Libraries exposed: a frank assessment

Bibliotheca Publica Pelotense

What a difference it makes in your life to have a good and accessible library. I have been a student and then lecturer in Brazil, a total sum of 10 years. But my experience in New Zealand was what changed my perspective of the role and importance of having access to a good library. Both at the University and outside of it.

Back in Brazil I studied in two different universities and worked in a third one. My experience regards just these three universities in a country that has more than 2,300, so it is certainly limited, but I believe it is worth sharing.

The three universities where I have studied and worked are federal universities, which have the reputation of having the best teaching and learning quality, but the worst infrastructure in the country. Both are true to a certain extent. In all of them the libraries had a similar system. You arrive and first of all you take what you need to do your research, just for your research. You are not allowed to carry bags, backpacks or any sort of folder where the content is not visible. So after taking what you need you lock your personal belongings in a locker or give it to a security person who will then give you a number. From here it starts to be more similar to how things work in libraries outside of Brazil. (Well… Sort of…) So you find what you want to access, the shelves have numbers and letters and then you head to the exit to ‘scan’ the books or get it written on your library card. Yes, the old style system where you get a number and the list of books you borrowed is written for posterity in a card that stays at the library – ok, apart from the fact this was 2010! – and then you collect your belongings and it is all done.

When I first arrived at Lincoln University’s Library I had a feeling that an alarm would go off at any time. I didn’t know how the library worked because I could not find anybody by the door to give a hint of the (security) protocols. This might be because I came from a developing and insecure country, but I recognize it sounds strange. My point is that it is so difficult to go through all that process that in many cases it is better not even starting. But then Lincoln University and all its facility and freedom made me so uncomfortable that I had to see somebody and get an explanation that this is all right and this is how things worked.

This week I read an article on The London School of Economics and Political Science website entitled “Research and teaching staff in developing countries rate the value of libraries higher than in the West”. Reading that my first thought was: “of course, you always value what you don’t have”. But in reality it is a bit more complex than that. In my hometown, for example, there is a beautiful public library, in a heritage building. I tried to find their website, but all I found was the City Council website with three paragraphs about its history. Proof that we are ‘a bit delayed’ in the process of making our resources searchable and easily available.

The LSE article also refers to a study released by SAGE which argues that “raising awareness of how the library supports teaching and research staff is key to demonstrating library value in developing countries”.  I really don’t think I ever had any contact with the library staff apart from the desk service, I didn’t even know what types of services they were supposed to offer. Here at Lincoln University the library offers a wide range of courses and workshops for students and staff, and I have taken several of them in the past two and a half years. Most of them very helpful.

Image source: LSE Review of Books on Pinterest

In the full report SAGE includes the BRICK (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea) as “the most significant growing influence in the global economy and research landscape”. I hope this will be reflected by better infrastructure to develop good quality research in these developing countries. The SAGE report highlights that the findings “apply specifically to twelve developing country universities, and will not be applicable to the territories as a whole”, which is very fair especially in vast countries.

At the universities where I have been studying and working we always had good book titles and enough copies, fast internet, good furniture… Maybe not so good space, but I do believe that it is more a matter of demand. In summary it is a cultural deficiency. We should grow up with books under our noses and learn early the importance of them. It is also the matter of learning that libraries can be helpful in the process of research and study, and better, they can be fun. Maybe if we had since very young the habit of going to children’s or “toy libraries” as they have here in New Zealand, we would learn that books can be a good substitute when we grow up.

How are libraries used in your country or hometown? Do you make the most of them?

3 thoughts on “Libraries exposed: a frank assessment”

  1. Great post! I have this personal challenge of finding nice libraries in Porto Alegre (Brazil). The library at the Architecture School of UFRGS has been recently remodelated. It’s great now. But the lack of good libraries around the campus (not only concerning collections, but also nice places to study) overcrowded that one… A good alternative is the library of PUC. Incredibly big, well equipped and silent. Why libraries like that can’t be public??
    Hope you write about the online libraries as well!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marinita!. That’s great news that UFRGS has a “new” library! Hopefully they can provide some of the supportive services the so-called “Library Teaching & Learning” systems offer. These should include Endnote (or other citation manager), writing style (such as NBR for us in Brazil), grammar support for post-grads, career advice and so forth. If they offer a few of these would be great progress! I wonder what the “silent” means in your comments… Really well behaved people or empty space? Great tip… Will write about ebraries soon! 😉

      1. Yeah Sil! Well behaved people + silent control. Can’t believe we should point that… but you know our reality…
        I’ll ask for the supportive services you mentioned! Hope they have at least one of those…

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