By Mary Nell Bryant, M.A., M.L.S., U.S. Foreign Service Information Officer, retired (Washington D.C. Chapter, Social Science Division)
Best Practices for Government Libraries is a collaborative document that is put out annually on a specific topic of interest to government libraries and includes content submitted by government librarians and community leaders with an interest in government libraries. The 2011 edition includes over 70 articles and other submissions provided by more than 60 contributors including librarians in government agencies, courts, and the military, as well as from professional association leaders, and more. Best Practices is edited by Marie Kaddell, Senior Information Professional Consultant; SLA DGI Chair. If you did not write for this year’s Best Practices, Marie invites you to submit a guest post for the Government Info Pro email@example.com.
In 2003, a tenuous peace took hold in Liberia, following 14 years of civil war. Since holding elections in 2005, the country has been knitting back together, the threads of its society, government, economy and institutions. With most of its never extensive infrastructure destroyed, many of its educated workforce gone, and little foreign investment, rebuilding Liberia will take years if not decades.
Key to the redevelopment of Liberia is the establishment of a stable, transparent and effective government. Closely monitored elections in 2005 were deemed by the international community to be the most free and fair in Liberia‘s history, and gave Africa its first elected female president, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The United States has been in the frontline of countries providing development aid and technical assistance to Liberia. A key pillar of that aid has been legislative strengthening, through the work of the National Democratic Institute.
The initial strategic planning document for modernization of the Legislature, written in consultation with the Legislature and NDI, USAID and the House Democracy Partnership, included the necessity for a legislative library and research capability. And that is where I came in. As a former librarian in the Congressional Research Service, and as staff to the House Special Committee on East European Parliamentary Assistance in the 1990‘s, I had spent many years consulting on the development of legislative libraries and research organizations. Over the past year, I have made three trips to Liberia to work on the creation of such an entity for the Liberian Legislature.
What did I find? Certainly, not a country on the brink of an e-revolution. As per 2008 statistics, less than one person out of 100 had any Internet access, and only 19 out of a hundred had telephones. Electricity was and is scarce, particularly outside of Monrovia. With 84% of the population below the international poverty level (UNICEF 2008), a GDP per capita of $128 U.S. and employment in the formal sector at 15% (U.S. Department of State), e-government and e-initiatives remain small, but are critical to development. Currently, Internet access is limited primarily to some government agencies, NGO‘s and businesses in urban areas. Liberia currently has no access to a submarine cable or fiber optics. Any access is relatively slow, unreliable and extremely expensive.
The current legislature is bicameral, with 64 representatives and 30 senators. Relative to the executive branch, the Legislature is relatively weak. Weak party structures and personality driven politics are only part of the problem. When I first arrived in May 2010, there was no computerization, no Internet, an untrained, bloated staff, no bill tracking system, no legal code, no archives of previous legislation, no systematic record keeping of legislative activity and no library.
A legislative library did once exist, created in 1976 with 6,000 volumes. Then the wars began. Over the years of conflict, the library was destroyed and almost all documents were lost. What remained were some document cases, stored in an uncontrolled environment. Even the bookshelves were gone. During my first visit in 2009, the then director reported that they had had no materials since 1984. “We fought among ourselves and destroyed our own institutions,” he said. A large staff was kept on the payroll, and they tried to keep the piles organized and dusted as best as they could. There was no one on staff who had any training in librarianship.
Through the aid of the U.S. government and the technical assistance of the National Democratic Institute, the library exists again, formally opened on April 27, 2011. The story of the herculean effort to provide planning, design, reconstruction, furnishings, collections, staff selection and training is beyond the scope of this article, so a few photos will suffice.
The final touch, prior to opening was the introduction of the Internet. Its installation was completed in early April, just prior to my arrival on April 12, 2011. It was time to get down to work, but where to begin? It is hard to remember back to a time when we did not know computer basics, and yet that was our starting point. The basic concepts one uses in searching the Web seem innate to those of us working in the field. We have internalized the basics of Boolean logic, critical thinking, web site evaluation, search concept development. Coming up with alternate search strategies is second nature. Error 404 messages are just an invitation to try an alternative. Not so if you have no familiarity even with the concept of searching for information, electronic or otherwise.
The staff I worked with were a select group chosen from among the larger staff that had stayed on in the empty library over the years. Hence, there was still no one with any library training at all. I had done some basic reference and technical services training on previous visits, so knew that I had to begin Internet training with the absolute basics. We learned the meanings of AND and OR through participatory exercises such as having everyone wearing blue stand up AND everyone wearing yellow stand up. Try that followed by blues OR yellows standing up.
Core to successful web searching is defining alternative strategies. To help develop that way of thinking, we broke into small groups and learned to brainstorm subjects, scribbling on flip charts, broader, narrower or similar topics. At first, staff were concerned about getting the words right or wrong, and it took a good bit of cheerleading to urge them to just write whatever came into their heads. The staff was more comfortable with linear thinking, and the concept of right and wrong answers, and of one right way to do things. Operating in a web environment with multiple options, and multiple possible avenues to find what you are looking for took some getting used to.
Finally, we were ready for the computers. Repetition in different forms was the key to success. Naturally, we began with browser and search engine basics, using videos, power point presentations (lots of screen shots lest the Internet crash) and very simple initial exercises. I found that evaluation of web sites had to come early on both to evaluate the quality of what they found, but also to get them to focus on content and detail. Once we went through several tightly controlled exercises of evaluation, the group really began picking up on it and you could feel their (and my) excitement.
Perhaps the most exciting of all is how in only a few sessions, we had several of the staff cataloging their own books on a LibraryWorld system. Again you forget that you are not born knowing what a call number is or what it looks like, or that books can be arranged by subject. Yet starting from the difference between Dewey and LC classification, the meaning of ISBN and LCCN, from identifying authors, titles, and publication dates, the group moved quickly as we went title by title, step by step to where they were cataloging on their own. By opening day, they had their online web-based catalog to show off. To my knowledge, it is the only web-based catalog in Liberia. When the Legislature has a web site, the next step in their e-development, one will be able to search the catalog from the web site.
It is a relatively quiet time in the Legislature, and the Members are busy stumping for elections, planned for this fall. In the interim, the Library staff will be sharpening their skills, “e” and otherwise, designing products and services, developing procedures and of course marketing their new jewel. It has been an honor for me to be part of the process.
To see the original article (and more photos) visitBest Practices for Government Libraries and go to page 222.
Ms. Mary Nell Bryant joined the Frost Task Force, following 13 years of experience as a research librarian at the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. As part of the Frost Task Force Staff, she worked on the development of legislative libraries in nine countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Following this work, she became Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and served for fifteen years working with and planning for government libraries in Vietnam, Brazil, Serbia, and Afghanistan.
After leaving the State Department in 2009, Ms. Bryant has worked as a consultant with Development Alternatives, Inc. of Bethesda, MD, the National Democratic Institute, and has worked on digital library projects for the Department of State and the Peace Corps.
Ms. Bryant holds a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Social Science Education from the University of Florida, and an M.A. in Library and Information Science, from the University of Chicago.