Is the process of learning and research being hindered by poorly maintained libraries? JAMIE KHOO checks out how local libraries cater for the information age.
FOR CENTURIES, libraries were the main source of information and resource for research. But just as times have changed, its role as the sole provider of extensive information and its function as the depository of volumes and volumes of reading material have evolved.
Today, at the touch of the keyboard and within the confines of home, much of the information can be retrieved from cyberspace.
Thus, with the advent of the Internet, can libraries halt their declining appeal among users amidst an increasingly reluctant reading public?
Says chief librarian Wong Sook Jean of Sunway University College/ Monash University, a lot of people are using the Internet for information rather than the traditional method of going to books.
“Libraries are evolving very fast and we must keep up with the times. We can't afford to be complacent - we must always improve our services. The librarian's role, therefore, has to change to accommodate this new trend of searching information.
“Nowadays, we have to provide guides so that people can make good use of the Internet and get the right information and resources that they need,” she adds.
One vital service that libraries continue to offer students and researchers is the availability of specialised material.
However, researchers often find themselves up against a brick wall because resources are not easily accessible and libraries are not as user-friendly as they could be.
One of the most common complaints among research assistants at universities is the inability of staff to help them properly with their requests or their unfriendly approach to library users.
Complaints come from researchers in particular, who say that navigation around libraries is often difficult because the librarians themselves are not well-versed enough in the sources available or resources are not updated and maintained properly.
Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim of the Department of History, Universiti Malaya (UM), is among many who finds that libraries of Malaysia are lagging far behind their Western counterparts.
“Librarians don't know their roles here,” he pointed out. “They are often very unfriendly - when you go up to them, you are made to feel like you're bothering them.”
He questions the kind of training that librarians underwent. “The whole process of training archivers and librarians has to be very meticulous,” he says.
UM's chief librarian Noriyah Mohd takes pride in the training her staff receives.
“Our librarians are degree holders both in a specific subject area and as trained librarians; we are even consistently sending our staff for Masters' programmes to improve their skills,” she explains.
“This way, they are able to help students and also act as liaison officers between the library and academic faculties to find out what the departments need.”
However, points out Nor, a lot of users frequently confuse librarians with library support staff who are not as competent or knowledgeable.
Only “T” and no “I
Prof Khoo also notes the poor archiving of old material, particularly sources which are of particular importance to studying the history of Malaysia.
He cites a case of one of his students who was studying the history of education in Malaysia and could not find any copies of old textbooks
anywhere in the country. “The National Library has no excuse not to have these books. There is no sense of history here.
“In fact, you can get a lot more on Malaysian history in British libraries (as Malaysia is under the Commonwealth) than here.” The common failure to maintain libraries for the purpose of research reflects the general failure of Malaysians to understand the wider importance of research.
“Malaysians are very concerned with “IT” but it's only “T” and no “I” - they're all about technology and not about seeking information.
“The more researchers there are using the library, the better it is for the country,” he adds before pointing out the importance of research for the development of universities and the country as a whole.
“Even among students, many don't understand what research is all about. Here, the whole emphasis is on passing exams. I have had to deal with students who don't even go into the library and depend entirely on their lecture notes,” says Prof Khoo.
There is now a greater focus on the independent navigation of libraries using online resources. Centralised portals, online databases and searching for information online has shifted the focus away from bookshelves, librarians and carrels.
In UM, for example, which has 18 libraries, communication between the librarians, students and staff is facilitated by a stronger reliance on the Internet and their own in-house portals and cataloguing systems.
Chief librarian of Perpustakaan Tun Abdul Razak (PTAR) at UiTM Paiza Idris points out that since UiTM has several campuses spread out around the country, they prioritise close communication between staff of different branches and consultation of students on the quality of their collections.
On top of the face-to-face interaction, PTAR also works to develop their online services to equip all students with equal access to the resources.
“We ensure students from other branches enjoy the same treatment by providing virtual services that they can access anywhere through portal, in-house digital services, Web OPAC, Virtual Reference Facilitator (VRF), online database and also Union Catalog,” explains Paiza.
Noriyah says UM and its librarians try to keep themselves well connected with the needs of staff and students to ensure that there is adequate provision for their work.
“We also need to concentrate on the development of a stronger local, Malaysiana collection. We try to anticipate the directions that the government takes and incorporate it in our own development,” she says. The recent emphasis on science and technology, for example, is echoed in their library's move to recruit more specially trained science and technology librarians.
Sadly, says the Malaysiana collection of the National Library of Malaysia director Raslin Abu Bakar, Malaysian library users are at least five years behind their Western peers, particularly in terms of using new methods of finding information such as online databases.
Though the national library provides online databases to its users, Raslin points out that there is very low usage; the library is struggling to promote the online medium to users who prefer the old method of referring to hard copies of books.
However, despite these attempts to upgrade libraries with the latest online services and to stay ahead of the research game, the deeper problem lies within library users themselves.
Raslin and Noriyah find the Malaysian attitude towards using libraries quite appalling. Both claim that improper shelving and difficulty in locating books on racks is often due to the way the users themselves treat the books.
“Some people take a book off the shelf and keep it the whole day which makes it difficult for anyone else to use, especially if there's only one copy available; they return books to different shelves; some even hide books on different shelves,” says Raslin.
A user of the National Library Susan Teo, however, finds its standards very much wanting. Says the teacher from Port Klang, “There should be more books and more services available to the public. Most things are restricted to reference only which makes it difficult for people to borrow things.
“They should also educate the public on how to use the library and make the most out of it.”
Students from other various public universities, however, claim that their libraries are unable to provide the sources they need so they have to turn to the national library.
Student Marzaliana Othman explains that the branch of the university she is at does not have adequate resources. “I need more references and more books than I can get from my university library. There are no journals or databases there so I have to come to the national library for my research.”
International relations Masters research student Iswan Johari visits the national library every week to read newspapers and check on journals but notes that issues are not updated regularly enough.
“In research, we need the latest issues of journals and newspapers which you can't find here. Archives of journals here are not consistent – for example, you may find the January issue but the next few months after that would be missing. I come here often and expect things to be updated,” he says.
When asked about this and the lack of resources, Raslin acknowledges the problem and explains that the National Library is actually experiencing an acute shortage of space.
“When the building was first constructed, it could accommodate only one million volumes and had a seating capacity of 1,000. We now have 18 million volumes and over 2,000 visitors at a time. We simply don't have the space
“Actually, readers can request any book that has been published in Malaysia - they are all available but kept behind the 'stacks' since we don't have enough shelving outside.”
He adds that they are aware of the lack of updated material and attributes this to internal problems. Beginning this year, they have begun updating their collections but are still restricted by space.
Raslin also clarifies that the national library's primary emphasis is to build on their Malaysiana collection which includes all books published within and about Malaysia. They have other general collections but these are mainly only for reference, not detailed research.
“Students often come expecting to find specific books but we can't cater for every subject; we feel that their needs should be catered for by their university,” adds Raslin
As to how they may cater for foreign researchers, he says: “We find that most researchers that come to Malaysia usually go to specialised libraries or government departments according to their area of research.
“People looking for Malaysiana material – such as Malay studies, newspapers, Malay manuscripts or government annual reports – will come here.”
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