A Nigerian Journey

Much is being written in these fast-paced times about the future of libraries and librarianship. Opinions and prescriptions come from every corner of the information sector: academia, technology companies, consortia, standards bodies, professional associations and ad-hoc interest groups–many independent observers add their own perspectives to the conversations. Sometimes, though, stories tell us more than reports, theories, and conference proceedings. Stories from men and women who try, in their everyday professional lives, to improve service to library users. We want to share these stories as we discover them, and make them a regular feature of our blog. So if you have, or know someone who has, a good story to tell, please let us know.

For our inaugural piece in this series, we begin with a travelogue from our own David Dorman, who has been working for over five years with librarians in East and West Africa.

NIGERIA ON MY MIND

This last trip, my twelfth, was my longest ever to Nigeria–the whole month of March. It started out in typical fashion with a Friday afternoon flight to Amsterdam and a late Saturday morning flight out of Amsterdam to Kano. But my itinerary was a departure from routine because instead of launching into work with my colleague after a day to recuperate from jet lag, which was the usual procedure, I had planned a week in Nigeria on my own before our consulting work began.

I have been traveling to Nigeria twice a year for the past five years as a technical consultant to the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs as part of a Carnegie and MacArthur funded project to help six public Nigerian university libraries to automate. During these visits I grew very fond of both the librarians and the IT people I worked with, as well as the country in general. Nigeria is not, however, the easiest place to visit. In many areas, electricity is as noticeable for its absence as for its presence, and running water is often not available as well. Getting used to the bucket method of washing is a practical necessity.

But because my trips have been funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation, we always had a car-for-hire to take us from city-to-city if we didn’t fly. So on this most recent trip I explored additional options when I discovered it was going to cost me $335–and that figure was negotiated down from $550–to hire a driver to take me from Kano to Yola, where I planned to spend several days. So the next morning I went to a Kano “car park” to get the Nigerian equivalent of public transportation: a dilapidated Peugeot station wagon that carries 7 passengers. I didn’t mind the 90ºF temperature without air conditioning–heat and I are good friends–but I was crammed in so tightly I could barely shift my weight during the 8 hour trip. However, the price was right: $17.

After several days in Yola, I returned to Kano and continued on to Katsina, where I had made arrangements to see SolarNetOne at Umaru Musa Yar’adua University. SolarNetOne is a pilot project to deploy and test a solar powered LAN. You can see the pictures I took here. It was initiated by Vincent Cerf, is being built by GNUveau Networks in Florida, and is currently being pilot tested at Yar’adua University. The concept of a solar powered LAN is a promising one for developing areas of the world–especially for primary education support–but there are a few kinks yet to be worked out with the prototype I saw: the terminals are too small and the batteries are wet cell. But I understand these problems will be corrected during phase two of the pilot. A more fundamental shortcoming is the lack of bundled Open Source application software and Open Access content that could make it a turnkey learning resource right out of the box. The folks at GNUveau Networks should check out the content and delivery mechanism being put together by OLE, the Open Learning Exchange at http://ole.org/ (not to be confused with Kuali OLE, the Open Library Environment project which was recently given $2.4M by the Mellon Foundation), which was founded by Richard Rowe, who some of you may remember as the founder of RoweCom in the late 1990’s.

After almost two days of seeing SolarNetOne and tooling around Katsina on the back of motorcycles–the standard form of “taxi” in most Nigerian cities– I headed back to Kano to pick up my colleague from the Mortenson Center at the airport so we could begin our work with the university libraries.

Carnegie and MacArthur have provided significant funding to six Nigerian universities:

  • Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria
  • Bayero University Kano
  • Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife
  • University of Ibadan
  • University of Jos
  • University of Port Harcourt

The foundations fund The Mortenson Center to provide consulting and training services to the libraries to facilitate library automation. In early 2006, when the libraries selected a vendor–they wisely chose to pick a single vendor–support for an open source solution was not available, so an OSS option was not even on the table. In the end, the libraries chose the VTLS Virtua system, and the company has provided excellent support–above and beyond the call of duty.

After a vendor was selected and the decision to purchase made, the role of the Mortenson Center was to provide encouragement, planning assistance, training in such areas as cataloging and systems operations, as well as to evaluate progress and generally nudge people forward. Not that they needed nudging: the Nigerian librarians I have worked with are some of the hardest working and most dedicated librarians I have known. I don’t think many US librarians would put up with the challenges they face on a daily basis and still preserve their optimism, dedication and work ethic: frequent power outages, numerous strikes (usually over pay), woefully inadequate Internet bandwidth, rampant corruption and little money devoted to higher education are some of the major hurdles they face on a regular basis.

Our usual plan to make the rounds of all six universities was aborted when 350 people were killed in and around Jos a few days before we were scheduled to travel there. Because the killings were partly caused by–and significantly inflamed–ethnic tensions, and because we were traveling with both a Muslim and a Christian from Nigeria, we felt it would not be prudent to travel to and around Jos. But we made it to the five other universities and were delighted to find that all the libraries had at last installed and were using–or about to use–the VTLS software.

Now that the libraries are well on their way toward implementing OPACs, my work with the Mortenson Center to support the LMS implementation will be winding down. I think my major contribution to the success of the project was to structure the ILS procurement so that the libraries paid for the software license and five years of support in one up-front payment. This was important because funding agencies never provide ongoing support, and it was important for the project–given the vagaries of local funding–to have at least five years of paid-up support before needing to become sustainable.

But my involvement with Nigerian libraries will not be ending. My years of involvement with the libraries have, on a personal level, created a desire to continue to work with them. I am currently trying to foster the development of an Open Source Software search system that can be effectively deployed in a low bandwidth and resource-poor environment. This is an effort that I believe could have significantly more impact on delivering higher education services in Nigeria universities than implementing library management systems.

All the OSS tools needed to create such a system exist, but it’s going to take some development to glue them together, and a modest amount of funding to provide the necessary training to manage, update and support the service. In addition to encouraging the libraries to apply for grants, I am hoping to interest a US library agency or consortium to sponsor the programming and training needed to deploy what I like to call a “Virtual Library In-A-Box.”

All ideas and offers of help are welcome.