Vol. 5 Num 2 Sat. May 29, 2004  

Libraries in search of a future

In April 2003, while I was in Bangladesh as a Fulbright scholar, hundreds of angry Bangladeshis protesting the Iraq War marched in downtown Chittagong past the entrance to Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB). Inside, I sat with Nahid Akter, Director of the American Corner, discussing the role that her institution was playing in providing resources to an information starved country. The American Corner, which the U.S. government established in January 2003, is a satellite office of the Information Resource Center (IRC) of the U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Section in Dhaka.

The Corner operates much like a branch library and provides a small number of American magazine and newspapers and documentary videos and reference books on American history and culture, as well as vital information about getting admitted to university in the U.S. There are also two computer terminals which IUB students and the members of the public can use (on payment) for word processing and to surf the web.

"We plan to operate much a like an American public library and develop a lot of programmes that will allow us to reach out to all types of Bangladeshis," Akter explained. "We want to promote an understanding of the policies, values, culture and society of the United States."

In the wake of the Iraq War, however, giving a positive spin to the American experience has been a hard sale in Bangladesh, as it has been in other Muslim countries. Four police officers were posted inside the entrance door to the IUB, but no attempts were made to march on the American Corner, nor has its staff been threatened. And despite Uncle Sam's growing presence in the Muslim world, many Bangladeshis expect the American Corner to have a positive impact on Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city with three million people.

"The fact is many Bangladeshis who want to get educated or who want information for their schooling or jobs need access to the American Corner and the country's other European cultural centers," explained Golam Sarwar Chowdhury, Professor and Chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Chittagong.

The other European centers that Chowdhury referred to are the British Council, the French Alliance Center, and the German Goethe Centre, each of which has branches in Dhaka and Chittagong. In 1955 and 1956, The U.S. Information Resource Centre opened branch libraries in four additional cities. Each grew to include about 4000 books, but the U.S. government closed them all in the 1970s.

By far, the largest and most dynamic cultural centre is the British Council,

which has about 8000 books in Dhaka and another 3,000 in Chittagong. In comparison, the IRC in Dhaka has a collection of about 2,000 books. The two British Council resource centres differ in their content because each caters to local information needs. For instance, the British Council library in Chittagong focuses on veterinary science faculty and students, reflecting the needs of the Chittagong Government Veterinary College, whereas no such collection exists in Dhaka.

"When ordering books, we make a special effort to contact university departments and other organisations with a special interest in our stock," explained Mark Bartholomew, the British Council's Deputy Director and Library Manager. "We attempt to give up-top-date information on publications in print to these organisations so they can choose the works most relevant to their faculty, students and staff needs."

The Alliance Francaise, which is under the aegis of the French Embassy, also has offices in Dhaka and Chittagong. "Our libraries are lavishly stocked with French magazines, newspapers and book collection totals about 5,000," said Gurupada Chakraborty, the Alliance's secretary. "In addition, we have a video club with more than 150 VHS cassettes that Bangladeshis can borrow."

As is the case with the German, French and British cultural centres, one has to be a member of the Alliance to use the collection.

The foreign cultural centres serve the big cities of Dhaka and Chittagong and don't reach the vast numbers of Bangladesh's 131 million people who live in rural areas. The Department of Public Libraries oversees the managing of the government public libraries but its responsibilities are fragmented. It's responsible for managing only the government public libraries but not the non-government public libraries, which do not have any permanent financial support and operate with the help of member fees and government grants. "That support is paltry," said S.M Abu Taher, Deputy Librarian at the University of Chittagong library. "It can't pay the salaries of the library staff, let alone the book budget or the building's maintenance."

As the non-existence of a viable public library movement shows, Bangladesh faces formidable or -- perhaps more accurately -- overwhelming challenges to providing adequate library services. Consider that, there is no automation, no climate controls, no security procedures to protect against the theft of library materials, no adequate salaries to attract quality recruits to the library profession, no electronic databases and no adequate funding. In short, Bangladesh has one of the world's most underdeveloped library systems.

"The libraries in Bangladesh are in a disgraceful condition," Taher explained. "I wouldn't know where to begin to explain the tremendous barriers we face." It has been that way long before Bangladesh became a nation in 1971. "During British rule some rich people, philanthropists and social leaders, established some personal and public libraries," Taher explained. "After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, present day Bangladesh (then East Pakistan)) was deprived of its rightful share of libraries. The libraries were managed by untrained personnel and the situation was deplorable."

After Independence, the Pakistan Library Association, which was formed in 1956, was renamed the Library Association of Bangladesh. Two IRC librarians were founding members. The Association introduced a one-year postgraduate diploma course in 1989, and then established an Institute of Library and Information Science in six divisional headquarters in Bangladesh to meet the growing needs for library professionals. In 1993 Dhaka and Rajshahi University introduced a three-year honours course in library and information science.

American libraries complain about salaries and rightly so, but in Bangladesh salaries provide a subsistence wage, not a living one. And forget about benefits

American librarians take for granted, such as health insurance or a retirement plan. Md. Abu Khaled Chowdhury, an assistant librarian at the IUB library and a graduate of the three-year honours course earns about Tk 12,000/= a month, while his assistant, also a honours course graduate, earns half that amount. "It's almost impossible to support a family on my salary," laments Chowdhury, who is married.

"Sometimes, I am amazed at how far I am able to make the money go."

One Bangladeshi professor contended that the low salaries in the library profession show how misguided are the country's priorities. "In Bangladesh, people who work in education and related fields are not respected," he explained.

The working conditions in Bangladesh libraries leave a lot to be desired. On a sweltering and humid day, Taher and I were soaked in sweat as we tour the library. I see a few fans but no air conditioning. Taher explains that the university's administration has installed air conditioning in the rare book section and the computer room. "We don't have the funding to set up air conditioning in every area of the library," the Deputy Librarian revealed.

The Chittagong University Library has a little over 186,000 books and about 26,000 journals, but both faculty and students complain that many books are missing or have had some of their pages ripped out, and a lot of the books the library has bought aren't useful to patrons. With a lack of adequate shelving, moreover, many of the books are lying on the dusty and dirty floor.

What's happening at Chittagong University reflects the crisis facing the country's library system. At the heart of the problem is corruption. As we know, in recent years, the German-based Transparency International, which monitors corruption worldwide, has consistently ranked Bangladesh as one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. Sources said kickbacks are given to bureaucrats in government when books are purchased. Books are listed as being bought that really haven't been. The record will often show many journals have been subscribed to when that hasn't really been the case.

"The problem with university libraries is that we don't have professional librarians running the show," explained one Chittagong university professor. Chowdhury provides a telling anecdote to make his point. "A few years ago, we had a university librarian who never bought one book for the library. Instead, he returned the book budget money to the Vice Chancellor to please him!"

Many academic departments in Bangladesh universities don't trust the university administration, so they build there own departmental libraries. The American Studies Department at Chittagong University has collection of 5000 books. "The way universities (in this country) care for their library collections is a joke," Chowdhury complained.

Despite the enormous challenges, there are some glimmers of library modernisation. For instance, mobile library service has been introduced an important development, because most Bangladesh libraries and all of the foreign cultural centres, with the exception of the British Library, do not allow readers to take books home. The Biswa Sahitya Kendra in Dhaka has a mobile library operation that now serves 5,000 members. Rajia Sultana Rosy, a woman user of the service, told the CTI online website, that "the introduction of mobile library service has been a blessing for women, especially housewives and young girls for many of whom it is quite difficult to visit a library regularly. Family restrictions and the general disapproval of women coming out of the house prohibits it."

Bangladesh libraries have taken their first tentative steps into the cyberspace, and local librarians see the Internet as the future of their profession. "Building a library filled with books and paper and microfilm is expensive," said Mahtab Uddin Ahmed, Director of the IRC. "The technology that can help our people access the Internet's fabulous resources aren't expensive. As a developing country struggling to grow, Bangladesh needs up-to-date information quickly. That's why we see our future in virtual libraries."

Once again the foreign cultural centres libraries are taking the lead. For example, in addition to providing Internet access to the public, the IRC provides on line searches of electronic databases. Its most recent acquisitions include Master File Premier, which provides the full text to more than 1810 periodicals covering all subjects, and Business Source Elite, which covers nearly 930 journals in business and economics.

The British Library has a Cyber Centre located in the library, which provides a basic monthly Internet training course for new users, as well as access to the Internet for a nominal fee. "Many resources traditionally available in print are now only available online," Bartholomew explained. "This poses a big problem for Bangladesh because many otherwise competent Bangladeshis lack IT literacy. Then in a nutshell Bartholomew put the challenge facing all libraries in Bangladesh, "We are reaching out but our resources are limited," he explained. "So sadly, we are only reaching the tip of the iceberg."

South Carolina-based journalist Ron Chepesiuk is a Visiting Professor of Journalism at Chittagong University and a Research Associate with the National Defence College in Dhaka.