Quality and Value: A Library User Perspective
Keynote Address at the 1994 Joint PPM/LAS Congress "Towards Achieving
High Performance Libraries - Vision for the future". Organised by Persatuan
Perpustakaan Malaysia with the co-operation of Universiti Sains Malaysia Library
I have some bad news for you. There is no paper and there will be no audio-visual aids except for myself.
I wanted first of all to say how much I love librarians. I have been involved in the information business for many years. And any organisation that I work with that is involved in campaigning on issues, I judge them by the librarians they keep and the libraries they manage.
I have also spent so much time in public libraries and enjoyed all the little bits of information one gets from these libraries. And for me on this particular occasion it is very nice to see people from a number of countries here in Penang and I remember those years that I was librarian of the Penang Library which you know is the oldest public library in this part of the world. I enjoy learning about people and places and I want to share a couple of things with you.
For those of you who are from Australia, we have some special links in the name of a person called Light. The father Francis Light established the British settlement here. Colonel William Light designed Adelaide in Australia and ended up as the Surveyor-General in Australia. Recently a novelist was excavating the history of the mother of William Light and came up with some very interesting information as to how the mother, Martina Rozells fought for her property rights in that particular time and really was very badly treated by the persons who were running this particular settlement. But there is this kind of history that is still hidden in the libraries and in documentation on Penang. The hope is that a novel will come out of this and maybe even a movie.
For those of you who are from Brunei, of course we have a very special link in that a large number of people from Penang particularly Universiti Sains Malaysia have been linked with the new University in Brunei. We have this very beautiful relationship and one that I hope will be a long-time link between the two of us.
For those of you who are from Indonesia, Penang has always had very special
links with Acheh and for those of you who are interested, if you go to Acheen
Street, that was the street where all the bookshops about Islam and all the
printing shops were. It was a very active and thriving centre of learning for
Islam and about nationalism. It is still there although on a smaller scale.
For those of you from Singapore, you know our library here was founded two years before the settlement in Singapore itself and Raffles who founded Singapore and gave his name to libraries in Singapore actually operated from Penang itself and it was from Penang that he decided that Singapore seemed to be a much more convenient and wonderful place for the future and that Penang was good for a number of other things. I'm glad in fact that he left Penang and left us a little bit of peace and quiet and that we did not become a mega city.
But one of the other special things is that Penang Library has a very special collection associated with the named "Logan". For those of you who are interested in research, he used to run "Logan's Journal" which was one of the very special journals in this part of the world. He left his whole collection of books to the Library and there is a monument to Logan in the courthouse. He was a very special person also. Not only was he literate in a whole range of areas, he was the kind of person that the keynote speaker was speaking about. He was also a successful lawyer and because of that they had a special monument for him in the courthouse itself-a rare honour.
For those of you from Thailand, you know that the Queen of Thailand spent some times in a school here. Penang also had very good schools and not only very good schools but very good girls' schools also. So, many people in this region sent their daughters for education in Penang. Usually also, people in the region and among the Chinese community particularly, when they wanted to marry a nice, good, virtuous girl, they usually got a girl from Penang.
For those of you from the USA, one of the interesting things that I learnt when I was in the library movement was that one of the best books about Malaysia, about the history of Malaysia, about the colonial Government of Malaysia, was written by an American and it was promptly banned by the British because it told us about our history in the way the British didn't like. You may want to explore that particular book. Since then, of course, this book is widely available.
I just gave these little links because I think if libraries are to mean anything, they have to be about the past, about the present and about the future and these links only come if you link facts like this and if you link people.
I also, because history is so important, wanted to share another important element. Just this year itself, one of the greatest libraries in the world is now being redesigned, rethought of and this is the library in Alexandria in Egypt. If you go back in history, that was probably the greatest library ever and that library is where Euclid and Ptolemy and Archimedes, people like that, were in 4th century B.C.
They had a competition recently for designing the new Alexandria Library. About 1,400 people from 77 countries submitted architectural ideas for this particular library. It shows you how a library can capture the imagination of so many people in so many countries. They wanted to resuscitate this ancient library. The prize was won by a Norwegian company and it is quite interesting. They had as a mission (and this is interesting in relation to what people expect of libraries) to develop a universal modem library, and they used the word universal. The library actually belongs to the world. If it hasn't got universality, then it is nothing as a library.
The second element was that it was going to be a centre of culture. A third element was that it was going to be a centre of science and, fourthly, a centre for research. These were the goals that were set in designing this particular new library.
I am just going to describe what the library looks like because this again captures, in a sense, the soul of how people feel so strongly about great libraries and how important libraries are as the soul of nations. And it should be like that for our nations.
They have, for Alexandria, a building which is actually designed as a circle, a huge circle, like the sun and it's like a disc which faces out at a certain small angle. The roof leans towards the sea just as the sun is rising out. The library hall levels are cascades of terraced spaces and above the ground there is a cliff composed of all kinds of scriptures and engravings. There is an arrow and a wing that connects the whole structure. The whole building faces the Mediterranean Sea. It contains not only an area for books but also a planetarium because of the connection they feel with the world and with space. They feel that kind of vision, not just thinking in terms of earth but thinking of the whole of space. This is very important as a concept for people who are learning and thinking in the library. It also overlooks the sea so that you can have a feeling of the horizon.
Now, this library captures some of the kinds of things that for a whole nation, if you want to have a library system, you must begin to think of.
I was trained in economics and in economics there is always a very great struggle between those people in the supply side of economics and the demand side of economics. Similarly in libraries too, you have the supply side librarians who are very often stuck in books and buildings and bureaucracy, and the demand side librarians who are very much concerned with people, passions and particularities - very special needs of different kinds of people. Therefore, there is also this need for this balance between the supply side and demand side.
If we look at the information scene at the moment, it's a very bewildering and complex one. As the consumer himself is not a homogenous standard guy, it's very complex. There is a multiple range of personalities and people's needs. So when we're talking about needs of users you're not dealing with one, you're dealing with a whole, you can say, magnificent mess of people and trying to deal with this is one-of the great challenges. And if we look at the information scene, there are basically four major aspects we have to deal with now from the point of view of people who are users. And I'm using, since fires have become a burning issue in this country, some pyrotechnic terms and I hope you'll forgive those terms.
First is, the sheer explosion of information. Consumers or users are going to have to deal with this tremendous expanding universe of information. How do we deal with so much and with this so much, people have these theories about how you can have contradictory forces. Although there is too much, you end up, in fact, with people learning too little as a result of it. You actually have the wrong end, the wrong effect, because there is so much that people shy away from it and you actually end up having this (effect). So, too muchness can actually consume people to actually shying away from the whole system. So we have to deal with this explosion of information. That means organising it in ways in which people can consume it in bits, at the right time, at the right place, in the right quantity. And we have seen how, very often, our information systems are not designed in that kind of way. I remember when I was running the Penang Library, one of the first things that we did was that we said, "We are going to open on Saturdays and Sundays, and for three months in the year just before the exams, we are going to open until 10 o'clock at night." And this was largely because the bulk of the people who were using the library at that time were young people who were also using the library as a learning centre and we thought, "Here we have an opportunity of making them feel that the Library was their friend."
The second word is implosion. We are having to begin to have to know more and more things in greater and greater depth in order to cope. And that kind of implosion, that is, knowing in depth about issues, also is becoming a greater and greater demand. So, on the first hand we have too much, second also we have to know much, much, more detail and that also requires certain special skills. And consumers want that: they want you to be able to help them not only find their way but also to be able to have that kind of depth that means you can be right up in the frontier of an issue.
The third, is what I call displosion. There is the disintegration and cracking or breaking up. Our societies, as they are also getting closer, they are also breaking up in many ways and splintering in terms of interest; splintering in terms of centres where knowledge is. So, while we seem to be getting closer, you find different places organising different kinds of things. If you take our country, you find we are moving in so many different directions as we sort of explode in development that getting connections becomes a very, very difficult issue. If you want something you find only a little bit of it is involved here; something else is involved somewhere else and you never get a total, complete picture. Things get splintered. The organizations which have money run away with certain kinds of things; those that maybe are needed much more may not have the money; they have little bits, and if you want any kind of comprehensive picture of anything, you may have to ask five different places before you can ever get anything proper. We are now moving, in many Government agencies, toward one-stop centres and I think in the whole information area, unless we move also to that kind of culture where somewhere people can feel, "I need some information. What is the number I ring up? I know that if I want the Police, I ring up 999. When I want information, where do I ring up?" And there is nothing in people's mind of that kind (of culture) and when someone wants some information now, its very complex. They don't know really where to go. They say, "Okay, who is in charge? Maybe, we'll ring this Department." And I have done this exercise and for most things, you'll find an average of five referrals before you can get anywhere. Now, we are moving to the Post Offices where our Post Offices are doing quite a lot of things and maybe one of these days, in the information area, there can be some kind of way whereby our libraries and our information centres and our Department of Information and our newspapers can get together where basic kinds of information can be linked up and given quite quickly and easily in whatever form-and this should also be done in a form that enpowers or strengthens our library movement in this country. People can feel that libraries do play a role; they are useful and that we are linked to them and they are responsive. Otherwise now, at the moment, the whole place is so splintered that people don't feel a sense of libraries being there as a kind of continuous exemplary service that is available.
The fourth 'plosion' is the techplosion: the technology and the whole question (surrounding it), the fact that now we have not only to deal with books but a whole range of new things: ability to start using computers, ability to have CD-ROMS and a whole range of things like E-MAIL, and that is a whole new thing. So with people who have not even got into the book culture suddenly having to deal with a whole new technology, you lose, immediately, a whole population. You can move them away. How do we make all this technology also user friendly to people? How do we cope with it? How do we also make sure that we don't reach the stage where people who don't know about this technology or are not able to have access to this technology can still have information. And that is part of the challenge, and for many of these things, I say that whatever we do in our system, always, always still keep the pigeons. Like now we have new kinds of systems of electronics and everything else, but keep the pigeons - keep the simple forms of still being able to get the information very healthy and alive. People are finding this in lots of different fields. In agriculture, you know when we are moving on to biotechnology and so on, we are still going round making sure that we keep seeds, the original seeds, somewhere and seed banks all over the world are becoming very important to keep. When we get back to original learning again, we have to come back to books and to people and if we don't come back or don't keep the links with human beings and keep the links with what are the basic sources (where people actually write down something), we can lose everything. You know all the computer things very often are very great but very often with just one button you can get wiped out totally. And whole countries now, in a sense, can be brought down to a standstill by very simple things like no electricity. Banks cannot operate. They say, "Sorry, no electricity!" and they can't give you your money. So we have to develop systems that are both people friendly and also sustainable in a way that we don't get caught by technology in such a way that it becomes a very high price to maintain and a high price also when it does not operate. For those countries who are moving very fast, this becomes very, very critical.
Apart from these four trends, I think the other major challenge also is that we need to make a distinction when we are talking about information. There are a number of different things. One is the tension between information and knowledge. Too often people are talking only of information but in talking about knowledge, making sure how much of the information can actually be transformed into something that can be retained and be used is very important and I think that is one of the challenges we have in servicing people.
The second is also how do we, as libraries, help in the process of translating that knowledge into wisdom because knowledge does not mean wisdom. Again, knowledge can be used for all kinds of things and so there has to be a culture which enables the transformation of knowledge into wisdom.
And the third is wisdom by itself is not enough if it is not used. We have to also develop a culture where we can transform the wisdom into action. The people who are wise should have a culture of feeling they want to do something and how do we promote that doing culture in our societies?
And lastly, the doing must lead to a certain, very clear goal, very clear vision. In our country we have this clear vision, despite the haze, that we are going somewhere and that we have a certain criteria. But in going to that vision, there are a number of, at least three, particular tensions that are very important in the new, so called, new information age.
One is that there is going to be a very big tension between the local and the global. And it's so easy with the new information age to be swamped by the global. How do we strengthen our local institutions, our local people, our local knowledge base? That is our own base in making that (the local) constantly strong. And this means every aspect in terms of culture. Otherwise what can happen is that with all these super information highways, they will do exactly what our road highways do to our country. They make it easy for you to go to one place or another but it destroys the whole village culture around the place, in the sense that people no longer have access and people don't pass through these villages anymore and they disappear from the scene. And if you're not careful, this can happen also in the global sense with these information highways. So, (we need to be) balancing this global and local and making sure whatever we do globally is rooted in very successful community centered activities. And if the library movement is going to mean anything, it's got to be something in every village, to every person in that area. It's not going to be something that only means something to people in Kuala Lumpur or those who are nicely connected-Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca: the highway people.
The second constant tension, if any nation is going to mean something, also is the tension between the past and the future. It is so usual also to lose all the heritage of the country and in the rush for the new, new things, many, many old things will disappear. And we know the saying that in the Third World, and I suppose it's in many other places, when a wise man dies, a whole library dies with that person and that happens particularly a lot for us. And libraries are dying - we don't have a way of looking up those (wise men). And, if the libraries don't die with these people, you know the climate and other things also takes care of it because things deteriorate very quickly.
The third tension area is this constant tension between the material things and the spiritual things and I think the library movement too, if it's going to mean something to human beings, has to have that kind of image. It's got to have a soul, it has got to be interested in the larger things apart from the very, very material things. And we know that the "new" culture, the supermarket culture, the megamall culture is a very, very strong element now in our societies. Libraries, in a sense, get marginalised outside. How do we in fact bring the whole information learning process right down into the centre of life instead of the centre becoming what is the materialistic culture - the culture in our supermarkets and in our malls.
So the last few comments that I'd like to make is that I think if we're going to meet the real challenges of people, if you're going to be friendly, then one of the challenges is that our own librarians have to be more appreciated in this country. The whole profession in terms of grade has to much more highly treated, seriously. If it (the profession) is going to be treated at the level of warehouse managers then it's going to be what the people are going to get. But if it's going to be treated differently then it's going to be something. Libraries and librarians need to be very, very much more highly regarded in this country.
The second is that books and the learning culture also have to be far more vigorously regarded in this country. If you don't, then again there is no point having all the greatest libraries in the world if you don't have that culture and context for people to link up with this. So, we need a strong leadership, a strong culture for that.
And the third, of course nothing is going to happen if there are no resources. I think for resources itself, as consumers we feel we have a right to these kinds of things. It's not a question of people being generous in giving this. I think information, like toilets and health services, are all very central things for our life and we have a right to have a very good system. And if we don't do this, in any case, any country that now ignores information management as in the previous civilizations - the height of every civilization was when it knew how to use information; that's when the civilization was high-when it begins to lose that and becomes government by song and dance or management by slogan and culture by Disneyland, you lose all that. Then you're finished and you get back very quickly into the Dark Ages. But if you want to be in the frontiers of that (situation) then you have to make that investment in information. We can see in this region a country like Singapore, just for sheer survival, has to think in this kind of way, just because of its compactness, because of its both economic and social dimension. Other countries too must be.more assertive in this area.
So these are some of the messages, at least from my side. I know I have not talked a great deal about efficiency and effectiveness but I thought the previous speaker did that quite well and that I would just give a few general remarks of how I feel. The whole library movement is important for this country and if together we can make it into a people's movement, it will then serve the real need that it should serve.
Thank you very much.
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