Special Libraries in Developing Countries: Despite a Lack of Computers and Information Resources and Little or No Internet Access, Special Libraries in Developing Countries Have Opportunities to Help Underserved Populations

Article excerpt

The World Bank defines "developing countries" as those with low and moderate levels of per capita income. In its 2008 survey, the World Bank (2009) classified countries with per capita incomes below US$ 975 as "low income" and those with incomes between US$ 976 and US$ 11,905 as "middle income." The United Nations Human Development Index, which considers indicators such as life expectancy, literacy rates and standard of living, defines developing countries as those lacking a significant degree of industrialization and having low to medium standards of living.

Under both definitions, more than 80 percent of the world's people live in the 100-plus developing countries. Given their low level of industrialization, minimal mineral processing, peasant-based agricultural production system, and limited levels of formal tertiary services, these countries have been slow to establish special libraries. Few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have information centers; among business enterprises, information centers are almost unknown.

An Array of Mini-Libraries

Due to financial constraints, the special libraries that operate in developing countries tend to be poorly stocked. Journal subscriptions are almost nonexistent; shelves (if they're available) are mostly empty. Barreto da Rosa and Lamas (2007) noted that a 1993 study found that "56% of the institutions in countries with less than US$ 1,000 GDP per capita have had no international journal subscription for the last 5 years, and 21% had only 2 subscriptions." There is no reason to assume that conditions have improved much, since the economies of most developing countries are in no better shape today than they were 10 years ago.

In developed countries, library users are accustomed to searching the library catalog or indexes for suitable titles, then going to the shelves for the actual full text of books or journals. If materials are not held in the library, users can request them through an inter-library loan. These activities are largely unknown in developing countries--most special libraries lack basic items like bookshelves and catalogs. (In 2006, the librarian of the Ugandan Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development started the ministry's resource center with two donated bookshelves and one computer for users.)

Even in libraries that have a basic infrastructure in place, shortages abound. It is common for resource centers in government agencies to hold numerous copies of single documents that, for lack of resources, have not been distributed to their intended audiences. Thus, it is not unusual for a resource center of a ministry not to have key policy documents produced by sister ministries within the same government.

Moreover, a lot of research literature, feasibility studies, reports, conference papers and the like are locked in the desks of officials in various ministries, organizations and corporations, effectively creating an array of mini-libraries in individual offices. Not until they are constrained by lack of space do these officials submit copies of the documents to the resource center in their organization.

The information materials held in special libraries in developing countries typically are in printed form. There is minimal cataloging of materials--most resource centers lack online public access catalogs, and those that have attempted to catalog have used Microsoft Access, which does not support Web publishing, or UNESCO's WINISIS, which is outdated--and little inter-library lending, making it difficult to identify inventories. Documents ranging from policy statements to bills and acts to technical reports comprise the bulk of information materials available in the resource centers of government ministries and agencies.

While most parent organizations of special libraries in developing countries have Web sites, they have made only limited attempts to integrate the holdings of their libraries into the sites, and this information is not regularly updated. …