Q&A with the President of the Sri Lanka Library Association

By Nan


The Sri Lanka Library Association (SLLA) celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year. Its annual general meeting and annual sessions are on the 30th June. In view of these I asked Mr. Upali Amarasiri some relevant questions; his answers are what constitute my column this week.

Books, reading, libraries come second to only a couple of human activities in necessity, interest and time consumption, and all three of the mentioned items have undergone drastic changes in the recent past. Books, they keep saying, are going the way of the dinosaur to extinction; reading is a fast dying leisure activity and libraries have metamorphosed so much they are hardly recognizable as libraries. No books shelves nor lovely tomes, leather bound or otherwise; hardly any library personnel to be seen; computers and lighted screens with absorbed viewers is more the norm. The name has changed too, to information centre, resource centre, e-library.

Mr. Upali Amarasiri was elected President Elect at the AGM of June 2009 with Mr. P. B. Gallaba of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura as President. Unfortunately, ill-health made Mr. Gallaba step down and Upali Amarasiri had to move into the presidential shoes. Upali Amarasiri is Director, National Institute of Library and Information Science (NILIS) within the University of Colombo. Previously he was Director General of the National Library and Documentation Services Board (NLDSB). He had maintained close links with the SLLA when Director of two very important library associated institutions and earlier, when employed in the University of Peradeniya Library under the legendary Librarian – H A I Goonetileke. Upali is pre-eminently suited to holding the post of President of the SLLA in its fiftieth year. Among his academic and professional qualifications he counts a Post-graduate Diploma and Masters Degree in Library Science from Loughborough University in Britain, one of the leading universities having a LIS Faculty.

My first question was on reasons for the inauguration of the Library Association in 1960. His answer somewhat edited went thus:

According to available records, librarians were contemplating forming a professional association from the mid 1950s. But mainly due to the lack of qualified professional librarians it never happened. In 1959, UNESCO initiated the establishing of National Book Trusts in member countries to improve publishing, the reading habit and literacy rates of the countries. UNESCO requested the Ceylon Department of Cultural Affairs to prepare the necessary groundwork to create the National Book Trust. The Board of Management of the National Book Trust necessitated representatives of writers’ associations, publishers’ associations, library associations, and bookseller associations. The Director of Cultural affairs, Mr. M. J. Perera, summoned leading library personnel and invited them to form the Library Association. Accordingly, the first meeting of the Ceylon Library Association was held at the CISIR Auditorium on 28th August 1960.

Who were the pioneers of the association?

Mr. S. C. Blok, Librarian of the University of Ceylon, was the Founder President of the association. He was ably supported by a number of librarians who held various positions in the association during its early years: Ms. Margaret Gooneratna, Ms. Ishvari Corea, Ms. Manil Silva, Mr. V. Mahalingam, Mr. K. Seliah, Mr. Wilfred Gunasekara, Mr. K. D. Somadasa, Mr. H. A. I. Goonetileke, Mr. S. M. Kamaldeen, Ms. C. Nehsinghe, Mr. T. G. Piyadasa, Ms. Vijitha De Silva, Mr. W. B. Dorakumbura, Mr. R. S. Thambiah, Ms. I. Wanigasekara. A number of others contributed immensely at the initial stage.

How about finances?

The Ministry of Cultural Affairs provided an annual grant of Rs 1500/= for a few years. After that no direct government support was received. The British Council, United States Information Service (USIS), Colombo Public Library and the Asia Foundation helped the young association in many ways by providing books, lending their premises to hold meetings etc. In a couple of years, once its education programme started and fees were charged, the SLLA became self financing. Improvements have been ongoing.

(Nan adds here that with careful financial control, the SLLA has hired two rooms in the OPA building; has acquired a bit of land in the suburbs and may well embark on building its own headquarters, with offices, computer labs and lecture halls.)

What were the major achievements of the SLLA in the past five decades?

The biggest contribution is the education and training work. Starting in 1961, the SLLA has been conducting its Library and Information Science (LIS) three year Diploma Course in all three mediums in Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy, Galle, Baticaloa and Badulla. 75% of the present library professionals and para-professionals in the country have been trained by the SLLA. Now both Kelaniya and Colombo Universities conduct undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in LIS, but initially it was only the SLLA that was in this field.

How about interaction between SLLA and other LIS organisations?

In Sri Lanka the main government organization in the field is the National Library and Documentation Services Board. The SLLA took a leading role in establishing the NLDSB and the National Library in the late 1960s. We work in close cooperation and are represented at the Board of Management of NLDSB and other committees. We also work in cooperation with the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Library and Information Science and Provincial Library Services Boards.

What are the major problems faced by the library profession at present?

I think as a profession we are presently at a cross roads. The World Wide Web and Internet made information searching very easy and any one with minimum computer skills can navigate Internet and find the required information. Thus in the traditional sense, libraries and librarians do not have the monopoly on information any more. But still library professionals have a very important role to play. In today’s ‘information explosion’, professional assistance is a must to identify accurate and to-be-trusted information sources. Librarians have moved away from their traditional roles of selection, acquisition and organization of library materials through cataloguing, classification, indexing. These will continue with additional duties to be performed like training library users in information skills. Skills in info ferreting, judging, selecting and retrieving are vital to survive in today’s ocean of information, and training in techniques is also vital.

Funding is an eternal problem in the library sector. How do your members cope?

It is very difficult and as you very correctly say, it is an eternal as well as enormous problem. In the current world no university, research institute or any decent library can survive without subscribing to reputed international journals, indexing and abstracting services. As professionals, irrespective of our area of specialization, we should have access to the latest knowledge in the field. Now most of these journals have become electronic journals and a few international companies have a monopoly on them. As a result journal/e.journal subscriptions cost millions of rupees annually and only a handful of libraries can afford to subscribe even to a select few. Today this has become a national problem and the government should address it and find a solution without further delay. In my opinion the major international journals, databases etc. should be subscribed to by a central government agency and this agency would provide access to universities, research institutes, libraries and the private sector, charging a subsidized fee. It will be an excellent investment in developing human resources in the country.

Are you happy with the status of librarians today?

Yes and No. In the academic settings, e.g. in universities, research institutes and main government organizations librarians have equal status with academic staff, researchers or senior executives. In these organizations the librarians too are highly qualified with postgraduate qualifications. At the lower strata, especially in the local government and school library sectors, there is much to be desired. Recently the Education Ministry spent a large amount of foreign aid/loan in developing the school library sector. A separate institute was established in the Colombo University to train school/teacher librarians with diploma and postgraduate qualifications in Library and Information Science in the hope that school libraries will be administered in a professional manner. Yet these qualifications have not been recognized for promotions or career development of the school librarians resulting in frustrated teacher-librarians either not attending training programmes or leaving the library profession altogether. Sometimes the manner bureaucrats go about their work defies logic! Recently we met the new Education Minister and he agreed to settle and solve these and other problems. Local government authorities are struggling with poor budgetary provision which directly affects the library budget and filling of vacancies. Local government library service, perhaps, holds the world record in job stagnation. Some librarians retire after spending their entire working life of 35 to 40 years in Grade 3 or Grade 2 of local government library service.

How are the National Library and National Library services functioning? You count many years of experience as head.

Presently National Library services are on a firm footing. The NL provides almost all major national library services. The retrospective National Bibliography project covering the period 1738 to 1962 is complete. The current National Bibliography is uptodate. A number of major documentation projects covering National Newspaper Articles, National Periodical Articles, Ola leaf manuscripts, are in progress. It provides excellent reader services. The NL has been assisting authors and publishers very much during the last 27 years. Considerable funds are needed to improve the National Library building, its reading rooms and other facilities. National library staff need attractive remuneration packages to prevent qualified persons leaving the institute.

Is creating and sustaining the reading habit a problem still?

Yes, of course. General reading is very poor among both school children and adults. The present exam oriented school education system has been identified as a major reason for students not reading outside the curriculum. I think, however, the situation is gradually improving. In Sri Lanka book publishing has improved much during the last few decades which has a direct impact on reading. Credit for this goes to authors, publishers, booksellers, the Cultural Ministry, Education Ministry, National Library and Documentation Services Board, libraries and to the general public as well. According to the Publishers’ Association, libraries are the biggest buyers of books in the country.

Are you happy with library infrastructure in the country?

In comparison to most other countries there is room for improvement. We need more public libraries, reading rooms, mobile libraries to serve our population. The present number of 1,200 public libraries is not adequate to serve the population of 20 million plus. As mentioned earlier, planned efforts were made to improve school libraries in the last few years. But yet a lot remains to be done in this vital sector. With the advent of the Provincial Council system, Provincial Library Services were introduced by the NLDSB. At present the Central and Uva Provinces have Provincial Library Boards and Provincial Libraries. If properly utilized, these institutions can do a tremendous amount of work at grass root level helping both school and public libraries. Universities and research institutes have better library facilities compared to the other sectors. Newly established universities need more resources to develop their libraries.

What is your vision for the future?

I’d like to see a society with happy and contented people enjoying a high quality of life. Books, information, reading will invariably be a part of such a culture. Our intellectuals and professionals should be given access to the latest information and knowledge in their respective fields for Sri Lanka to reap the benefits of the competitive advantages of having literate people and being situated in a geographically advantageous position.

Post script: With persons like Upali Amarasiri at the helm there is much hope for the library and information spheres in Sri Lanka.

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