Management Problems in Readers' Services: The Nigerian Experience
Abstract: As the world becomes a global village, as the highly industrialised countries
join the super–highway and as services to users become the single most important library operation,
librarians in developing countries are finding it increasingly difficult to render efficient and
effective services to their users. It is this antithesis that has prompted the author to undertake
this study. Using the Nigerian library system as the setting, she identified the major problems that
plague Readers' Services
Department and proffers some solutions. The contrast will be of interest to librarians in developed
The Nigerian University Library system will provide the data and institutional setting for this study. Currently, Nigeria has forty–five universities made up of twenty federal, fifteen state, and five private universities. This implies forty–five university libraries. Apart from the five private universities that were recently approved in 1999, all federal and state universities offer courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The primary obligation of the libraries is to the teaching and senior non–teaching staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and a few external users who are doing one form of research or another. The Readers' Services Department is a major interface between the library and the users. The input of all the other departments of the library—collection development, processing, bindery, and even administration—provides the raw materials with which Readers' Services renders services to users.
In spite of the focal position of Readers' Services Department, users have found services less than satisfactory. Traditional librarians have not helped matters for they so pre–occupy themselves with the acquisition, charging out and discharging of books, cataloguing and maintaining routine statistical records of the number of people that enter the library daily, that they have no time to reflect on the mission of the library as a service organisation. What is the scope of the activities of Readers' Services Department? What problems inhibit efficient and effective service to users? What practical solutions are available for consideration? These and other questions are the queries which this investigation has set out to answer.
The rest of this paper will look at the following: The next section will examine the scope of activities in Readers' Services Department. In
the section following, the problems that inhibit the rendering of satisfactory service will be highlighted.
It will then address solutions to the problems while the summary and general recommendations will be presented in
the final section.
Scope of the Functions Of Readers' Services Department
The objective of the Readers' Services Department is to fulfill the library's service mission by meeting users' information needs. This involves:
- The circulation of materials: This is the traditional function of the library whereby users are registered, books are charged out and discharged at regular or irregular intervals, and overdue and fine regimes are evolved;
- Shelf Management, which involves shelving of materials by the paraprofessional staff and shelf–reading by the senior professional staff. The aim is to ensure that every book is in the right place so that retrieval can be facilitated. Another way of making it easy for users to find what they want in the library is for the Readers' Services Librarian to create service points on each floor, where a divisional system
of arrangement is adopted. These service points, where they exist, are linked with
the central service point by telephone;
- User education programmes: These may take the form of single teaching or a series of lectures spread over a long period, integration into a course structure; seminar, workshops, or demonstrations. Simple library orientation is only a part of the larger user education programme, and it ranges from an explanation of the
filing system in the public card catalogue and directing users to the appropriate
section of the library for a given enquiry, through how to make profitable use of abstracts and indexes to the giving of talks on bibliographies on various fields;
- Provision of information service: meeting the information needs of users has gone far beyond merely directing them (i.e. the users) to where the books should be found. The current trend is for the librarian to go the extra mile to provide the real information (Bankole 1999).
- Maintenance of current awareness and bulletin services;
- Management of quick service collection;
- User–centred and resource–based services;
- Formation of general rules and regulations for use of library materials;
- Publication of the Library Guide;
- Installation of a variety of security measures, including security guards, CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) and electronic tagging;
- Subsidised reprographic services;
- Compilation of subject reading lists for students;
- Operation of inter–library loan services;
- Operation of the online public access catalogue (OPAC): The user
needs to be taught how to sit down before the computer terminal
and screen, type in a few key letters or part of words and is given
immediate access on the screen to the holdings of the library. At the
same terminal, it may be possible too to access holdings of other
libraries—regional, state, national, and international. In addition,
the computer will often indicate the status of the book—whether it
is in the library, on order, or borrowed. Often, the library has a computerised
circulation system, in connection with the online catalogue. It is the responsibility of
the Readers' Services Librarian to bring together the user and the OPAC;
- Meaningful maintenance and analysis of statistics by status and sex of borrower, subject field, and type of material;
- Exhibitions and displays;
- Readers' enquiry services;
- Attendance of Meetings at Departmental and University Librarians, Advisory Management Team Levels;
- Evaluation of services:
The above scope of the functions of the Readers' Services Department represents a significant contribution to helping users on an individual basis. It also goes a long way to justify the input of, and to plug the information gaps inevitably left by the other Departments.
Problems that Inhibit Efficient and Effective Service
The unjustifiable increase in the student population takes pride of place among the factors that inhibit efficient and effective services to users. In 1985, the Nigerian National Universities Commission (NUC) prescribed the growth rate for Nigerian universities as follows: 2.5 percent for first generation universities; 5 percent for second generation universities and 10 percent third generation universities. But these prescriptions are flagrantly ignored, especially by the third generation state universities. For example, the founding fathers of Ambrose Alli University intended that university to be a small–sized institution of not more than 10,000 students (Planning Report 1981). But within five years of its establishment the student population had risen in 1986 to 20,000, and by 2000 the latter figure doubled to 40,000. This attracted the attention of the World Bank when it commissioned a study. The report of that study stated inter alia:
Enrolments are often increasing faster than
the capacity to plan for and finance this growth.
The university student population on the continent
grew by 61 percent between 1980 and 1990 rising from
337,000 to an estimated 542,700. During the
1980's the capacity of African governments in
financing public services fell sharply. Higher
education suffered in consequence with its share of
overall education sector budgets sliding from
19.1 percent (1980–84) to 17.6 percent (1985–1988).
Recurrent expenditures per student measured in
concrete terms also fell by about two–thirds during
This was not due to efficiency gains through
improved management but was the negative result
of cutbacks in library acquisitions, research, staff
development and maintenance prompted by rising
enrolments (Saint, 1992).
The problem of student population explosion is always compounded by the introduction of postgraduate programmes even before the undergraduate programmes had time to mature. In one new Nigerian State University, which was established in 1998, postgraduate studies were mounted by the year 2000.
Naturally, other inhibiting problems will rear their ugly heads. First among these is the inadequacy of the teaching and research materials. Where a university library in the developed world, such as University of Nottingham, can boast of 307 volumes of books and 0.51 periodical per reader, Nigeria can make do with only two books and 0.3 periodical per reader. Interlibrary loan facilities would have been a welcome relief. But these are virtually non–existent. This is not surprising, because each library would rather use its limited facilities to meet the needs of its immediate community before extending its lending facilities to other libraries (Ifidon, Sam 1999). In such circumstances, it will be a tall order for any Readers' Services Librarian to satisfy the information needs of users.
What about the seating capacity for readers? The original formula which demanded that seating provision should be made for at least 25 percent of the student population has been reviewed upwards to 40 percent. In a situation where there is seating provision for 500 readers when the student population stands at 40,000, it is a far cry from meeting the minimum space standard. Nobody, therefore, can blame students when they rush to the library as soon as it is opened to reserve seats before they go for meals or lectures. This type of situation discourages students from registering in the library during their first three years in the university. But by their final year, there is a mad rush to register. This is because they will be expected to submit a long essay which cannot be done without assistance from the library and its staff. This in turn leads to unethical practices. Some students deliberately mis–shelve relevant titles. For instance, an engineering student could remove a book from the Engineering Shelf and re–shelve it with books on History. The idea is to monopolise the use of the book and prevent other students from having access to it. In extreme cases, a whole book could be removed from the library or the relevant chapters ripped off. Such pilfered books or mutilated chapters could be hidden on the head covered by a big hat or put inside the culprit's shirt. Since there is no electronic device to trigger off an alarm when the books are being taken across the library's exit, only
an eagle–eyed porter can detect the crime.
The reason for the paucity of teaching and research materials is not hard to discover: It is the low level of financial support. This is another major inhibiting factor in the provision of effective and efficient readers' service. It must be conceded here, however, that the federal universities are better off than the state universities. For, by a memorandum dated 18th January, 1993 the Nigerian National Universities Commission (NUC) directed that:
- a separate bank account should be opened for the library;
- 10 percent of the total approved recurrent expenditure to each federal university should be set aside for library development;
- of this amount, 60 percent should be committed to purchase of books and
journals while 40 percent should be committed to personnel emolument and purchase of other consumables required in the library;
- the funds will henceforth be listed separately and released separately along the same line as has been the practice for research funds;
- these library funds should not lapse from one year to the next and the available unused funds should be carried forward to the following year;
- the utilisation of these funds should be subject to quarterly accounting to NUC and such accounting should be within one quarter interval.
By way of contrast, the state university libraries receive an average of 3 percent of the approved recurrent budget. If the 60 percent of the Federal Universities Library subvention is not enough to acquire up–to–date books and journals, how can the state university libraries keep their head above water even if the entire 3 percent is devoted to only books and journals? Worse still is that purchasing power of the Nigerian currency is low because of inflation and high rate of exchange. Above all, the academic programmes are just too many. Thus, a Department will be lucky to get money to buy just one book per course.
Nor is the staffing position any better. Apart from the fact that the financial resources are so limited that enough staff cannot be employed, there is just too much work for the few available hands. The simple example of shelving and shelf–reading will be instructive and illustrative. Traditionally, circulation staff have been known to be in–charge of these operations—the junior/para–professional staff do the shelving while the senior professional staff take on the task to shelf–read. But this same group of staff are expected to issue out and discharge books, make reservations, assemble the used books on the reading tables and arrange them in readiness for re–shelving, register readers, and answer simple user enquiries. Usually, there is just one senior professional staff in circulation unit to do the shelf–reading. The other two options are to involve all the staff in Readers' Services Department or indeed all the staff in the other Departments of the library. In the latter case, the staff that do not belong to circulation unit do not see shelving and shelf–reading as part of their job. Therefore, they hardly make themselves available. Even when they present themselves, they are not committed to what they are doing. Consequently, the job is improperly done and service to the users is adversely affected.
Unavailability syndrome is yet another problem that inhibits efficient and effective service to users. Unomah (1986) did an excellent study on users' frustrations occasioned by the unavailability of the items they want. According to Unomah, six major factors account for this. These are:
- failure of the library to acquire the desired item;
- failure of the user to locate an item on the shelf even though it is
listed in the catalogue;
- failure of the user to locate the properly shelved item on the shelf
because of the user's carelessness;
- failure of the user to locate an item in the catalogue even though it
- failure on the part of the library staff to properly keep and display records of books that are in the bindery;
- restricted access to certain collections such as the research collections whose use is open to only final year students and researchers.
Automation of library processes is still in its infancy. Most of the library operations are still being manually performed. Even if they were automated, the epileptic electric power supply would have been another impediment.
In another paper, the author has identified the problems that are peculiar to the specific management of quick service collection (Ifidon, Betty 2000).
Suggested Solutions to the Problem
The problems enumerated in the "Problems" section above can be classified into two groups: those which are above the capacity of librarians to handle alone and those about which librarians can do something. In the first category are student population explosion which does not take cognisance of limited support facilities; inadequate number of staff; low level of financial support; and uninterrupted power supply. In the second category are ethical issues, unavailability syndrome, and library automation.
It is obvious that most of the problems are beyond the librarians. However, they should not despair. Success does not always come on a platter of gold. Therefore, librarians under a dynamic university librarian can present a well–reasoned paper to the library committee for onward transmission to senate and/or council depending on the nature of the problems. In such a paper, the attention of senate could be drawn to the implications which over–shooting the admission quota could have on library services; the need to have more staff by demonstrating the positive relationship that exists between the number of staff and the quality of service; United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the National Universities Commission's minimum standards for finance, and the need to supplement the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) light by a powerful well–maintained standby generator. Librarians can even involve the professional associations, such as, the Nigerian Library Association (NLA), the Committee of University Librarians of Nigerian Universities (CULNU), in the struggle. The assistance of external bodies such as the National Universities Commission could be enlisted.
With respect to the non–availability of items, librarians can do something to remedy some of the factors that account for the problem. It is a well known fact, at least in Nigeria, that most teaching staff are very lukewarm about recommendations. If the teaching staff fail to participate in book selection which should be a joint responsibility between them and the librarians, then the librarians should take up the challenge, study the university's curricula and the users' needs and acquire materials in consonance with both. This should be when there is no financial constraint. Intensive user education will assist the users get over causes of failure. Such user education should be supplemented by printed guides, electronic guides, work sheets, and staff assistance. Additionally, re–shelving of used materials should be given higher priority, while staff defaulters should be appropriately disciplined. Above all, signs should be conspicuously displayed on the shelves to show that some titles are in the bindery and the same information should be temporarily indicated on the cards in the catalogue.
Pilfering, mutilation, and deliberate mis–shelving of heavily used materials are a perennial, nagging problem. There are two ways of handling the problem. The first is to appeal to the conscience of the hardened criminals. The assistance of social psychologists may even be enlisted. The second solution is to apply existing sanctions. A first offender may be suspended from the use of the library for one semester; committing the same offence a second time attract suspension from the university for two semesters while for the third time, the student should be dismissed.
To get the students to register with the library as bona fide users, a graduated registration fee should be introduced. This is a system whereby a first year student who comes to register is duly registered and given a library identity card on the presentation of his school fees receipt. Those who are forced to turn up later, especially the final year students who have their projects or long essays to work on and therefore require letters of introduction to other libraries, are surcharged N250.00. Similarly, any student who failed to register in the library throughout his university career is required to pay N500.00 for registration before he is issued with his clearance certificate. Proceeds from this miscellaneous source of funding are used as petty cash to meet the Readers' Services Department immediate minor needs.
It is absolutely necessary to occasionally stop to evaluate the services being rendered to users. The service needs to be evaluated in order to gauge its success in helping to meet the information needs of users. This has to be done in conjunction with user studies. Some of the criteria for such evaluation are user satisfaction, service delivery, efficiency, economy, and library activities. Chen (1997), and Weber and Ridley (1997) also emphasised the need for such evaluation.
Finally, in an information age where there is hardly any field of human endeavour that has not been touched by the new technology, automation will be the answer to most of Readers' Services problems. Circulation of materials will be done much faster, the records of loans transactions will not only be in the computer memory but they can also be analysed by type of material, status of borrowers, and sex. In the reference and information service, many of the quick reference materials are in machine–readable form. For example, the
National Union Catalogue, British National Bibliography, Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory,
New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, and a host of other quick reference tools are on CD–ROM discs and on–line. For simple enquiries from laymen and students, the reference librarian turns to a general index; for the complex ones, he turns to the subject index. The computer database makes it much simpler. Besides, computer–aided searching has a number of other advantages. The first is that the computer has affected the format of the material used by the reference librarian: he now relies more on machine–readable than on printed materials. Secondly, the computer is noted for its accuracy and speed of searching. It is estimated that the computer reduces the time spent on manual searching by between 90 percent and 95 percent. Dictionaries which are in machine–readable form can be updated at will. Finally, on–line, the user has access to the latest vocabulary changes and additions. According to Riggs and Sabine (1988):
Over the past ten years libraries have witnessed the online revolution. Circulation control, reserve acquisitions, serials and public access catalogue have all been placed online... An intelligent computer program... uses knowledge and inference procedures to solve problems that are difficult enough to require significant expertise for their solutions.
Summary and Recommendations
In this paper, the author has focused attention on Readers' Services Department of the library. This is that part of the library that plays the role of a mirror and public relations for the library. For whatever is done in this Department reflects well or badly on the entire library. This is not surprising because all the functions of the Department are people/user–centred. In spite of the pre–eminent position of the Department, it is plagued with myriads of problems. These problems include the student population explosion; poor financial support; inadequacy of teaching and research materials both in quality and in quantity; inadequate seating provision; paucity of staff; unavailability syndrome; and manual instead of automated procedures.
Hence in recent times, it has become increasingly difficult in Nigeria for Readers' Services Departments to render efficient and effective services. The exponential increase in student number alone has placed heavy a burden on the staff of that Department, who should be occupied with developments in computerised library processes, user–centred and resource–based teaching, and research and document delivery services. A modest attempt has been made at proffering solution to these problems. But it is the expectation of the author that in an information age, nothing short of automation will resolve most of the problems.
In addition to the suggested solutions listed in the section above, the author offers the following:
- Information should be recognised and treated as a national resource.
- Librarians should rise up to the challenges of information technology. Traditional
librarianship has no place in the information age.
- Automation of library processes in Nigeria should not be as sophisticated as that in highly industrialised countries; rather, the project should start in humble way.
- Definite policy statements should be made regarding objectives of library service.
- Minimum standards should be set for library service.
Bankole, B. S. (1999): "The Role of Reference Service in Libraries and Information Centre." In Alkalerri, U. A. Ed. Fundamentals of Research and Librarianship. Kaduna: JVC Press. 119–132.
Chen, Tser-Yeith. "An Evaluation of the Relative Performance of University Libraries in Taipei". Library Review 46–3&4 (1997): 190–201.
Federal Republic of Nigeria. Official Gazette (Extraordinary), No. 43, Vol. 72, 20th August, 1985—Government Notice No. 592. Decree 16—Education (National Minimum Standards and Establishment of Institutions) Decree, 1985, A77–A88.
Ifidon, Betty I. "Quick Service Collection in University Libraries: Management and Problems" LIBRI 50–4 (2000): 290–294.
Ifidon, Sam E. Essentials of African University Library Management. (Lagos: National Library Press, 1999).
________Ibid. p. 6.
Morgan, Steve. Performance Assessment in Academic Libraries. (London: Mansell, 1995).
________. "Performance Assessment in Higher Education Libraries." Library Management 14–1 (1983): 35–42.
Nigeria. Bendel State Ministry of Education. Proposed Bendel State University Planning Report. Unpublished Bendel State Executive Council Paper Looseleaf. (1981).
Nigeria. National Universities Commission. Memorandum from the Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission to the Vice–Chancellors of Federal Universities. Ref. No. NUC/ES/138/Vol. XIX, dated 18th January,1993.
___________. Standards Guide for Universities. Lagos: Various pages Section 9. (1977).
Riggs, D. E. and Sabine, G. A. Libraries in the 90's. What the Leaders expect. (New York: Oryk Press, 1988).
Saint, Willian. Universities in Africa: Strategies for Stabilisation. Technical Paper No. 194. Washington, D. C.: World Bank, Technical Department, African Region. (1992).
Unomah, J. I. "User Education in Academic Libraries: The Nigerian Situation." Nigerbiblios 12–4 (1987): 10–6.
__________. "Unavailability Syndrome in Academic Libraries: A Case Study of the Bendel State University Library, Ekpoma." Nigerbiblios 11–3 (1986): 14–20.
Weber, J. E. and Ridley, D. R. "Assessment and Decision-making: Two User–oriented Studies." Library Review 46–3&4 (1997): 202–209.
About the Author
Betty I. Ifidon is Deputy University Librarian, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Nigeria.
© 2000 Betty I. Ifidon
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