Library grant heads to Africa

By Christie Barchenger

Four Nigerian universities will soon be receiving new training and technology for their libraries thanks to a recent grant to the University of Illinois library.

The University’s Mortenson Center for International Library Programs recently received the $303,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Using the three-year grant, the Mortenson Center hopes to improve the technology and resources at Ahmadu Bello University, Bayero University Library, University of Ibadan Library, and the University of Port Harcourt.

“Some of the challenges that university libraries face in a place like Nigeria are things that are outside of their control,” said Barbara Ford, director of the Mortenson Center.

“Electricity and power are not always reliable,” Ford said. “So you’re trying to develop an online library, and the power is not always there.”

Ford said the high cost of bandwidth in Africa limits Internet access for the libraries, another issue that the Mortenson Center and MacArthur Foundation will be trying to address.

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“The focus of the (MacArthur) Foundation at these four universities is really to enhance the resources that are available for researchers and students,” she said.

Kathleen Kern, digital reference coordinator at the University, is one the four-person team that will be sent to Nigeria this spring.

“The ability to search online in a database or to search through Google is something that’s just given [in the United States],” said Kathleen Kern, digital reference coordinator at the University.

“It’s not that situation for either the students and faculty in Nigeria, or for the librarians,” said Kern.

Kern, who will be working on-site in Nigeria as part of the grant team, said her focus will be on digital referencing and outreach programs. Providing the libraries with access to Internet databases is one of her priorities.

“A lot of their print paper resources are fairly out of date, so these electronic resources are very, very important for researchers and students,” Ford said, “The MacArthur Foundation and other funders see this as a way to really get the resources that are needed to researchers and teachers and students.”

Ford said the center, which has worked with several funders including the Carnegie Corporation, is focused on continuing education and professional development for librarians all over the world.

“We think that it’s very important to work with librarians from other parts of the world to make our collections and services as seamless as possible for users,” Ford said. “We need to learn from one another and work with one another to really be sure that libraries everywhere have the skills that they need.”

Made possible by an endowment from a graduate of the University who valued the role of libraries in promoting world peace, understanding and education, the Mortenson Center has been visited by librarians from 86 countries, Ford said.

The Nigerian project differs from most of the center’s projects in that much of the training will be done on-site in Nigeria, Ford said, though librarians from Nigeria will be coming to the University for training in April and May.

The center’s work in Africa began in South Africa and has continued during the last two years in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, said Susan Schnuer, the primary investigator for the Nigerian project, in an e-mail from Ghana.

“Every country is unique with a different set of opportunities and challenges,” said Schnuer, who will be leading the Nigerian project’s team.

“In Nigeria I am always amazed and humbled by how the librarians persevere, with few resources, to cope with some difficult challenges,” Schnuer said. “It is wonderful to be professionally engaged in a library project in this part of the world.”