Bringing Out the Best in Professional Library Staff in Sierra Leone


Bringing out the best from library staff has been an issue for the proper functioning of librarians in Sierra Leone (SL). Librarians, according to Crosby (2008) are information experts in the Information Age. Their expertise in the handling of information has not been seen or realised, even though these professionals have been around for a long time. Librarians and information professionals have not attained the status and position they should rightly occupy in society. In most Ministries, Departments and Government Agencies (MDAs), where information handling and records keeping are key functions, librarians, records managers and information professionals have not been employed to do these jobs. Instead, other professionals, mostly people with accounting and business management backgrounds have been employed. In essence, the work of librarians has not been so much felt and appreciated.

Library and information services in Sierra Leone

Information is a fundamental asset for any society to thrive well in this 21st century. It is the tool by which learning takes place and decisions are made. It provides the needed answers to people’s requests and longings from all walks of life. Therefore, the provision of library and information services to all is undisputable. Almost all types of libraries exist in SL, because no individual library can provide all the information needed by every potential user. In this regard, different libraries exist to serve different users and their needs.

The Sierra Leone Library Board (SLLB) serves as both the National and Public library in the country. There are mainly nine (9) Academic libraries scattered throughout the country, all of these are found in the tertiary institutions (Universities, Colleges, Institutes and Teacher Training Colleges) providing higher education. School libraries are found in most Primary, Junior and Senior Secondary Schools. However, a vast majority of these are not functional. Special libraries are found in MDAs, private companies and individual established libraries. In addition to these are research and documentation centres, such as the Medical Research Centre; Information Resource centres, such as that established by the Embassy of the United States of America; and many small community information centres. These information centres are widely used by information seekers due to the main fact that they provide online services for almost free of charge.

The SLLB serves as the pivotal point for the provision of library and information services in the country. It is open to all: professionals, academics, researchers, students, pupils and for all children. There also, the general populace information needs are catered for. All of these are geared towards meeting our societal needs for information, education, research, entertainment and leisure activities.

Staff in libraries and information service institutions in Sierra Leone

There are two broad classes of staff employed in our libraries as is the case for libraries all over the world: those involved in library and information work, and those who provide back-up services. Library and information staff functions at different levels from non-professional, Para-professional, professional, specialists to managerial. At the support level, there are also manual/care taking staff, clerical/secretarial, technical and computer staff, and specialist staff. These all play a part in providing the information that users’ desire.

Library staff should function above the normal information provision role. Other important functions are:

I. Guide – providing physical, technical and intellectual guides to information resources in various formats;
ii. Collaborate – with others, known users as well as users who come for some manner of services over and over again, and even remote users;
iii. Prioritise – be flexible in performing new functions in order to incorporate new demands in procedures, structures and directions;
iv. Empower – delegate responsibility thereby empowering colleagues; and
v. Understand core capabilities – of the library, its environment, colleagues and most importantly the users.

Training library staff in Sierra Leone

The Institute of Library, Information and Communication Studies (INSLICS), Fourah Bay College (FBC), University of Sierra Leone (USL), is where Librarians and Information Professionals are trained and equipped for the world of work. INSLICS comprises two divisions that offer two distinct programmes: the Divisions of Mass Communication and Library, Archive and Information Studies respectively. The Mass Communication Division offers academic courses in the art and science of human communication and prepares students for career opportunities in public information services, print media, broadcast media, public relations, film production, advertising, marketing, advocacy and related fields. While the Division of Library, Archive and Information Studies caters for the professional training of librarians, records managers, archivists and information scientists to manage libraries, resource centres, information centres and related activities.

The Division of Library, Archive and Information Studies was formally established in 1986. It aims to provide for the training and education of Librarians, Archivists, and Information Scientists at a variety of levels, for those employed in both professional and non-professional capacities in Libraries, Archive Departments and Information Centres. Within the USL it is the particular mission of the Division of Library, Archive and Information Studies to educate men and women for professional careers as librarians and information specialists and to foster research and service programmes relating to society’s library and information needs.

Its goals are:

I. To furnish students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are basic to professional competence and career-long professional growth in the field of library and information services;
II. To expand the knowledge base of the profession through research; and
III. To share its resources by extending services within and beyond SL.

The Division currently offers the following courses:

1. Special Certificate in Library, Archive and Information Studies – this is a one year full-time course and is ideally suited to those with some experience of library and information work, who wish to receive training in basic library/information skills;

2. Diploma in Library, Archive and Information Studies – a two-year full-time course for those who may have some experience of library work and who hope to hold a Para-professional position in a library/information centre or archive in the future;

3. Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Library, Archive and Information Studies – a four-year full-time course;

4. Post-Graduate Diploma in Library, Archive and Information Studies – a one-year programme for graduates;

5. Master of Philosophy in Library, Archive and Information Studies – a two-year programme, i.e. one year taught programme and one year research.

The challenge for library staff

The challenges facing library staff in SL are numerous. Among them, the following are worth mentioning: low wages, limited capacity, no proper networking, poor infrastructure, users’ ignorance and the polemics of status.

The challenge of users’ ignorance

An anonymous writer once wrote that “A library is a hospital for the mind.” This means that the librarian is the trained doctor or nurse to administer treatment to every sick mind. This also means that the user who needs information is the sick mind that really needs treatment from the librarian. This is the ideal case, but not the pragmatic one. For every Sierra Leonean needs information for survival and growth; but going to the library is the major barrier. This is due to the fact that many are not well informed that the library exists to provide the daily information they want. As such there are libraries with information and knowledge to help people, but these people are unaware of going there for such help. It is therefore the responsibility of library staff to make people become aware that the library can meet their daily information needs. They must find ways and means to reach out to the public. Two important ways for every library are through the public relations and marketing library and information services.

The challenge of the polemics of status

Wilson (1982) stated that librarians have long exhibited a curious, and intense, status anxiety that is reflected in the endless polemics about the professional status (or lack thereof) among them. Librarianship should be one of those professions seeking a conspicuous status in the market. As Harris (1995) mentioned, since the inception of the idea of a ‘library’ in the United States, and more significantly, since the middle of the 19th century, librarians and friends of libraries have been debating the proper role of the library profession. Librarianship is one of those professions that impinge on the very survival of any society. The Librarian commands a unique status parallel with traditional professions in SL. If we can accept the saying that “knowledge itself is a form of power,” then the Librarian is the controller of that power. He is the custodian of the nation’s knowledge base.

A redefinition of the library profession and the librarian in developing countries is urgently needed. Just as how Huttemann (1985) mentioned that “self-sustaining and self-reliant Pan-African economic growth needs to develop its natural and human resources.” So the work and role of librarians are keys for SL to realise her much envisaged economic growth and prosperity. As Huttemann further stated that the promotion of socio-economic and cultural development can be conducted properly only if it is supported by sound information and documentation services needed for sectors like education, health services, agriculture, industry and trade alike. In essence, it is a matter of must that librarians should be in the business of accessing, organising, storing and disseminating information where and when needed.
It is also crystal clear that librarians must question the definition they have accepted. A thorough understanding of their role is a sine qua non for a clearer view. They must come forward with the goal of helping society to understand that they exist to provide information for survival and growth. This goal, as insisted by Bundy and Wasserman (1968) and Harris, Hannah and Harris (1998) must be to forge a new professional identity.

Librarianship, according to Taylor (1980), is the profession that is concerned with the systematic organisation of knowledge in all its various formats and its dissemination for the purpose of preserving society’s cultural heritage, promoting scholarship and the generation of new knowledge. However, this definition is far-fetched to the common understanding of many Sierra Leoneans. The general view is of some persons sitting behind many books in large stalks of shelves and waiting for patrons to come and request for assistance. For long librarians in SL have been labeled as “book keepers” and jobs for those teachers who have been left out unnoticeably by the school curriculum. The profession itself has long been battling with Public Relations (PR). As Mchombu (1985) put it ” In most developing countries, the percentage of population which are active library users is still very low… it is, therefore, important to encourage many more people from all walks of life to increase their use of Libraries so that existing information resources can be fully exploited” (p.115). In essence, as Mchombu further asserted library staff can no longer afford to sit and wait for a few enlightened readers to come to them, they must be more aggressive, be prepared to go out and search for and encourage all potential readers to come to the library because it has information which can be applied to what they are doing to improve final results.

To this, librarians must ensure that they emphasise on creating value from know-how and expertise. Bell (1973) has long since made this clarion call that the central figure in the post-industrial society will be the information professional. For as Bell insisted what counts is not raw muscle power, or energy, but information. The central person is the professional, for he is equipped, by his education and training, to provide the kinds of skill that is increasingly demanded in the post-industrial society.

Bringing out the best in library staff

The library profession must be able to overcome its challenges. A sure way of doing this is to motivate every library staff. When library staff are properly motivated, the best from them can be realised. Library managers should as a matter of must, make motivation for staff an issue of importance. Motivating staff in any organisation is probably the most difficult task of the manager. Not only do people react differently to the same stimuli but the motivation process is quite complex. It is concerned with those factors that stimulate human behaviour, how behaviour is directed, and how it can be maintained. Staff can seem at times to behave illogically, perversely and unpredictably. Contrary to the belief of some, the good management of staff is not just a matter of common sense. To manage staff requires a formal effort to grasp these influences so that our individual attitudes can be controlled and developed to meet the day to day staff situation in a way in which common sense will have difficulty (Shimmon, 1976).

It is particularly important that the manager of a service organisation like a library/information unit makes this effort for two reasons: Firstly, his product, being service is closely linked with the attitudes of serving staff themselves and it is not possible by inspection to reveal a faulty service in the easy way that faulty materials can be detected; and secondly, the cost of labour is likely to continue rising at a greater rate than that of the manager’s other main tools, machinery and materials, and he must therefore use the staff he really does need to best advantage (Webb, 1985). Some of the staff may be motivated by money and what it will buy, others by achieving ever higher services year after year, and some by the “thrill of the change.” Thus the manager, will need to address motivation in some depth by studying speculations such as organisational theory and behaviour.

The challenge for bringing out the best

Someone has said unofficially that Sierra Leoneans naturally are not difficult to please. Sierra Leoneans are generally motivated when the two lowest layers of Maslow’s pyramid are satisfied. One of the basic problems in this society is a good remuneration package that can take care of the basic needs of people. In this part of the world five basic needs are evident: food, shelter, clothing, transportation and medical. If attention is paid to these needs for every library staff, we have solved much of the problems affecting them and we are on the verge of getting the best from them.

So a good package must contain basic pay and allowances that will cover rent, transportation, and medical. The Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) announced minimum wage pay is Five Hundred Thousand Leones (SLL 500,000.00), placing it at Eighty United Dollars (US$ 80) at the current exchange rate (2016). This will not provide the good pay that librarians will want to work for. The rising cost of basic necessities, particularly food items, due to inflation in the country, means that this minimum wage is not encouraging. Therefore libraries must ensure that they go two times beyond this minimum wage pay in order to meet their staff basic need.

Furthermore, staff should be sent to the library school for training and development. Longer-serving staff without qualifications can be encouraged to do certificate programmes. Reference and other professional librarians are to be sent for refresher courses and exchange programmes for capacity development.

Conclusively, the best from library staff can be enhanced if the challenges facing them are dealt with and if they are properly motivated. Amongst the several challenges, user ignorance and the polemics of status are to be surmounted by librarians. Furthermore, they should be fairly motivated to take on their proper roles. In this sense, their remuneration packages as well as encouragement for career developments and trainings must be attended to. The library school should help in this direction.