The continuing progress in science, technical and human endeavors have become a major characteristic of contemporary society, as this constitutes the ‘information explosion’. Society needs all kinds of information irrespective of provenance and form that may be utilized within organized social, economic and scientific and technical activities to site but a few examples (Usherwood,1989).
In Sierra Leone, however the problem of information services involves among others the educationist, jurist, economist, industrialist, administrator, health service officer, agriculturist technician and student. This demand face librarians with the problems of how to organize, process, disseminate and control information. The most difficult aspect to date is that of dissemination of information. If this is to be achieved it is essential to ensure that the right information at the right time and with the appropriate measures reaches the persons that need to use it (Were, 1990).
Behind this need should be someone responsible for defining and keeping the system going. This requires the collection and selection of data, their reduction to suitably brief but succinctly clear messages, their storage and transmission to where needed for easy location and use. The realization of such a system needs the services of a group of specialists in different fields and on the other hand its use requires that clientele are knowledgeable of the working techniques and the principal concepts which the system is constituted. Documentation specialists play a vital role in this respect.
DOCUMENTATION SERVICES IN SIERRA LEONE
The proliferation of varied sources of information and the resulting ‘information explosion’ makes it necessary for every country to have well-functioning services. Information is dependent on documents, which in turn form the main stay of documentation centers. In addition to official publications documentation centers draw upon specialized literature such as books, series, journals and other scientific publications. Such documents call for systematic, dynamic and highly specialized analysis.
The need for organizations to produce documents related to their activities is only one of the components of their information policies. Documents therefore, are for users, an input of basic importance. The value of this input varies on the clientele served. The transmission of ideas through the written word and the establishment of centers to organize these documents in Sierra Leone is not a new phenomenon as it origins could be traced from the colonial era. Today there are over thirty (30) such institutions sparsely located in government departments, libraries and non governmental organizations in the country although most of these are found in the capital city, Freetown.
Included are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Documentation Center, the Ministry of Labor Documentation Center, the Ministry of Development and Economic Planning Documentation Center (MODEP), National Agriculture Documentation Center (NADOC), Food and Agriculture Organization Documentation Center (FAODOC), the Gender and Research Documentation Center (GRADOC), and the Sierra Leone Collection at the Fourah Bay College library.
A variety of documents are housed in these institutions such as:
i. those concerned with various aspects of the organization’s internal administration like financial budget, personnel, infrastructure and logistics;
ii. those concerned with the actual functioning of the parent organization with the implementation of its objectives and programs such as decision-making, resolutions, recommendations, records of meetings, minutes, reports as well as seminar, workshop and conference proceedings;
iii. documents providing specialized information but of general interest such as statistical books, yearbooks, collection of texts, pamphlets, glossaries and technical literature; and
iv. Those supplying information on one particular aspect or overall activities of the organization to a wider public such as press releases, brochures, folders and periodicals.
The function of these documentation centers is five-fold: to assemble relevant source data documentation and maintain research collection of such documents; to relatively acquire external materials in response to specific needs; to selectively disseminate recorded knowledge according to user needs; to classify, catalogue and index publications received; and to avail appropriate materials for administrative and financial purposes. Staffs managing these centers range between one and five.
Sierra Leone has just experienced a decade long civil war (1991-2001) and the government is faced with numerous tasks; developmental programs are therefore, prioritized and under such circumstances documentation centers rank low in government’s priority list. Hence problems abound in the management of documentation centers which range from lack of a survey to identify the number of documentation centers in the country, limited space, inadequate staff, inability of parent organizations to re-build and replace destroyed documentation centers and materials during the war.
Expecting documentation specialists to enhance the current status of their institutions requires adequate financial support. The cost of materials, equipment and information transfer is rising due to escalating foreign exchange and the increasing dependence upon expensive technology (Patridge,1994). It becomes therefore, all the more urgent to get adequate financial support from parent organization running these institutions. This is yet to be done.
The effectiveness of documentation services is based not only upon the equipment used but also on the quality of staff manning these institutions, who in the process of their work should be aware of the latest developments in science and technology as well as the needs of the national economy. The crux of the matter is that only qualified and competent information specialists that can assure a quick, comprehensive and up-to-date information service to clientele, thus contributing to the success of many research and developmental programs.
Regrettably there is a dearth of trained and qualified staff to run documentation centers in the country; most documentation centers are run by either para-professional or non-professional staff, some of whom have only on-the-job experience. The conditions of service of such staff are appalling with bleak future for self-advancement. Hence there is massive staff turnover as qualified staff always leave unceremoniously for better paid up jobs.
Documentation centers can make effective economic contribution to national development plans by promoting education and research at different levels and by supporting economic and social endeavors of various kinds (Isaak, 2000). However, to be effective these institutions should be organized within an integral system, which is conceived in return to, and as part of national plans for economic and social developments. Government is yet to come up with a national policy on the role documentation centers should play in the development of the nation, especially in the post war era.
Many documentation centers were destroyed during the civil war and valuable documents were lost. Although a few continue to exist most of these are relatively small in size with limited materials. The lack of suitable infrastructure specifically designed to serve as documentation centers is a major obstacle in providing adequate services to the community. Further documentation services are hampered by lack of such physical facilities as suitable furniture and accommodation, stacks, good lighting and spacious reading rooms for use by clientele especially during peak periods.
Documentation specialists should accept the fact that in recent years the rapid development of science and technology calls for new ways of classification, processing and retrieval and dissemination of information and that what they have achieved over the years in running their respective centers is inadequate. The acquisition and handling of materials is one of a series of problems envisaged by staff. This is due to lack of adequate bibliographical control tools, complex series, distribution delays and the huge quantity of materials produced annually for which the number of staff in these centers is not commensurate.
Further there are problems with the organization of documents in these institutions due to staff’s lack of technical know-how. The document collection is not kept in classified order in some of the centers; where a document symbol exists it is used for shelving particularly so for documents of governmental and non-governmental organizations. In some publications the symbol used is not shown on the catalog entries and this makes it difficult for clientele to locate needed documents without staff assistance.
In other words the symbol system in use in some of the documentation centers is complex for clientele’s understanding as non-specialists. Most clientele are baffled whether a document labeled RESTRICTED or FOR LIMITED DISTRIBUTION ONLY is so done because the material is in some way confidential or rather because the budget allocation does not permit more than a limited number of copies to be acquired.
In addition some documentation centers such as NADOC and FAODOC have automated services but the growing complexity of information technology is sometimes creating problems for clientele. Where as some clientele are computer literate and do understand what to do with printed material no such acquaintance or competence exists for computer-readable information packages for a vast majority of non computer literate clientele. Since clientele are the ones served by information services a well-organized computer education system is indispensable. To attain this requires a constant study of user needs and their behavior, which documentation staff are yet to do.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
The country’s reinstated democracy has a duty to its citizens of providing a consistent and controlled flow of information failing which it deprives them of their spirit of initiative. Invariably it stands to reason that the control of the resources of information, its storage and dissemination can become a reality only if there is precise political commitment. The technology of information must have a place in the country’s planning activities, more so in this post war era. Government should establish a national policy reflecting the information needs of groups in respective departments and of the national community.
Such a national information policy should be implemented through the preparation of national plans for the development of documentation centers. These plans should form an integral part of the over-all national plans for socio-economic development and should be carried out by a central body established at appropriate governmental level with clear responsibility and authority for planning in this field (Line, Mackenzie and Prytherch, 1994).
In view of the fact that a thorough knowledge of the existing state of documentation centers and library services is essential for national planning for the development of national information infrastructures, a comprehensive survey of these institutions in the country is essential. The survey should cover the financial and legislative basis of the operation of these information services together with all aspects of their structure and functions, staff provision, technical services and co-operative agreements. Data for the survey could be used to forecast future needs and the preparation of long term plans for the development of appropriate information infrastructure.
Responsibility lies with the country’s politicians, those men of government and public administrators for the evaluation of the advantages that can be accrued from such an innovation and for the elaboration of necessary policies and programs, and for the funding needed to sustain and enhance these centers. Therefore, long-term planning cannot be evaded. If possible a Commission should be created to investigate the decisions to be taken. This body should be provided with sufficient degree of autonomy and funds although working in immediate control with government authorities.
Departments running documentation centers should seriously re-think of improving the quality of staff manning these centers. Current developments in science and technology call for well-trained and competent staff in a wide range of disciplines so as to build up self-confidence and exercise authority over the centers they manage. These demands therefore, requires training in diverse routines in information processing such as collecting, classifying and cataloguing, indexing, retrieval techniques, thesauri and subject analysis.
To attain these the training of staff should be central in parent organizations’ developmental plans. Staff should be allowed to attend seminars, workshops, and conferences and pursue study courses in relevant fields. In this light the country’s library school should introduce special courses in documentation and encourage students to make it a career. Graduates should be awarded certificates and accorded similar status and conditions of services as those accorded to professionals of equivalent educational levels in other fields.
To alleviate the problem of technical processing each documentation center should keep in good order a complete collection of its documents with efficient indexing and cataloging procedures such as cumulative and subject indexes. Given the scattered nature of information needed by documentation specialists in their acquisition procedures, they should consider the production of a regularly up-dated handbook that would include a list of bibliographical control tool, list of libraries, reference units and information systems with an indication of their holdings, policies and coverage of own documents, telephone number, e-mail address, if any, description of exchange agreements, lists of recommended standards and access rights to these organizations. Such a publication could be a useful medium in which to advertise new publications. Since the country is faced with Information Technology challenges serious thoughts should be given to automate documentation services for increased efficiency (Inglis, Ling & Josten,1999).
Orientation to selective use of documentation centers is essential. The present under-utilization of the centers is caused by a lack of habit to consult them. A user education service in these institutions is therefore, essential. Increased awareness through this education will bring about two results: allocation of greater funds and resources to improve procurement, selection and use; and a greater advantage from available documentation. By so doing there will be improvement in methods of document retrieval by clientele.
In order to avail resources to clientele co-ordination of all components of documentation centers and libraries in the country through networking is important. Such aspects as cooperative acquisition of materials, exchange, production of union catalogs, interlibrary loans and if possible centralized processing especially for documentation centers found in government departments, should be explored to provide both staff and clientele a basis for access to these centers. Support should be sought from donor agencies and international organizations like UNESCO and International Federation for Documentation (FID) for material, human and financial resources, capacity building and information dissemination techniques.
Documentation centers can make efficient social and economic contributions to national development plans by promoting information dissemination, education and research at different levels. However to be effective these institutions should be organized within an integral system that is itself conceived in relation to, and as part of national plans for economic and social development. It is only through this way that such service institutions can make meaningful contribution to national objectives and obtain financial support for their development and sustenance.