By Mimidoo Deke
Libraries have evolved from the brick-and-mortar warehouse of physical books, journals and other such resources of yesteryears to todayâ€™s virtual store-house of information.
That is just as well; otherwise Nigerian children stand little chance of competing with their counterparts from other parts of the world. What with the acute shortage of books in our school libraries across the nation. Where the books are available, they are mutilated or stolen outright by desperate students who are unable to photocopy the parts they need for lack of money or unavailability of photocopiers.
Years of neglect and financial starvation have kept our public ivory towers tethering on the brink of total collapse, leaving them with no luxury of time to bother about updating their stocks of books on most fields of learning. With a past like this, and a future not assured of better funding, there is little or no hope Nigeriaâ€™â€™s ivory towers can catch up with their peers across the world any time soon.
Recently, the Time Higher Education (THE), a London based education magazine, reported that none of the tertiary institutions in Nigeria was among the first 500 institutions in the world ranking. That could not have been a surprise, when most of the institutions across the country have their libraries stacked with books printed in the 60s even for such dynamic courses as computer science.
This is one principal reason parents who have the means prefer to send their children abroad to complete their higher education. About 60, 000 visa applications are received every month by the British High Commission in Nigeria from students wishing to study in tertiary institutions in the UK. Nobody can blame either the parents or the students seeking foreign education. Without access to relevant, up to date resources, they cannot compete with their peers in the world.
It is for instance doubtful if Philip Emeagwali, the Nigerian born â€˜â€˜father of the Internetâ€™â€™ would have attained that height if he remained in Nigeria. There are thousands of other Emeagwalis in our institutions today who only need the right environment and facilities to bring out the best in them.
That is why the evolution to virtual libraries is a major advancement that all lovers of Nigeria should be very excited about. Virtual libraries remain the only way to bridge the wide chasm between institutions in Nigeria and those in the developed world where institutions are in constant touch with trends and developments in the various fields of learning.
A virtual or digital library by definition is a library in which collections are stored in digital formats (as opposed to print, microform, or other media) and accessible by computers. It is a library in which the holdings are found in electronic stacks. In essence, physical books give way to digital books or what is now popularly called eBooks.
Virtual libraries break down international boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge. From the remotest parts of Nigeria, through virtual libraries, students, lecturers and researchers can access books and other academic resources in libraries in the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, Japan or just about any country in the world in a matter of seconds.
The big question is this, if funds were the major barrier against institutions keeping up to date books in their libraries, how would they manage to build virtual libraries? This becomes a big issue considering that the very essence of a virtual library lies in its connection to the limitless information beyond its four walls.
There must be functional computers, broadband internet, constant power, photocopiers and other related accessories. There must be alliance with other virtual libraries and subscriptions have to be paid. How can a Nigerian institution managing to keep basic facilities running muster the funds to do this?
That is where Public Private Partnership or the collaborative effort of the public and private sectors comes in. This is a winning combination that is already achieving wonders in various sectors in Lagos State.Â A company leaps to mind when discussing this issue of virtual library as a shortcut to revamping the Nigerian educational system: MTN. Through, its MTN Foundation, the company has made substantial investment in the establishment of virtual libraries in three of Nigeriaâ€™â€™s most notable public universities.
The foundation has so far under its flagship project, UniversitiesConnect scheme, donated fully equipped virtual libraries to the University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A fourth institution, the University of Benin has just been approved to benefit from the project.
Each virtual library digital labs comprise 128 networked computers, broadband internet access, three servers, two high capacity printers and a sound proof 100KVA generating set. The virtual library is also linked to over 5,500 virtual libraries across the globe and cover courses that include Arts to Law, Medicine, Architecture, IT, Communications, Business Management, Education among other fields.
Books, case studies and journals covering the various fields, including pictures and graphs come in portable document formats and are downloadable by students and lecturers from any of the virtual libraries. The rights to these materials have been secured and paid for by the foundation.
The establishment of these libraries in these institutions by the MTN Foundation has made a huge difference in their existence. In fact during the formal commissioning of Phase 2 of the project in ABU, Zaria, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of the institution, Prof. Abdulahi Shehu said that the library had increased the rating of the institution to 99% by the National Universities Commission.
But of course, considering that this is a new trend that many of the scholars may not be used to, it is not enough to donate these libraries. There is a need to build capacity for potential users wherever the facility is established. Again, the MTN Foundation comes up for commendation for hosting regular workshops and interactive fora aimed at providing hands-on training for potential users of the libraries in the institutions where they have cited the facility.
According to Mr. Akinwale Goodluck, the Corporate Services Executive of MTN, â€œâ€œit is MTNâ€™â€™s contribution to building a greater nation through the education of Nigerian youthsâ€â€.
Some other companies have made commendable interventions in education in this country. For instance, Multichoice Nigeria is providing resource centres in both secondary and tertiary institutions across the country.
Cisco systems inc. has spent millions of Naira on its Cisco Network academy nationwide. The company provides free books and curriculum for its students and also 75% of the equipment and infrastructure used by the students. Presently, Cisco has full-fleged network academies in the University of Jos, University of Lagos, Lagos Business School and about 74 other institutions or organisations countrywide. These academies have produced IT professionals that have made their marks in public and private establishments.
These are the sort of companies Nigeria needs to encourage and support. However, without casting a shadow on these other important interventions by the other aforementioned public-spirited businesses, the virtual library project of the MTN Foundation deserves outstanding commendation for the great promise it holds to literally bridge the divide between Nigerian institutions and those of the advanced countries of the world. Nigeria needs more of such interventions.
Deke is an ICT solutions analyst with a Lagos based public relations outfit, XLR8