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To charge or not to charge for library services in Uganda has been a dilemma among the library profession for a long time.
The paper discusses pros and cons of a free versus a fee governmentlibrary service in light of new challenges facing government librarians in developing countries and in particular Uganda.
The paper is divided into five parts: part one defines what government libraries are and their functions, part two gives an over view of government libraries in Uganda, part three and four examines the rationale for both a free and a fee library service, and part five focuses on the challenges facing government libraries in Uganda.
The paper draws upon the literature on both free and fee library services and discusses two schools of thought in view of a survey carried out on government libraries in Uganda.
These libraries mostly collect official gazettes, parliamentary debates, census reports, gazettes, annual reports, committee papers, acts, serials, monographs and other materials in the areas of their specialization.
The broad functions of the government libraries can be defined as follows:
Government libraries, therefore, exist for the fulfillment of the aims and objectives of their parent ministries and departments within a set of financial constraints. It is therefore, desirable that they operate effectively and efficiently as possible to achieve their objectives.
In Uganda like many developing countries, the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are demanding drastic cuts in government expenditure. Yet on the other hand, the role of information as a national resource for socio-economic development appears to be gaining fairly wide recognition among government officials and decision makers.
Within the library profession, two schools of thought have been in existence. The notion of the 'user pays' and 'the free provision of services'.
The paper discusses the two notions in light of the new challenges facing librarians in the developing countries and Uganda in particular.
Political upheavals of the 1970's and early 1980's resulted in large scale migration of professionals and skilled manpower, destruction of infrastructure in all sectors and consequent recession the economy. The above can be evidenced in the large gaps in information resources, collections and inadequate capacity in research formation to capture, process and disseminate indigenous data and inform ation which has in turn led to dependence on foreign resources for such information.
Weak information exchange and resources sharing among institutions has led to duplication of effort in some cases and lack of maximization of services to information users. Information technology equipments are inadequate resulting into lack of appropriate mechanisms for creating and updating databases, union catalogues and other information location tools.
Efforts to promote the adoption of internationally developed common norms, standards and software for information handling are still low. The lack of capacity, competence and professionalism in many government libraries coupled with inadequate information policy for management and of information products and services has also contributed to the problems in the information sub-sector in general and government libraries in particular.
Government libraries in general are established without specifying the aims, duties and responsibilities. Some are founded just as a traditional unit in the organization.
There was a general lack of equipment such as micro computers, photocopiers, shelves, tables, chairs, telephones etc.
current awareness services, selective dissemination of information, retrospective bibliographies, abstracting services. However the number of services offered varies from library to library depending on the resources available. Generally, in Uganda, access to information is not satisfactory. Most government libraries lack information structures and because of insufficient budgets, acquisition of information sources is difficult.
Given the unsatisfactory state of government libraries, the quality of services are poor, and potential users are often frustrated because the task of digging out the relevant information is time consuming to the need of the hour. Therefore, users have low expectations as to the quality of services because libraries often provide information without ascertaining user's needs. Marketing of info rmation and information services is almost non-existence.
The growth of the free public library service and its influence on the library and information services in other sectors means that users place relatively low value on the receipt of information. There is therefore, a constant battle in reconciling the cost of provision with the price that users or the organization are willing to pay.
The library Bill of Rights ALA (1967)5 supports the 'no charge idea' and argues that libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas. That the rights of an individual to the use of a library should not be denied or abridged because of his age, race, religion, national origins, social or political views.
The 'no charge group' further argues that if charges were made, selection of stock would be on the basis of its earning potential at the expense of other stock of no apparent demand. Ideally, librarians should select stock to met the needs of its clientele.
Some of the target group for which information products are designed and who may value information do not necessarily impress in terms of their commitment to information provision and willingness to pay. If budgets are cut the target audience would probably prefer to lose their access to formal information sources than lose equipment or staff.
It has been argued by respondents during the survey6 that charges would discourage users. Further, that the goals of Government have been to minimize costs, limit losses, maintain standards of services and not profit making.
Veazie7 also argues that charges affect use in the majority of cases. That 8 15% of clients will drop the service all together and 16 28% will reduce the use they make of them.
The clients of Government Libraries are government officials themselves, so paying for library services will be double taxation since they require/look for information in their execution of government duties.
According to Whitehall,8 library and information services cost, may not be visibly apparent, as customers do not have to put their hands into their pockets on each occasion of use. Libraries do not have a tangible output that they may produce to sell. Therefore, there is no awareness of value.
Whitehall further argues that the user of the library and information services does pay for the amount of time personally spent on the service. Therefore, justification of free services is by measurement of the time clients are prepared to spend in using them. In a bad library clients may spend a great deal of time in getting what they want and they will eventually go elsewhere for information w hich is hard to obtain through the library. In a good library, clients may well spend less time per visit because their requirements are easily met and they will come again and again.
On the side of users, many Ugandans hardly touch a book once they leave the formal education system. There is a general lack of reading habits and many may prefer to go to theaters, watch televisions or football. Therefore, charging for library services may further discourage the users.
On the other hand, cost should be justified by the quality of the product and the service. Given the poor quality of service and outdated information in most government libraries, both providers and users of information feel that there is nothing worth charging.
According to Smith10, there is no such a thing as a free service, someone pays directly or indirectly for it but what is difficult is arriving at the value in the eyes of the seller and the buyer.
In the financial world, some aspects of the value of information are very clear for example if you are a stock broker it would be virtually impossible to avoid paying for information if you want to survive in the competitive financial market place.
However,in the information world, not only is the definition of marketing, rather, hazy but the product itself. Information, is usually hard to quantify as it is so often obscure, abstract, ephemeral, time sensitive, expensive or a combination of all or some of these.
Zink11, on his part argues that a fee for service function is a logical extension of the diversity and individualism of the information age. Most libraries will eventually face this fact of life as the only means to serve as an effective information disseminator.
That government libraries need to begin thinking about fees. They should examine the situation in light of current user demand and do so with a long term strategy in mind. Further, that government libraries must be client driven, service - oriented and proactive.
In the case of government libraries in Uganda, only two libraries indicated that they charge a fee the rest do not charge anything. In view of information explosion and budget cuts, government libraries are no longer able to stock but a few publications.
Therefore, those who advocate for a user fee argue that charges would encourage librarians to stock materials that readers need and will be a source of income which would assist to salvage the government library financial constraints.
Further , with charges, librarians would care more and become more enterprising in making their services of good quality, to attract use and demand to justify funding.
Charges are also a means of regulating control and use of government libraries. Hence, overdues and replacement charges would encourage punctual return of books. Above all, charges will subsidize expensive but necessary services for some users who need them, such as photocopying, CD ROM and on line services.
Some categories of potential users such as researchers, industrialists,consultants, entrepreneurs etc. who have been denied a chance to use government libraries would have an opportunity through a user fee to access various government documents(such as feasibility studies, reports) that are not published. This category of users are willing and are able to pay.
There was a general feeling among the librarians of the need to start charging a fee but again the decision have to be made by higher Authorities. Further, the other major question was how much to charge and what criteria was to be followed in instituting different charges?.
A short survey12 carried out on selected private libraries revealed that the British Council and Center for Basic Research Libraries have instituted various charges including membership fees. However, the users flock in big numbers and they are willing to pay for the information. The difference is that these libraries stock up to-date information.
Generally, there is an emerging consensus that information is a product/ a commodity and a resource essential for development and progress. A commodity should have a value. It is also argued that production has always been equated with costs either in cash or kind. The move today for providers of information, of which there are many independent units, is to equate an economic value to their prod uct.
Something which is free is not valued, users will appreciate information if they are charged for it and clients may be willing to pay for certain kinds of information needed immediately or exclusively.
Whitehall13 argues that the transfer of cash from the clients of an information service to the supplier provides the information department with a monetary output to balance against the funds it consumes. That the value of an information service to its clients should be indicated by the money they pay to keep it going.
Access to information can be more efficient, more comprehensive, more assured and will mean more to the user if he pays appropriately for it. The greater the payment the better the information. For those able to pay the prices there is the satisfaction of apparent convenience and ease of access to information.
The acquisition and use of CD ROM technology, as a carrier of the latest intermediary available information in various subjects has contributed to improved needs based services. The technology has assisted libraries to break the isolation experienced by academics who work in an environment which can not supply acquisition of the latest research materials in all fields.
In Uganda, information technology is slowly taking shape. National Agricultural Documentation and Information Centre, Economic Policy Research Centre, and the Makerere University in Kampala are pioneers in this field.
In an electronic communication awareness workshop (Dec.1995)14, it was revealed that electronic networking in Uganda had been introduced for the last 4 years, pioneered by the Institute for Computer Science, Makerere University. It was estimated to have 2000 connected users academic 20% business 20% government 5% NGO 30% and 25% other sectors.
It was further revealed that electronic networking has so far attracted three private firms (INFORMAIL, STARCOM & Starlight Communications) which provide direct connections to the Internet. Other smaller providers of electronic networking include HEALTHNET, INFORMA & TRANSMAIL.
Further, efforts are already in place in a number of Ministries and departments to establish relevant sectoral information systems. The project will contribute towards the establishment of a national information system that will bring all sub system and networks under one umbrella.
The increasing availability of technology and its benefits of application in government libraries are challenges facing librarians who wish to increase their visibility to clients, in terms of perceived efficiency in information delivery and its relevance and currency.
As Myrs15 observes, Libraries are inevitably facing metamorphosis, and it will be impossible for those who run them to avoid the impact and interaction of the social, technical, economic and political changes which are taking place. As changes in retailing make their impact on clients and customers the future for libraries should involve new merchandizing concepts, new physical designs and market ing approaches. The continuing success of any business venture depends on its ability to attract and retain satisfied customers. Therefore, libraries should be viewed as business enterprises.
While information has always played a part in government social affairs, today information provides a major underpinning of the world economy. What was once a medium of transmission has now become itself a commodity. Business and government now clearly view information as both a valuable commodity and a strategic resource. Government librarians must acknowledge these changing circumstances.
The successful library will adopt to this change and will aim at providing facilities which are seen to be attractive, functional and responsive to the needs of the customer. In other words, the successful library will make effective use of its customer base, of the available technology, of accumulated operational experience and external image.
In this situation providing a free library service will be unrealistic. Therefore, librarians need to be forward looking and start orienting themselves and their clients to an improved but paid service. In other words if a fee is to be introduced in government libraries, the challenge for librarians is to be able to meet users needs, introduce new services and technology. The challenge is for government libraries to take a leadership role in charging for information services, and library management acceptance of change and commitment.
However, there are questions like: whom do we charge, how much which criteria to use?. Further there is the concern of whether the trouble taken in administering charges is worth the effort in terms of financial realization.
In whatever manner charges are made for information services, the costs of distribution at least should be recoverable by users. Services which contribute to the generation of income by users should be chargeable. There will be resistance from clients who previously received documents or information for nothing, but eventually, clients will adjust to the need to buy information.
Librarians can no longer continue to provide free information. They need seriously to engage in marketing of information and justify the costs of the information service.
Therefore, there is a need for skills' development for the information profession in affecting change and increasing awareness of information and of its value.
IFLA and other information agencies should play a leading role in providing guidelines to costing and pricing of information and information services in government Libraries.
She worked as Head of the Uganda national Documentation Centre up to 1995. She is currently working as a Librarian at the Economic Policy Research Centre in Uganda.