librarianship in the arab world

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  • ht. Libr. Rev. (1988) 20, 233-245

    Librarianship in the Arab World I. ALQUDSI-GHABRA*


    In the following article I point out the main characteristics of librarianship in developing countries in general, then I discuss the status of librarianship in the Arab countries specifically.

    The risk of overgeneralization in talking about a large number of nations should not be underestimated, but it is very important to remember that these nations share general problems. These problems vary in degree from one country to another; however, case area studies should enable us to overcome the generalization problem when talking about a particular nation.


    This review is defined within the following limits:

    (1) To place the problem within its sociocultural and economic context, I looked for background material about the developing nations. Then, I chose material about the Arab-speaking countries that are representative of issues within the field.

    (2) I looked for problems addressed in the literature and proposed solutions or major actions. Active professional, national, and inter- national agencies are covered.

    (3) Books, as well as journal articles, are included. The fact that there are only a few books published in the field of comparative or international librarianship is obvious.

    The literature reviewed falls into the following categories:

    i I ) Material on international and comparative librarianship, prac- tices in and status of libraries in the developing countries.

    (2) Descriptions, problems, and future prospects (as represented in the literature) oflibraries and librarianship in the Arab world generally, or in a specific Arab country.

    (3) Issues concerning Arab Librarianship not raised or emphasized in the literature.

    * Litwary Dcpartmrnt, Kuwait IJnivrrsity, Kuwait

    0020 78371881000233 + 13 $03.00,0




    In the literature, two terms are used to refer to studies of library systems in other cultures: international librarianship, and comparative librarianship. Some authors feel that comparative librarianship is part of international librarianship, but the two terms are frequently used interchangeably in the literature. John F. Harvey, in Comparatiue and International Library Science, feels that the majority of publications refer to international rather than comparative studies. This review is written with the understanding that the term comparative libra- rianship refers to the study of libraries and related institutions in the context of various cultures.

    In fact, the term is fairly new. Its first use dates back to 1954, when C. Dane published two articles based on his experience in a study group at the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago. Ten years passed without the term appearing again in the literature. In 1964 D. J. Foskett used it in a lecture at the University of Michigan. Since the mid-1960s, interest in the field has grown.

    Magnus Johns asserts that human recources are an important part of the wealth of a nation. In Libraries in Oral- Traditional Societies, he talks about the developing countries, where illiteracy is a major problem that hinders development and where human resources are wasted.4 Because the major means of communication in traditional societies is by oral, face-to-face encounters, an informal system of teaching, which represents an old cultural tradition, and which composes the repertoire ofwhat has been preserved by means ofmemory, exists. In such societies, a system of communication resistant to communication by means of print is a common phenomenon. Print threatens group solidarity. It encourages privatization, the lonely scholar and the development of private, individual points of view. Thus, printed means of com- munication are not tolerated in a closed system that is usually domi- nated by the tribe, clan, or family.

    Illiteracy, a problem that librarians could play a large role in solving, is addressed extensively in the literature. Librarians, among all pro- fessionals, should be aware of the potential of education and the written word. They should be active participants in promoting education. Through campaigns that bear in mind that an educated person is

    .J. Harvey (1977:. Comparative and International Lihrq Srzenre, p. vii. N.F. Scarecrow Ircss. S. Simsova (1982). 11 Primer qfComparatiue I,ihrarianship, p. Il. I.ondom Clive Bingley. S. Simsova (1975). A Handbook oJConrparatiue Lihrarianshzp, p. I 1. London: Clivr Bin&y. M. Johns (1979). Lb 1 raries in oral-traditional societies. ht. f,?hr. Keo. 11, 321. 5 Ibid., p. 326.


    a productive person, libraries could increase the developing worlds investment of human resources by broadening the librarys clientele and, consequently, the book trade and readership.

    Within a context of limited resources, particular social conditions and political institutions, the developing nations share problems that are being addressed extensively in the literature. One of the earliest works, considered a classic in the field, is Librarianship in the Developing Cow&es, by Lesther Asheim ( 1966). The work describes the philosophy, practices, and problems of librarianship in the developing nations. Meanings, roles, and status are attributed to libraries that are very different from those in the developed nations. The following major points are covered in the book:

    (1) Di$erenl connotations allached to di$renl concepts: Meanings attri- buted to what a public library is, or what childrens services would include. The concept of library would have different connotations from that in the developed nations.

    (2) DiJerent policies for di$renl p rote d ures: Problems of access to infor- mation as a result of closed-stack policies, arrangement of card catalogs, and restrictions on users, such as cash deposits for borrowing books.

    (3) Di$erent perceptions qf services: Reference services never mean searching through a variety of sources.

    (4) Acquisilionpolicies: Gifts and exchanges are accepted immediately and constitute a good part of the collection.

    (5) Librarians role: Librarians never select the material that comes into the library. Their ,job is to assign classification numbers and create a card catalog.

    (6) Significance of libraries: Funds for library development are a low priority, indicating libraries importance in government plans.

    (7) Importance of librarians: Status of professional librarians is low, therefore, salaries are low also.

    A major question is raised in Asheims study: How does the patron find the material? The author stresses that it is a question thats never dealt with. In fact, the whole purpose of people present in the library is a matter of using the premises, not the books. Are services to readers important? What is more important, the user or the book? These questions are well defined for librarians in the West, but librarians in the developing countries have to look for their own answers. Answers to these questions constitute the philosophy of the profession and, until

    H. M. Kibirgir (1977). Lb 1 rdrirs and illiteracy in dcvcloping countries: A critical assessment. I.ibri: Internatzonal Library Kmew 27, 60.

    I L. Ashrim (1966). 6bml-ianrhip in the Dewlopin~q Countnn, p. I 1. Chicago: University of Illinois Irrm


    librarians determine what their role is, their work will lack direction. Problems oflibrarianship in the developing countries touch on almost

    every aspect of the field. Jigekuma A. Ombu in Acquisition Problems in Developing Countries addresses some problems in this area. Government bureaucracies and ignorance of the need for libraries are addressed. The developing nations suffer from an underdeveloped economic struc- ture, a structure that is essential to a publishing industry. Lack of an organized book trade creates a state of dependency on materials obtained from the developed nations. In addition, only a small sector of the population is highly educated, which hinders the growth of a publishing industry that could be of interest to more than .just an elite group.

    A close interrelation exists between the cultural context, education system, and libraries, so the lack of professional librarians with the necessary skills to improve the profession and service is a major short- coming. The fact is, library education reflects a countrys system of libraries, and the library system reflects the culture of the nation.

    In Waiting for Technology: An Overview of Bibliographic Services in the Third World, Dorothy Anderson summarizes several problems common to developing nations: lack of library standards, of library legislation, oflibrary planning at the national level, ofprofessional education within the countries, with a shortage of libraries and a lack of an active professional library association. These problems, needless to say, can- not be solved by high technology or by economic assistance only. They are products of the system, and dealing with them requires more insight into proposing or planning solutions.

    The expansion within information science is reflected in assessments of problem-solving in Third World countries. The growing need for communication and information retrieval has given rise to great interest in common problems. In Automation for Libraries in Developing Counhies, Louise van Niel states that automation should make the maximum use of all available resources: people, materials, money, and machines. Librarians should also be aware that machines will need to be repaired and serviced. Related to this awareness is the need