Information Access in a Developing Country: Special Libraries in Egypt

Article excerpt

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT INFORMATION ACCESS problems exist in developing countries. What is surprising is that the North American library community hasn't done more to assist these countries in improving library services. In Egypt, for example, foreign funding has resulted in the creation of a fine scientific and technical information (STI) retrieval network. This network identifies sources of STI, but it does not provide an efficient, reasonably priced document delivery service. This unfortunate planning oversight (the funding and planning were U.S.-based) became obvious to me as I visited libraries in Cairo, Egypt during a visit in February and March, 1992.

The article will describe two special libraries in Cairo. One is a branch library at Cairo University and the second is a government agency (the STI network mentioned above). The two differ substantially but they both illustrate how special librarians in Egypt provide information in specialized environments while coping with the economic constraints of a developing country.

Special Libraries in Egypt

There are 383 special libraries in Egypt (1986 data). Most are in government departments, semi-governmental institutes, and learned societies. In 1986 there were only 41 special libraries in the private sector.

Unfortunately, I could not arrange to visit any private sector libraries, but I made visits to two special libraries, one of which is fairly typical of Egyptian special libraries according to my host, a library science faculty member from Cairo University.

Special librarians in Egypt are as committed to providing quality information services to their clients as special librarians elsewhere. While special libraries in Egypt tend to have larger budgets (relative to institutional budgets) than other types of Egyptian libraries, these budgets are still very modest when compared to North American or European standards. A lack of resources, and the high cost of printed materials, has forced Egyptian librarians in all types of libraries to compensate for weaknesses in their collections. The primary means of overcoming these gaps is through strong personal networking. Egyptian librarians are familiar with the problems in their own libraries and expend a great deal of energy in making and maintaining contacts with other libraries. Of necessity, this frequently includes using foreign supported libraries located in Cairo, such as the British Counsel Library or the American Center Library. While librarians feel fortunate that they and their patrons have access to the collections and interlibrary loan networks of these libraries, it is unfortunate that indigenous information delivery systems are so inadequate. Also, and not insignificantly, the use of these libraries diverts hard currency out of the Egyptian economy, something that Egypt can ill afford.

Document Delivery in Egypt

A major problem in Egyptian libraries has been document delivery. Over the past several years, access has improved considerably through better electronic access systems and the availability of these systems through a national network. These systems are the exact systems we in North America and Europe search every day for the most current scientific and technical information. But access to the documents identified through these state-of-the-art electronic searches has not improved. What has resulted is a certain level of compromise on the part of STI seekers and librarians in that they are still dependent on foreign sources for document delivery. While the government has attempted to improve document delivery through the goals of an STI network (ENSTINET, described later), this has not occurred with any other type of information. From the viewpoint of a North American observer, it was puzzling how such a gap in information access was allowed to occur.

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