The application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in library and information services in many developing countries has transformed the very nature and provision/delivery of information services in those countries. By just visiting the websites of academic and national institutions in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, India and many others, one would get an idea of how fast their libraries are growing. This is happening because they have been able to take advantage of emerging technologies. The response of the authorities there has been quick to satisfy the information requirements of the young tech savvy generation. Development of digital libraries, 24/7 online services, setting up of library consortia to provide access to e-journals databases, open archives of full text documents, etc are all realities in those countries. What about the overall picture of institutions in this area in our country?
At present there is in the pipeline a few computerization projects for library housekeeping jobs . However, these computerization projects are meant to facilitate the tasks of library personnel and are aimed primarily to ease housekeeping library activities. The users (end users) of the library and information services are not the direct and real beneficiaries of the computerized systems being implemented. Moreover, there exist great variations in the size, collection, staff and level of ICT application in the libraries in Mauritius. There are small one-man libraries in schools, relatively good collections in municipal libraries with automated library functions, private sector libraries with qualified personnel and automated housekeeping activities along with national institutions offering online library catalogues. But none of these institutions have been able to provide, in the strict sense of the term, real online library and information services to the local users. Except minor queries which are answered by email or on phone, for most information needs, users need to come on site to consult the resources. The user and the information resource have to be physically on the same spot for the service to take place.
The application of ICTs in libraries can help to resolve many problems including the acute problem of space in some libraries. This is specially true in those libraries which have a mandate to conserve and preserve for posterity the national print heritage of the country. It is commonplace to see the duplication of storage of same materials in various libraries. Serial publications such as newspapers, periodicals and popular magazines are big eaters of shelves space in many libraries. A national policy on preservation and conservation of such materials would have avoided the wastage of scarce resources and unnecessary duplication. The same applies for local multimedia productions such as films, videos, sound recordings, CDs and DVDs. In the past, some libraries have resorted to compact shelving to solve the problem but it was only palliatives as newspapers and magazines are fast growing media in terms of size or volume. Libraries have no other option than to digitize their collections or convert them into microform to solve the storage problem. The application of ICTs in this area is critical.
The provision of mere bibliographic descriptions of locally held information resources through the online public access catalogue (OPAC) is now commonplace. However, users nowadays require much more than bibliographic descriptions of documents. Their need is the information itself and this need can be satisfied only by providing access to the full text documents online, round the clock. Users do not have the time to come to the library in person and in a world fully wired, connected, networked and more and more virtual / digital, they would like to access the information at the time they want it and in the format they want. In brief, such service should be made available to them at the click of a button.
The immense capability of computer technologies to process, manipulate and retrieve information in a very short time is yet another reason to apply ICTs in library and information services. Retrieval of full text documents from archives of e-journals databases, sounds and images retrieval and online document delivery system are all within the realm of new possibilities. The potential for ICTs in library and information services are really immense and yet unexploited in Mauritius.
It is true that the application of ICTs in libraries and information services requires heavy investments in hardware, software and in the training of people. Nothing comes free and a sustained effort is required to implement digitisation projects spanned over a number of years. Besides the glorified virtues of technologies, one should however, not forget the human side of the problem when implementing technological solutions. The readiness of the population to accept the change has to be ensured. If the virtual library or “library without walls” is possible with the help of ICTs, the emergence of a new type of illiterates who, though having the ability to read and write, and who may be ” technology illiterates” cannot be totally ruled out. In our so-called present information age, digital literacy (the ability to use computer, the Internet and web-based applications) is crucial. If the trend in the application of ICTs is more and more oriented towards the individual which ultimately empowers him to enjoy a sort of “self-service” as far as information service is concerned, on the other hand, the same technologies also exclude and marginalizes a segment of the “technology illiterate” population. This digital gap may worsen the plight of the socially excluded labour force to play an active role in the development of the nation. With consideration to these social problems, can our library and information services make the shift “from collection to connection” to play their roles fully in the information age?
R . Hauroo