Imagine a university where the power is on only a few hours a day and the Internet connection is so unreliable or painfully slow that it takes upwards of 20 minutes to send a single email.
That’s the situation at the University of Mkar, a liberal arts college in West Africa’s Nigeria. Because connectivity is so poor, the main way faculty and staff communicate is via cell phone.
Duncan Alford, associate dean of the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and director of its law library, experienced these challenges for himself in May, when he spent nearly three weeks at Mkar on a Fulbright award to attend a conference on citizenship and work with library staff.
Said Alford, “Not having power at night means you cannot work at night. I’m used to reading at night, and I had planned on using my nights to prep for the conference. Well, there’s only so much work you can do by flashlight. Those are their realities.”
The conference and his presentation on how the U.S. Constitution evolved accounted for a small portion of Alford’s time. The bulk of his Fulbright was spent working with librarians and administrators at the university’s general library to develop a plan to manage its holdings, build resources, and enhance the required research course.
Mkar’s library, serving a student body of 1000, holds 10,000 volumes. Mkar students compete for one of the 90 seats in its 4,000-square-foot building, working more often than not only by dim natural light.
“They have a card catalog, but it hasn’t been updated, so they don’t have a good control over what they have in their collection,” Alford said. “Their budget is tight, and half of their collections are donations.”
Alford helped Mkar librarians draft a collection development policy and write a statement to give to donors, usually from Europe or the United States, on materials that would be most useful.
He also added practical assignments to Mkar’s 100-level research course to help students identify, understand, and use resources, including the library’s only electronic resource – eGranary, a digital library that developing countries like Nigeria consider their “Internet in a box.”
“Essentially, portions of the Internet have been put on a hard drive so the university can network it,” Alford said. “Here in the U.S. we would never do that because our power is always on and our Internet access is good. They don’t have that. Even when they have power, the Internet is too slow.”
eGranary includes Wikipedia and major websites such as ones for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as web pages from think tanks and public websites.
“It gives them something and a level of control because their infrastructure is not reliable. This is their workaround,” Alford said.
Alford said Mkar’s edition of eGranary was outdated. It was purchased in 2006 after the university opened and hadn’t been updated since. Because of the importance of eGranary as a resource to Mkar, he recommended it be updated every three years.
“They’re capable people; they just don’t have the resources,” said Alford.
Taking Tech Home
Titus Nomsure is among the most capable at Mkar. An information technologist, Nomsure accompanied Alford back to South Carolina to see how USC’s libraries operate. His trip, a first for him outside Africa, was made possible by the School of Law.
Said Nomsure, “The first impression I had of your libraries is the intensive use of ICT (information and communication technologies) and hi-tech facilities, and the level of automation in the libraries,” Nomsure said. “Another thing that stood out most was the quality of services being rendered to your library users. Everything was done promptly and according to schedule.”
“They understand that the knowledge economy is coming,” Alford said. “Titus and others at Mkar recognize that more and more information is going electronic, and that they will simply never have the space to have a library collection like we do. They are looking at leapfrogging technology. Rather than go through a print era, they want to go straight into an electronic era, but they have the current infrastructure problem.”
While at USC, Nomsure spoke to a legal research class and lectured with Alford on Nigeria’s legal system; outlined a plan for Mkar’s purchase of Follett’s Library Manager, a software system that will help automate library operations; and explored ways to connect Mkar’s library to the Internet through a separate server.
Alford and Nomsure continue to stay in close contact.