ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 43

From shelves to computers

By Smriti Daniel

The much beloved, dog-eared novels, the stern librarian behind her desk; the inviting racks bending under the weight of hundreds of books…for better or for worse, their time is nearly done. The digital age is altering things fundamental to our life and nothing seems exempt from change – not even our books.

What does the Digital Age hold for the country’s libraries? A National Conference on Library and Information Science held earlier this month discussed the issue with some fascinating results.

Mrs. Dilmani Warnasuriya, President of the Sri Lanka Library Association

While many may not be able to see past the end of libraries as we know them, the potential in digital libraries is actually tremendous. These libraries could exist on the World Wide Web – no longer the prisoners of location. Books would no longer need to be printed – with all the cost and consumption of paper that implies. Circulation could be accomplished with a few clicks of a button.

Even more tantalising is the possibility of access for all. “Much is being said about information provision to rural communities, marginalised communities, etc…in other words, information for all,” said Mrs. Dilmani Warnasuriya, President of the Sri Lanka Library Association, addressing the conference. With the government now focused heavily on the e-lanka concept, “digital” is now a new buzzword, she said.

Dr. B. Shadrach from the International Development Research Centre, making the keynote address spoke about connecting people with information. He discussed mobile and outreach services and their ability to mobilise and link communities. Featuring free computer and internet access, such services would seem a natural extension of the role that public libraries have already embraced – that of being learning centres open to all citizens.

Discussing the “new breed of librarians,” Dr. Shadrach emphasised their role as leaders of the community. Using the information at their disposal, librarians around the world are turning trainers and mentors – teaching everything from mushroom cultivation to ground water conservation. Such grassroots initiatives are possibly the most powerful tools for change.

The E-tuktuk: Meeting the needs of the rural citizens

A perfect illustration of this is what is known as ‘The E-tuktuk Project, Kotmale’. The Kothmale Community Radio & Multimedia Centre located in the hill country dotted with small farms and tea plantations, serves a population of 200,000 and boasts a radio channel and a computer centre among others. However, many are prevented from utilising it because of its relative remoteness or gender, ethnicity and caste considerations. Speaking at the conference, Kosala Keerthiratne, Coordinator of the UNESCO/ KMC Programme shared his inspiring and innovative approach.

The centre chose to deploy an e-tuktuk – a self-contained mobile telecentre housed within a three-wheeler. The e-tuktuk boasts a laptop computer placed snugly inside the little vehicle. Alongside is a battery operated printer, a camera, a telephone and even a scanner. A wireless connection provides internet access, while electricity is provided courtesy a generator. A roof rack allows the vehicle to carry other equipment such as the Kotmale Community Radio Station’s mobile broadcasting unit. Narrowcasting of radio programmes is achieved via two loud speakers mounted to the roof rack.

The weekly route of the e-tuktuk is broadcast over the centre’s radio station, giving listeners the details of the e-tuktuk’s packed itinerary.

Thanks to this mobile service many things are now possible. Telemedicine, an English teaching programme and emergency communications are among the many benefits that remote communities can now avail themselves of.

Other programmes are also being geared to meet the needs of rural communities. The Dambulla Public Library, Sri Lanka is focusing on an information programme designed to give Sri Lankan farmers access to relevant information. Public libraries are being encouraged to provide local farmers with reliable information that will multiply productivity and also provide solutions to agrarian problems, revealed I. Mudannayake, from the Agriculture Library in the University of Peradeniya.

Disease and pest outbreaks, water problems and how to select suitable pesticides and fertilizers may not seem entirely like subjects in the traditional library, but libraries are evolving to meet many varied needs, and in doing so affecting and supporting many people across the social spectrum.

Even in the cities, where plenty of libraries exist, networking is proving to be important. Colleges are linking up and in the process are dramatically multiplying the information resources they offer. For the modern generation e-books – easy to transport, store and exchange - may very well be the future.

Taking all that was said into consideration, if there was one thing the conference firmly established, it was the boundless potential inherent in going digital. From preservation, to improving access and sharing, libraries all over the world are evolving, and stepping up to meet the challenges of the digital age…and while they may never be quite the same again, they just might be a whole lot better.

Preserving ola manuscripts

The digitalisation of libraries has more implications than changing the way information is stored, accessed and shared. It also provides a new way of preserving the information we already have. A case in point is the preservation of Sri Lankan manuscripts written on palm leaves. Describing them as the “rare, tangible, and valuable organic pieces of our documentary heritage,” C.N.K Alahakoon, Assistant Librarian at the University of Peradeniya, emphasised the importance of careful preservation of palm leaf manuscripts.

While most are 500 to 600 years old, many are even older, and are in danger of disintegrating. In addition, large numbers are lost to fire or other natural calamities, while others are ravaged by insects or succumb to moisture. Their only hope of preservation many lie in microfilming and digitalisation.

However, “digital preservation is still a new field, and is poorly understood and poorly funded for rare collections,” revealed Ms. Alahakoon, emphasising the fact that our “cultural heritage is at risk of being lost and that its preservation for the benefit of both present and future generations is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed.”

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.