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Selling the Information Profession in Papua New Guinea

By:  Polycarp Reu, Librarian, Papua New Guinea University of Technology, Lae

Librarianship as a profession has existed and contributed to the development of Papua New Guinea for nearly 50 years.  Yet it has not successfully achieved, or been given, the recognition it deserves.  This paper aims to challenge the ways in which the profession markets itself to the public and touches on various promotional messages that can easily be understood by common people. It argues for equality in library and information provision between different sectors of the community and concludes by campaigning for a vigorous change in the way the library profession sells itself to the public and private enterprises.

Knowledge is an important commodity for national development and success and information is its primary ingredient.  The role Library and Information services play in the recording, transmission and use of information has helped government, industries and men and women of all walks of life to find out what they want to know. The education services on the other hand is the underlying process required for knowing.  Thus, both the Library services and education services play a crucial role to the developments of individuals and society.

We often think that the strength of a nation depends very much on its economic resources and political systems, but it is not necessarily the case.  While both the economic and political systems have some positive bearing on a nation's success, the real success of a nation depends on its "e;access to information and good education systems"e;.  Without information we can not make good decisions, and we can not truly make decisions unless we have educated minds.

Function of Libraries

The role libraries play in the overall education system is often not clearly understood.  The old stereotype image of the library being a place where books are kept is still predominant among people more so than the fact that it is a place where knowledge is stored, organized, and made accessible to those who search for it. Libraries play a key role in the social and economic development of Papua New Guinea and they serve as a focus for intellectual growth, research and learning for people of all ages. Through libraries, our towns, school, institutions, and business provide collective access to books and other resources which no individual could hope to afford.

The combined collections of all the existing libraries in the country constitute one of the richest intellectual resources in the nation and, has greatly served the people of Papua New Guinea despite numerous constraints.  Today, our society and these libraries are challenged by several major trends that are changing the way we work, learn and communicate.   The first of these trends is globalisation.  Increasingly, we live and work in an environment of global interdependence and global competition where personal, educational and corporate success is determined by timely access to global information resources.

The second trend is the information explosion.  During the last few decades, published information has increased at an unprecedented rate, with the total amount of recorded information estimated to be doubling every ten to twenty years.   Acquiring, organizing and making this information accessible presents a serious and growing challenge.

The third trend is the revolution in computer technology, which has created a new world of electronic access to information.   While books and periodicals will continue to serve as the main source of information for education and communication for many generations to come, new electronic information systems are augmenting and, in many instances, replacing traditional printed information sources. This creates tremendous challenges for the individuals, which must learn to use them effectively. An even more serious problem is the emerging chasm between information "e;haves"e; and "e;have nots"e;. If all citizens are to meet their full economic and personal potential, they must not only be print literate, but must be information literate as well.

The fourth trend is an acceleration in the rate of technological change which has created an increase need for lifelong learning and retraining. More and more of our young people now are expected to change employment several times in their lives, with new skills required each time. So we will see that lifelong learning is not only desirable but may mean economic necessity.

Business and workers today are trying to cope with staggering growth in publication, information and human knowledge while learning how to compete in an information-driven global economy that requires access to global information resources.   The Papua New Guinea economy is and will become dependent on the informational resources acquired, organized, and maintained by libraries. It would be extremely short-sighted to believe that Papua New Guinea will be able to compete in the emerging information-based economy without continued access to strong libraries and the new electronic information resources.

As we approach the new millennium, libraries must continue to serve as intellectual and cultural centers for their community by maintaining strong collections of books and periodicals. At the same time, they must also provide access to an expanding world of information and keep pace with changes in information technology.  It is clear that libraries can and will play a critical role in preparing Papua New Guineans to meet the challenges of the future, but their ability to do so effectively will be determined by the following key issues:

Issue No. 1:  No more individualism

The rapid growth in publishing and the accompanying increases in the variety and specialization of user needs have far outstripped the capacity of any library to handle them.  Library funds has failed to keep pace with these growing needs due to the combined effect of inflation and diminishing financial support.

The positive response to these increasing demands and limited resources is for libraries to strengthen co-operation and establish resource sharing networking systems.  The government must work closely with libraries to initiate automated resource sharing networks which would provide libraries with an expanded access to information and materials not available locally.

Issue No. 2:  Closer co-operation among different types of libraries.

Libraries of all types must work closely with each other if they are to meet all the information needs of users.  Currently they all exist and work in isolation of each other.  The government must look at establishing cooperative structures which would allow libraries to meet the rapidly changing needs of users in the future.

Issue No. 3:  Inequities in access to information.

The quality and range of services offered by the existing libraries varies from excellent to totally inadequate. Nearly all the public and school libraries in the country are poorly supported and do not meet minimum standards for library services. Further service inequities exist in the rural areas where 90 percent of the population live. These inequities can be addressed if the government make a commitment to guarantee that every citizen has a basic level of access to information.

Issue No. 4:  The need to be business-like.

The decline in government support which results in a widespread deterioration of library services means that librarians have to use and apply business techniques to run their libraries: to develop appropriate goals by asking themselves what business they are in, to develop skills in marketing their services, and to use budget techniques used by profit-making organizations.

Issue No. 5:  Lack of Organizational Presence

The greatest defects in the library profession here in Papua New Guinea is the lack of organizational presence. The defunct PNG Library Association could have played a major role in determining the future of library and information services and establishing cooperative information sharing among libraries if it had existed. It is tragic indeed to have allowed the association to die away and it is even worse to do nothing about it. Professional librarians must all work together for the common good of everyone to ensure information needs of users are well catered for and, the Library Association is an ideal avenue for reaching mutual understanding and support.

Is Information an Entitlement?

The librarian's role of "e;helping people to know"e; is based on the principle of entitlement to know which requires both the education system and the information system. This role immediately assumes that libraries have products and services to sell and these products and services have to be measured to determine their relevance and success in an ever changing environment.  Because of the nature of our work we immediately assume our main business is selling information, looking at information as a product we can sell to library clientele.  But the other side of the coin is acknowledging the fact that we as librarians have our skills, knowledge and experience to sell. This very important aspect of selling is often overlooked. But it requires us to go out and tell people about what we know as well as what we can do.  Librarians can do so much in helping people to know by developing their information handling skills - their abilities to analyze daily problems, seek relevant information, gain access to it efficiently and effectively, use it productively and devise solutions to help improve the quality of their working or personal lives. Such skills are necessary and relevant throughout life and they required constant updating and refreshing.  In the library sector librarians hold some responsibility for helping users develop and use information skills.  In the school sector it is very well developed and we see information skills itemized in the school curriculum, making teachers responsible for the integrated development of knowledge and how to gain knowledge.

The changes taking place means that we have to change our perspective of the library and see it more from a business perspective, not so much as a profit business but as a business that assigns value to the access to it resources, a value to its services, and to the products it provides, a business which markets all these.

These paradigm shift, this new perspective, requires librarians to retool their attitudes, their values, and their own self worth. They will have to stop cringing at the idea of the library as a business: like other businesses, libraries have always had inventories of goods which they serviced for people to use. They will have to estimate the value of what they do for their users and carefully explore what their users value versus what the librarians think users should value. And if they are to successfully sell their information services they will have to perceive themselves as well worth the price or value they lable on themselves.

To become a business the library should be totally self supporting.  This may not be possible or even practical for many libraries. But they must experiment with this approach and move in this direction in order to be free to flexibly respond to the demands of the library's market.

What is the nature of the librarian's expertise

The predominant focus appears to be more on the management of information resources, their organization, exploitation and use and we make people think that this is all we do. But, I think we do rather more than this.  We also know about knowing and knowledge especially if we work in institutions of learning where we are daily helping people to use resources for educational purposes.  The process of finding out about something results in knowledge, and in educational institutions professionals have needed to become knowledgeable about this largely cognitive process.  This expertise which is a result of our constant exposure to, and interrogation of, knowledge resources, is hardly exploited.

We gain knowledge through handling the enquiries of others and this furnishes our minds with subject vocabularies, structures of subjects and their literature, knowledge about their history and other major issues and problems discussed by people working in these different specialisms. We also learn, perhaps subconsciously, that the problems in one discipline may or may not resemble, in character, the problems in another. This is demonstrated by the way in which we can, seemingly drift across the information resources of several disciplines to seek information for an inquirer.

This has left a great deal to be desired about the way we market ourselves. The program leaflets we use to market library collections and services may be used to convey these powerful ideas to our customers and offer them a focus on the intellectual expertise available from a professional. We could sell the idea of our ability to respond to any question, rather then describing our "e;information services"e; as if customers fully understood what this phrase meant. This notion is only understood by a few people but many took it to mean their need for documents or for information which is supplied through consulting documents.

Librarians could promote their skills and knowledge of information by creating partnership.

It is easier in an educational setting where a librarian can work closely with a lecturer in planning his curriculum activities and support for courses, subjects and student groups. Both parties benefit from this kind of collaboration. They both are guided to look at the gaps in the collection and decides on what to acquire as well as deciding on what to discard. They also learn how to monitor trends in the development of the subject and the progress of the students. Also, in discussing the curriculum areas, both parties learn more of each others understanding of the subject and they contribute to the building of each other's knowledge.

Such partnership helps the librarian to make suggestions about how topics and issues might be introduced to students based on a knowledge of what can be learned, what resources are available to assist that leaning, and what problems arise as individual students attempt to learn with the resources.

Is there a better approach to the conventional practice

In as much as we would like to remain with one practice for some length of time, the internal and external pressures continue to put libraries on a tight rope, thus making us always looking for something better every time. The rapid changes we are experiencing has shortened, as it were, the value of anything we consider important. The best product and services, even skills and knowledge of today become the legend of tomorrow. We are constantly amused and threatened by something new and so the familiar chorus is sung over and over again; "e;We have got to change"e;. Heraclitus once said: "e;you can not jump into the same river twice"e;, and he was right. The whole world is in a state of flux, and that change seems to be the only reality.


Information skills is not of walking around the room to find things to read but that of knowing what resources are available and how to handle information from those various sources, in many different forms, how to digest and synthesize it, how to evaluate and apply it - and how to learn from it by thinking about it. The reality of modem information technology has already created a future image which threatens libraries and librarians, and those who will remain in the game are those who are willing to move along with change.

By:  Polycarp Reu, Librarian, Papua New Guinea University of Technology, Lae

Presented at 1997 Waigani Seminar
e-mail author:  c/o John Evans evansjoh3@email.com
Papua New Guinea © 2000

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