme called "Library Automation". The Library, with these modern innovations, has become an institution with global implications and it is this aspect which needs further elaboration in the context of the global processes of Higher Education. The scientific and technological progress that took place in the last several decades has had an effect on the Higher Education sector, and developments in both information and telecommunication have revolutionized the capacity of libraries to store, transmit, access and use information. This means that knowledge and access to knowledge are becoming important and relevant to social and political transformation in the developing countries. It is now accepted that Higher Education, if planned properly with right public policy objectives, could lay the foundation for a knowledge economy. In other words, policies in the fields of Higher Education have to be formulated to achieve such objectives as access, quality ad relevance. It is in relation to the enhancement of quality that Library, with its new techniques and resources, could play a new role, for which the Universities system and Libraries should transform them into developmental-oriented institutions engaged in the production and dissemination of knowledge.

Universities, like all institutions in the field of education, must be prepared to make use of the opportunities available in the knowledge economy to formulate new policies to make the Universities more meaningful and relevant. In other words, it means that meaningful reforms are necessary in the Higher Education sector to make this sector more relevant to the process of social and economic transformation. The reforms in the Higher Education sector need to be introduced within a coherent policy framework based on a clear vision. It means that the country needs a long term development-oriented comprehensive system of Higher Education which, while enhancing the quality and relevance of the existing system could provide an impetus for an accelerated process of change in the country. The whole process needs to be knowledge-driven, and it is in this context that the Professional Librarian has a vital role to play in converting Universities into centres of learning. Modern Library and the Professional Librarian can access the available technology for the promotion of learning in the Universities and it is through the proper utilization of technology that knowledge can be harnessed to improve the effectiveness and expansion of learning. Learning, in my view, enriches the intellectual life of a University, and the present-day undergraduate, who is bent on obtaining a qualification, needs to be encouraged to acquire knowledge through reading. I emphasize this to help the graduate to overcome the criticism that he is not properly equipped with both knowledge and skills to meet the challenges in the world of work. Yet another criticism is that the reading habit, through which knowledge is easily acquired, has declined and this needs to be restored by creating the most relevant and appropriate impact in Universiy Librarianship so that the University Libraries could become development partners in Higher Education. The reading habit has declined in England and it has been revealed that despite the proliferation of excellent books, reading is becoming increasingly unpopular among children. According to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1977, 23 percent of the children said that they did not like reading at all. In 2003, 35 percent of the children said the same thing. It was discovered that nearly 6 percent of the children leave primary school each year, unable to read properly. The reason attributed to this decline is the availability of computer games. The failure rate at the GCE/Ordinary Level in Sri Lanka is something similar to this, and effective measures, including proper policies, are necessary to defeat this trend. In England, a Reading Recovery Programme has been introduced to help the children. Reading is a life-long pleasure which needs to be cultivated because attachment to books is an excellent predictor of future educational success. Undergraduates in Sri Lanka do not read much and look for short cuts to obtain a paper qualification and the Universities, with the cooperation of the Professional Librarians in the Universities, should take immediate steps to produce a graduate who is eternally involved in the pursuit of knowledge. It is on the basis of the realization of this objective a culture of learning can be built in our Universities. The Professional Librarian, in my assessment, is an integral link in the development of an intellectual culture in the Universities, and this Conference should discuss the relevant issues which need to be articulated to make the professional Librarian a unique kind of intellectual, like the late Ian Goonetilleke of Peradeniya who brilliantly epitomized this unique role of an intellectual cum Professional Librarian.