61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995
ENHANCEMENT OF THE LIBRARY PROFESSION: AN ASIAN PERSPECTIVE
DR. ZAITON OSMAN
1.0 SCOPE OF PAPER
Daunted by the vastness and variety of the ASIA listed in the World Geographical
Encyclopaedia and hampered by the lack of information on the library profession
in the component countries, this paper will not provide details of any one country
unless they are relevant to the issues raised in the discussion of the topic.
The focus of this paper is the library profession, particularly the enhancement of
its image and status. The topic will be discussed in the following manner:
(i) Scope of paper (ii) The Asian Background (iii) Defining the Library Profession
(iv) Enhancement of the Library Profession (v) The Library Profession in
the Virtual Library environment.
2.0 THE ASIAN BACKGROUND
In many countries in Asia, libraries have existed for thousands of years although
very little has been written about them. Even in India “a nation known for its
ancient and medieval, as well as more modern library establishment”1 -
accounts of libraries in the Vedic, Buddhist, Medieval and Muslim periods of
Indian history have yet to be accomplished. 2 In China, the earliest libraries
existed in the form of “an aggregate of documents” 3 or book collections in the
keep of royal families, temples and scholarly institutions. 4 In Southeast Asia,
libraries in most of the countries are the product of the 20th century, with the
exception of Philippines where the National Library owes its roots to “the fewer
than 100 volumes of books gathered in the Museo Biblioteca de Filipinas
established on 12 August 1889”. 5
But modern library movement in Asia really took root in the 1970’s with
greater impetus in the 1980’s, followed by a growth in professional literature.
A survey of the literature reveals great diversity in the library development
among Asian countries, reflecting the vastness and variety of Asia itself.
However, underlying this diversity are some common features that characterise
library development in Asian countries:
- Inequitable distribution of libraries. Libraries are not well distributed
throughout the country, with some parts being more well endowed than others.
- The earliest libraries are scholarly libraries or religious collections.
- Most of the modern libraries are dependant on Government resources.
- University and special libraries are more developed and privileged
than public libraries.
- Libraries operate under decentralised management systems.
- There is often lack of cooperation, coordination among libraries, giving
rise to duplication of materials as well as incompatibility of operating systems.
- Library development is spurred by economic growth, especially in cases of
agricultural countries that need to industrialise quickly.
- Tendency to liberalise library use whereby closed access collections are
subsequently open to public.
- Libraries become direct victims of wars or political upheavals in countries that
suffered such tragedies.
- Library development is seen in connection with other aspects of national
development social, cultural, economic, etc.
- Greater awareness of importance of libraries among governments in recent years.
- There is access to library education, with some more established than others.
Although as a whole, library development in Asia is impressive, enhancing the image
and status of the library profession has been a matter of concern to most librarians
over the last two decades. It has been discussed and written about in seminars and
conferences in most parts of Asia since the 1970’s. And so it should be — because
the process of professionalisation should be continuous. Professional literature
on professionalism has shown that no profession can be completely professionalised
it can only be more professionalised as the profession treads along the path of
professionalism. The process of professionalisation can also be applied to
various aspects of the profession at different levels and pace
so that at any one time certain aspects of the profession can be more professionalised
The need to enhance the library profession has assumed greater urgency in the
1980’s because of:
- greater competition posed by the proliferation of information services that
are not library based.
- acceleration of IT use in library functions.
- increased professional awareness of issues related to librarianship because of
greater networking among librarians.
- increase of library schools resulting in better educated librarians who opt for a
career in librarianship by choice.
Altogether the 1980’s saw some immediate reaction, manifested in the change in
nomenclature. “Librarians” became “information professionals” or “information
specialists”, “library science” became “information science” and “Department
of Library Science” became “Department of Library & Information Science”
or “Department of Information Science”. The only term that has not suffered
a name change seems to be “library profession” as we witness today. Seen from
a positive viewpoint however — these changes reflect the ability of the
librarians to react to change and adapt to changes.
But the enhancement of the library profession entails more than just a change
in nomenclature. It entails having a deep understanding of what constitutes the
library profession, what aspects of the profession should and can be enhanced and
how they can be enhanced, bearing in mind that the goal of enhancement is
increased professionalism. Professionalism in turn breeds excellence.
3.0 DEFINING THE LIBRARY PROFESSION 6
What exactly is the library profession? Is librariansh ip a profession? Can we
call the work we do — acquisitions, cataloguing/classification, indexing, abstracting,
information retrieval (with or without technology), user education,
reference — professional? Is library work “nothing more than the application of
sets of skills and techniques” 7 or just “a study of systems”? 8
It cannot be denied that the term “profession” is difficult to define. It has been
given various definitions by various people at various times. It is an elusive
term and various people have attempted to define it using their occupations as
a basis, resultin in definitions that are coloured by occupational bias and
vested interest. When Melvil Dewey stated that
“The time has at last come when a librarian may, without assumption, speak
of his occupation as a profession” 9
little did he realise the struggle for professionalism that
he had begun would continue today.
Contemporary understanding and usage of the term can be said to date from
1915 when Abraham Flexner 10 suggested some criteria as the basis for determining
whether or not social work could qualify as a profession. He suggested that
a profession is:
- Intellectual and carried with it personal responsibility for the
exercise of choice and judgement.
- Learned because its exercise was based on a substantial body of knowledge which
could be passed on from generation to generation from practitioners to students.
- Practical in that its corpus of knowledge is put to a practical use of
benefit to others.
- Organised into associations of practitioners.
- Characterised by an idealism which in theory, if not in practice, puts the aims
and practice of the profession above mere money making.
Since then, Flexner was followed by several other exponents of the “traits” or “attributes”
method of defining a profession, such as Carr Saunders & Wilson (1933),
Morris L. Logan (1953), T. Parsons (1959), G. Millerson (1964), etc.
Together the attributes that they had put forward as worthy of a profession themselves
could fill a thesis but the recurring attributes could be summarised as below:
- Possessing a corpus of professional knowledge comprising theories and
techniques/skills, preferably of a multidisciplinary nature.
- Formal system of education and training, sufficiently long to enable the mastery
of theories and techniques. This system should incorporate continuing education programmes
and emphasise research and publication.
- Possess a service principle that places the welfare of society above personal gains.
- Be governed/regulated by a Code of Ethics, to ensure accountability in the
performance of duty.
- Maintain standards in all aspects of professional activity, such as work standards,
educational standards, personal integrity, etc.
- Be represented by a professional association.
- Possessing legal and public recognition of professional status.
These attributes of course are not listed in order of priority and one is not more
important than the other. A profession may have all or some of the attributes,
depending on the level of professionalisation.
The 'attributes’ above correspond to a large extent to the attributes of
other professions, and in general have been accepted as a popular means of
assessing the level of professionalisation that a profession has undergone.
In the same manner, these attributes will serve as a basis for the discussion
of the topic — enhancement of the library profession. On the assumption that
these are the attributes of the library profession, how could they be used to
enhance the profession? In the language of management today, these attributes
can be said to be the Critical Success Factors (CSF’s) of professional development.
4.0 ENHANCEMENT OF THE LIBRARY PROFESSION
4.1 Expanding and developing the corpus of knowledge
Every profession needs its own body of knowledge (theoretical foundation and
specialised skills) to be exclusive, such that it sets it apart from other
professions and establishes its identity as a profession. Medicine, Law, Engineering,
Education, etc. have their own core of knowledge and mastery of their specialised core
set them apart from each other and from the para professional group within their own
category. This core makes them so exclusive that, as an example, even if the doctor
were to sit under the coconut tree with his stethoscope, he can still practise his
profession. Can we say the same for the librarian? Can a fresh graduate without
library qualifications undertake cataloguing and classification, indexing, abstracting
after being trained for a week? I say yes! All he needs is intelligence, subject
knowledge, general knowledge and the ability to look up AACR II and LCSH. Now with
OCLC and Bibliofile CD ROM databases, why does one need the librarian? And if the
fresh graduate can do what any librarian is trained to do, what then, is so special
The lack of the intellectual foundation has long been the weakness of the lbrary
profession. This has to be rectified if the library profession is to be enhanced.
If we were to scrutinise the intellectual core of other professions, we will realise
that they are generally multidisciplinary in nature and that they comprise theories
and skills. In education for example, the theoretical basis is very broad encompassing
psychology, sociology, management and administration, development, history, while at
the same time pedagogy provides teachers with specific skills in teaching.
What about librarianship? Would it not be sensible for us to broaden our intellectual
base to include Psychology (to study user behaviour, educational psychology, research
psychology), Sociology (to understand the cultural/social environment/framework within
which the library operates) Philosophy, Local History, Fine Arts, Communications,
Languages, Law, Management, Computer Science/IT (including programming) while Research
Methodology, PR, Indexing, Classification, Information Retrieval are examples of the
professional/technical skills that could be taught.
The intellectual core in any profession does not merely provide facts but trains
the person to reason, rationalise, solve problems — in other words, to think.
Independent thinking is one dimension that, for now at least, the computer has not
been able to substitute. Taking for example, the study of History, it is not the facts
that are so important but the lessons learnt from the past. One learns to reason out
the causes and events, understands how people think and behave at that particular moment
in time and evaluate, with the wisdom of hindsight, whether or not certain events could
have been avoided.
Expanding and developing the corpus of professional knowledge would place the library
profession competitively with other professions. Mastery of it would provide librarians
with identity, authority and autonomy — no one else could encroach into their domain.
The lack of recognition that librarians in Asian countries suffer from is partly because
they are constantly being compared with the more prestigious professions, such as
medicine and law and engineering. In most parts of Asia, the status of librarians
suffer vis a vis doctors, lawyers, engineers. Even at universities, librarians have
not been granted parity vis a vis the academic staff although India 11 has been somewhat
fortunate albeit not without a struggle. In Philippines, the status of librarians is
safeguarded by legislation 12 but these are only two out of the numerous others.
In Japan, although libraries have had a long history, “librarianship has never been
viewed as a professional in the European sense. Such is the case even now.” 13
Enhancing the profession through the expansion and development of the corpus of
professional knowledge is tedious but if medicine can survive the years of
development, why can’t librarianship? The fastest way of developing the
corpus would probably be through the educational system, particularly through
research and publication.
4.2 Upgrading Library Education and Training
If librarianship is to be accepted at par with other professions, library education
must be undertaken at tertiary level. Advocating librarianship as a university
discipline, at least in Asia, is not for snob appeal. It is a pragmatic and
logical step to take because in most Asian countries, the salary scale is
tagged to the qualifications obtained. Another reason why librarianship should be
taught at universities is because research and publication activities are part of
the lecturer’s contractual obligations. Through research and publication
the profession will be developed and enhanced. Yet another reason is the
opportunities provided for continuing education at universities, such as
postgraduate programmes (Masters, Ph.D.), seminars and conferences, study leave, etc.
University education could enhance the profession by controlling the entry
qualification and providing the accreditation so crucial to maintaining standards
within the profession. Library education in India, China, Japan and the ASEAN
countries has developed tremendously over the last decade. 14 Mainly conducted at
universities, they undertake curricular reform to keep up with the latest developments.
As example is China, where “traditional subjects [were] being deleted and new ones
such as Information Theory, Library Automation and Cybernetics [are] being introduced”. 15
If developing the corpus could enhance the profession, upgrading library education
and training would provide librarians with the means to propel the profession to
4.3 Review the Service Principle
The altruistic “no profit” service ideal that has governed library services for far
too long is obsolete. It will be replaced by another the “cost effective” principle.
For the idealists, it will be the end of a scholarly tradition for the pragmatists,
it is not too soon.
In countries where libraries are heavily dependent on the Government Treasury
for every cent, it would seem logical to not only find alternative funding but
to introduce fee based services as one alternative. While to the purists or
idealists levying charges for library services is tantamount to blasphemy, most
library managers must realise that the exorbitant cost of maintaining good collections
and service for free cannot be justified.
4.4 Enforcing the Code of Ethics
Most professions are regulated by the Code of Ethics but unless enforced,
the Code of Ethics will not acieve its objectives. Will the Code of Ethics
enhance the library profession? If it succeeds in helping the profession to gain
the respect and confidence of the public at large and its clients in particular,
then the Code of Ethics will help to enhance the profession. But the difficulty with
the library profession is that information work does not have the same “clout” as
medicine or law. It is logical to assume that, using medicine and law as role
models, accountability hinges on the protection of life and property.
We do not protect life or property and who bothers about wrong information?
Especially if given free! However, in the event users are charged for
services/information rendered, then library clients would presumably demand
value for his money. Librarians would then have to be accountable.
4.5 Setting and Maintaining Standards
Standards are crucial in the process of professionalisation because they
represent quality and excellence. Like in other professions, standards
for the library profession should not be static but should be upgraded as
the profession becomes more professionalised. Standards are expressed in
various ways. The mission statement of any institution itself is a standard.
Standards can be set for work, behaviour, services, productivity, management,
education, etc. Standards breed excellence, trust and respect and eventually
earn librarians public recognition and confidence.
4.6 Professionalizing the Professional Association
The role of the professional association in promoting the profession is
well documented in the professional literature. It serves as the mouth
piece of the profession, its representative and depending on its strength,
provides leadership. However, whether on not the association can
effectively undertake its role depends on several factors — level of professional
awareness and support among its members, legal and public acknowledgement of its
role, its political clout and most important — its ability to influence members
of the profession as well as the public of its authority and ability to control
matters of professional interest. One way of assuming control and authority is
to establish systems of control such as accreditation or qualifying board.
In most countries in Asia however, the professional associations do not have
the ability or capability to assume a leadership role and this renders the
association incapable of enforcing the standards it may want to impose.
Another weakness is the inability to command loyalty from its members because
the institution employing librarians usually expect and do get their loyalty
from their employees.
If the association is not in the position to command loyalty and assume leadership,
can it be effective in the enhancement of the profession? In Asia, the strength
of professional associations lies in its promotional role. They have been very
successful in promoting continuing education (courses, seminars, talks, training)
as well as producing publications. In some countries, despite the dynamism of
the associations, they are not able to provide leadership. The Malaysian Library
Association is one such example. Dynamic though it is, registered as a society,
under the purview of the Registrar of Societies, it has to function as a society
unlike the Malaysian Medical Association, the Malaysian Bar Council or the
Malaysian Institute of Accountants.
4.7 Attaining Legal and Social Recognition of Professional Status
Attaining legal and social recognition of its professional status would definitely
enhance the library profession. However, except for Philippines, thus far the only
country in Asia that has achieved legislative status, it has remained elusive
for the others.
While legal recognition is clear cut, social recognition depends on how society
views the contribution of librarians and library work. In this aspect a lot
would depend on how librarians project their role.
Currently, librarians call themselves “information professionals”. To get
society to recognise this role, librarians will have to prove that they
actually undertake information work.
The onus is thus on the librarians to show what they are capable of.
This is where librarians must use whatever tactics they have to project
themselves, based on ability and quality. There is evidence of the librarians’
willingness to change and adapt to the challenges posed by developments.
Many have adopted new concepts from other professions and applied them to
librarianship. “ Strategic Planning” is one, “Performance Measurement” is
another. Both have currently became part and parcel of library management.
5.0 THE LIBRARY PROFESSION IN THE VIRTUAL LIBRARY ENVIRONMENT
The electronic library is a reality in Asia and to what extent they can be
networked to form the virtual library with the rest of the world depends on
will and wealth. In many of the countries, the electronic library network
is already in existence. Through Internet the whole of Asia will be networked.
Would global networking however enhance the library profession? To those who
believe in the power of technology they believe the future of the library
profession lies with technology. To those who believe computers are just
means to an end (meeting user needs) they fear that the library profession
would die a natural death when libraries are replaced by professionals who,
via computers, can do the librarians’ work faster and more effectively.
To the latter, technology is something that they fear. Ironically, doctors
welcome laser surgery and computerised diagnosis/prognosis as new methods that
would advance and refine their skills. But librarians view computerised
indexing and cataloguing as new methods that would gradually replace their
conventional skills and displace them. In a way they are correct if librarians
believe that indexing and cataloguing are all that is librarianship.
In the final analysis, whether libraries are digitised or not, the image and
status of the library profession depend on what librarians perceive the library
profession to be. The future of the library profession rests with us librarians.
- DAVIS, Donald G. Jr. and Mohamed Tahar, Library history in India:
historiographical assessment and current
trends, Third World Libraries, v.3-2 (Spring 1993) pp. 40, 44.
- DU Ke, The past, present and future of libraries in China in Library in
the 90's: selected papers ... Eds Sun Chengjian and Jiang, Bingvin. Beijing,
International Academic Publishers, 1993, p.1.
- MORAL, Monica Luisa I., Special libraries in Phillippines in Introduction
to ASEAN Librarianship: Special Libraries. Kuala Lumpur, The ASEAN Committee
and Information, 1993, p.79.
- The concept of professionalism and its attendant issues are discussed at
greater length in my Master’s dissertation and articles listed in the bibliography.
- BOWDEN, Russell, Professional responsibilities of librarians and
information workers, IFLA Journal 20 (1994) 2, p. 121.
- Volunteered by the former Dean of the Law Faculty, University of
Malaya, Professor Visu Sinnadurai.
- Taken from my thesis.
- Professor P.B. Mangla described in detail the struggle for parity for
university librarians since 1919 in his paper entitled University
libraries and librarians in India: an overview, Asian Libraries, (March 1993), pp. 33-45.
- As detailed in ARLANTE, Salvacion M. and Rodolfo Y. Tarlib, The Professionalisation
of librarians: a unique Philippine experience, Asian Libraries, (June 1993), 3:2, pp. 13-22.
- KON, Madoko, Education for librarianship in Japan, Asian
Libraries, (December 1993), 3:4, p. 76
- Articles on library education in these countries are found in the December 1993
issue of Asian Libraries, volume 3, no. 4. The information on China is found on page 78.
Details of courses are on pages 89-93.