Africa, like the rest of the world, is experiencing change in all aspects of life: from basic cultural values to technology which has changed not only the mode of communication, but the concept of time. This affects the day to day personal interactions, operations and national economies. The pace with which change occurs necessitates that society, as a whole, recognise and accept that knowledge is neither static nor finite. Thus conscious, deliberate planned, continuous learning on all aspects of life which facilitate better control of ones life, living conditions and contributions to the economy and national development is a necessity, as a personal coping strategy. Life long learning, as a concept, places the onus on the individual to recognise the need to improve their knowledge and skills for an identified purpose. Thus the individual's attitude to self improvement through exploitation of available information should be the driving force.
Life long learning as a basis for continually gaining or improving competencies in skills, from childhood to adulthood, is an activity which has been a way of life in Africa since there were no formal spaces for education. The traditional way of learning by "doing" alongside the skilled occurred throughout life as part of socialisation for the different responsibilities expected of each member of the community throughout the different stages of life as well as for specific training through apprenticeship in the various occupations and professions. Extension services, in the various fields, have built on this tradition. Life long learning as a concept, is thus well established. The rapidity of innovation and resultant change, the plethora of needed new skills, knowledge and related learning resources and economic globalisation, however, introduce a complex environment. Successful manipulation of the latter will depend on abilities for matching needs to available resources for knowledge creation based on systematic search strategies and linkage of local and global information sources. Thus there is a need for organisation of and access to these sources by individuals and communities to avail them of existing opportunities for goal oriented learning. The question is whether the public library, as it currently operates in Africa, provides a suitable vehicle for the facilitation of life long learning for African communities.
Public libraries in Africa are rooted in centralised national library service systems which have multifacetted roles. These combine national library roles with public library system (PLS) systems provision and related coordination functions, which provide limited support and/or advisory services to schools and special libraries. This overarching service promises systematic developments of all aspects of library and information service. It, however, has inherent weaknesses: if the centre is weakened, whether through lack of human resources or poor strategies for delivery or inadequate financial support, the system as a whole, including the periphery, is likely to gradually disintegrate. Unfortunately the gradual deterioration of African economies accompanied by a thin layer of trained LIS human resources who are overstretched by ambitious, but unrealistic objectives, has eroded services over the last two decades. The centralised library and information, systems including the PLS in Africa, currently has neither capacity nor capability to meet demands placed on them.
The general PLS conditions in Africa are in a depressed state, almost wholly dependent on donor support for collection development whilst uncompetitive salaries and poorly maintained infrastructure are financed by the nation state. Programmes which have been established radiate outwards from the capital city based central public library service (PLS) to provide branch libraries in various forms (book boxes, mobiles, library centres etc) in major towns and villages. These are, however, planned and administered by headquarters, thus are either insensitive or slow to react to local needs. Faced with such insensitivity, communities served by the PLS have opted to ignore the services where they are incompatible with their needs. Thus branch libraries are little used by the adult population and well used by school children as convenient study rooms, in support of their formal education.
Other factors which have affected usage include: general disinterest in reading for any purpose except for formal education related activities; low levels of literacy especially in the rural and poor peri-urban areas. The most significant factor, however, is the vision, plan and operation of programmes which are offered to the public by the PLS professionals. There has been a tendency to seek to meet the very broad terms of reference which are articulated in the laws establishing national library services. Priorities seemed to have been limited to providing presence in most districts with neither consideration for the different localised needs nor forging of alliances with actors who have established such needs on the basis of specific sectoral occupation related projects in the target communities. Strategic coalition and alliances by the PLS in these information supporting transference activities, would not only enrich the sectoral extension programmes, but would also contribute by helping the PLS to be appreciative of community needs. Attempts by communities to adapt the PLS to their needs have been resisted on the grounds that the ethos of PLS systems, as originally conceived, encourages support for solitary individual reading and learning, contrary to communal learning activities rooted in oral communication articulated in song, dance, story telling, and other cultural activities which communities use for information transfer.
The most interesting and promising relevant programmes are for children. These include story- telling, games which have been extended to educational games and video shows where facilities allow. These are, however, eurocentric in most cases. It is the exception rather than the rule, to find the incorporation of traditional modes for information transfer such as the use of song and the elderly as story tellers in PLS systems. Further, such services are generally found in urban centres where access to the library is facilitated by ease of transport and support by volunteers. Given the characteristics of the population served the majority of whom have low literacy rates, it is not surprising that the PLS in Africa is seen as being peripheral to community information needs and general life styles. It thus serves as a warehouse of reading materials the majority in foreign languages, with readability levels which are beyond those of the majority within communities served and are of limited interest. Support for literacy teaching, based on consultative relationships, between the PLS and literacy administrators, is generally limited to selection and provision of appropriate reading materials, rather than involvement in any other aspects of literacy programmes. Such alliances, however, have not prevented literacy programme planners and administrators from providing their own literacy support collections in venues separate from the PLS, as in the case of Tanzania, suggesting that collaboration is not as successful as it might be. The Village Reading Rooms programmes in Botswana have had limited success, but their evaluation indicate the need for better commitment, among partners to a shared vision which is based continual communication centred on the good for communities service. Analysis of selective current services has given rise to pilot projects which seek integrate community needs as identified empirically. It is too early to know how successful these approaches will be as a basis for community involvement in the development of relevant PLS programmes and the degree to which they may contribute to the PLS role to life-long learning.
Pockets of initiatives through which community based resource centres whose objectives are determined by the community and supported by non governmental organisations have been established. These capitalise on aspirations of rural communities for self development, and access to education as a method of upliftment of their communities from ignorance of basic life skills. Access to the latter is used as a means of economic improvement and a possible escape hatch out of prevalent rural lifestyles for younger generations through success in formal education. The radical departure from the traditional mould of librarianship has been introduced experimentally and gradually, become accepted as a realisation of appropriate, culturally relevant information service. An example is the services offered the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP) of Zimbabwe where incorporation of drama, song and dance as part of information transfer is an activity juxtaposed to reading, lending and literacy support services. In the process the RLRDP forms alliances with existing, community based, grass roots groups, non-governmental and local government information programmes. This approach provides the building blocks to the role of PLS in life-long learning since individual needs can be identified by a community sensitive RLRDP and be satisfied through focused services.
The defining characteristics in such services are;
Such approaches stimulate external financial support, particularly through funding agencies which support non governmental organisation, as they are seen to be grass-roots based. Empowerment of local communities, in various ways which contribute not only to change in perceptions about opportunities for development, but also facilitate new culture of articulation of needs on which determine the character of community information services, and possibly long term sustainability.
Since poverty has been one of the most prevalent problems for PLS in Africa, the results of the NGO and donor based support of the above approach might also point a way to financial sustainability. This will be based on relevance of service to communities who then might use their experience with NGOs and as an empowered civil society in new democracies, to influence local politicians to finance information support for nurturing their community projects, thus contribute to capital creation and national development.
PLS personnel, however, need to critically evaluate their policies strategies and action plans with a view to transforming their approaches to African communities. Identification of basic information needs, as an approach, will provide the direction for programmes which will define a niche for life-long learning as part of community empowerment processes.
Challenges which face the PLS in Africa and its role in life long learning have become more complex as Africa is being catapulted into the global information age. The possible marginalisation of African communities, due to lack of factors of access to national and global information, must be seen as an opportunity that African LIS professional communities must seize urgently and use strategically. The exploitation of these opportunities, however, are dependent on the rapid development by PLS professionals for a thorough understanding of the consequences of convergence, and a well grounded appreciation of the political and economic significance of the concept of the "Information Society" for African capital creation and competitiveness. Further, LIS personnel need to position themselves within the strategic processes in which all African governments are currently engaged in, without waiting to be invited. Their direct involvement should focus on information as the fouurth factor of production and the essential content which lends significance to the super highway.
Current global technological developments for information delivery have raised hopes and expectations which suggest that the PLS might re-establish itself as being relevant for providing information support whilst meeting community needs, with the support of technology. International organisations like UNESCO, IDRC and the World Bank have provided, through pilot projects funding, a potential for development of community based programmes based on information communication technologies, (ICTS) but which integrate information delivery and access to Africa communities and thus facilitate learning.
The African Information Society Initiative (AISI), the vision of which has been endorsed by the member states of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), has established a framework which rests on the recognition of information as the fuel for developments in all sectors. The AISI vision intends that by year 2010 a sustainable information society in Africa be realized. Amidst other goals, the following are worthy of note for LIS professionals, if the challenge is to be used as a spur for creative use of opportunity: facilitate LIS personnel to be participants in Africa's transformation strategies and empower the PLS as a vehicle for relevance in information collection, organisation and access for the support of life long learning:
The significance of this AISI policy and framework it that is provides opportunities for the LIS professionals to get financial support for:
Life-long learning, conceptually is dependent on individuals needs and commitment to purposeful personal development. The PLS in Africa, has yet to develop services which are informed by:
Such a service is the only way that individual and community needs for life-long learning can be identified and be used to inform PLS services which support life-long learning. The concept and establishment of the African Information Society, its link to globalisation, its political and financial support, provides a window of opportunity. The PLS in Africa has possibilities to exploit technology which will avail services which support life-long learning for communities as they cope with rapid socio-economic environmental changes which are a result of globalisation. The obstacles which the LIS professionals have to overcome in order to participate effectively in this radiant vision, however, need not only bold and creative programmes, but also a massive injection of skills, concept construction as well as finance. The enthusiasm of the international organisations in supporting ICT programmes must be exploited for the benefit of the core: information content. Do the African LIS professionals have a vision, strategies and resources to influence African governments and, international donors to refocus from technology per se to information? How can African LIS professionals be empowered to contribute the reduction of the current gap between information rich and the information poor? This is the challenge which IFLA society must address, if the PLS in Africa is to attain any form of relevance in the envisioned African Information Society.
Public libraries, in Africa have a vital role to play in life-long learning, if their role can be defined accurately through regular iterative customer needs assessment; participation in African governments' strategic vision of Africa's Information Society and persuasion of all concerned that information is the core of the effectiveness of information communication technologies, and thus cause the injection of finance and innovative use of available PLS structures.