Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Role of Libraries

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn: 3 January, 2011
HIGHER educational institutions are supposed to generate knowledge. It is mandatory for universities and higher educational institutions to shift their focus from the transmission of dated knowledge to the dissemination of contemporary information, relevant to the needs of a changing world.
This is only possible if we encourage the culture of research in our universities. Three domains are important: the construction of knowledge, access to knowledge, and the dissemination of knowledge.
In Pakistan, unfortunately, research had been confined only to limited and inaccessible zones in some public-sector universities. The process of doing a PhD at a public-sector university was complex, not so much due to the academic rigour involved as bureaucratic hurdles and campus politics. In the recent past, we saw the Higher Education Commission (HEC) release generous funds to individuals and universities for PhD programmes.
At the same time, certain conditions were laid for hiring and promoting faculty members. This two-pronged approach of financial support and obligatory motivation led to an enhanced number of PhD programmes in different universities across Pakistan. For a successful PhD programme it is important that the relevant university have resources in three major areas: physical resources, (buildings, computers, etc), human resources (qualified faculty members) and library resources (print and electronic aids). 
Here I focus on the library resources available in different universities offering MPhil and PhD programmes. Access of information, existing knowledge and research findings are crucial to scholars. One important source of such information is a well-equipped library. A library has three important components including a large quantity of quality books and journals, an environment conducive to learning and the positive role of the librarian.
In a number of libraries, the books have dated knowledge. In some cases, faculty members get a number of books issued against their names and never return them, or at least not on time. Keeping in view the fast pace of change, research journals are important for scholars as the articles they carry are more recent than the material published in books. University libraries here have multiple problems in acquiring research journals. Some of these problems include the high price of journals, an uncertain delivery system and the renewal of the subscription of journals after regular intervals.
The ultimate result is that the library ends up having very few research journals. The environment in terms of cooling and heating arrangements, appropriate light and air and quietness plays an important part in facilitating the concentration of the reader. In some local university libraries I visited during the summer it was so hot that reading was almost impossible. Besides the quality of books and the environment, the third important factor is the role of the librarian not just in the issuance of a certain book but as an information provider.
This role requires a more active liaison between scholars and the librarian. This would also require a librarian to constantly update himself or herself in the areas of library sciences and information and communication technology by attending professional conferences, courses and workshops. A well-equipped library with an enabling environment and a competent and efficient librarian is a must for research scholars.
Keeping in view the serious challenge of acquiring research journals and making them accessible to scholars, HEC offered the services of a digital library for universities. 
One of the major objectives of this initiative was the provision of access to research publications. The digital library boasts some 75,000 electronic items available to public-sector universities free of charge. Private-sector universities can acquire the same by paying half the cost. This initiative was in response to the problems of access to knowledge which is a crucial part of the process of research. Besides access to a number of research resources if a desired research article was not available, one could write to the HEC digital library office that would ensure that the scholar was provided the article free of cost.
The digital library office, on request, would hold workshops on the use of data sources. Apart from these resources there is a list of journals recognized by the HEC on websites. This is an attempt to facilitate scholars to disseminate their research through publication in quality research journals. Besides the availability of information about research in other countries, the commission has made it mandatory for PhD degree-holders to submit a copy of their thesis to be uploaded on the HEC site.
Let us now come to the ground realities and see what is happening in some universities. In some cases there is not much awareness about this very useful initiative and scholars do not know about the wealth of information available just a click away. In a number of universities there are serious problems of connectivity and for months on end, scholars are unable to access these resources. In some universities there are no dedicated spaces given to PhD scholars and there are no printers available for printing the desired articles. Consequently, this highly useful initiative is not being used by universities at the optimum level. There is an urgent need that the universities’ management prioritise the needs of research scholars and facilitate them by providing them with dedicated spaces, Internet connections, printing facilities and technical help to make the best use of the resources available in the digital library.

The writer is professor & director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics.

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