Harold Lancour and West African Librarianship
Harold Lancour's monumental report on "Libraries in British West Africa" 
has had far-reaching consequences. Much has changed in the region in the subsequent thirty years: the
colonies he visited have become independent, and their populations have grown enormously. For example
Nigeria has grown from 34 million to over 100 million persons. Considerable economic growth has also come
to pass, and the library movement has made significant advances. However, some of the problems identified
by Lancour still exist. Despite good supplies of natural resources, prosperity has not reached West Africa;
societal polarizations remain intractable; various degrees of political turmoil are found throughout the
region, with the possible exception of Gambia.
|Portrait of Harold Lancour.
Courtesy of Prof. William Nasri. School of Library and Information Science, University
West Africans, Lancour observed, shared with Americans a high value placed upon education. But in terms
of libraries, if the 1950's African was fascinated by them, the 1990 counterpart would appear to be largely
indifferent to them. And the fascination with European/American culture, which he found to be typical
among Africans of the 1950's, is rare today. Yet, all things considered, the tale of West African librarianship
since 1958 is largely a success story. Lancour could hardly have imagined that by 1982 there would be
24 university libraries in Nigeria, 29 polytechnic libraries, 28 college of education libraries, 19 public
library systems, and 61 special libraries. Holdings are in some cases substantial: public libraries range
from 57,000 to 500,000 volumes; universities range from 25,000 to 700,000 volumes. A directory of libraries
in Ghana, published in 1974, comprised 62 pages; it included seven public library systems, 12 academic
libraries, and 32 special libraries. In the Gambia there is a national library and an academic library;
in Sierra Leone there are three public libraries, 11 academic libraries and 18 special libraries. But
it is in library education-the focus of the Lancour report-that progress has been most remarkable.
In the belief that the advancement of libraries depends upon professional leadership, Lancour recommended
the creation of a postgraduate program in librarianship. He pointed to the University College at Ibadan
as a suitable home for that program. And in 1960 that College (now a University) began a training course
to prepare candidates for the (British) Library Association registration examinations. This evolved into
the Institute of Librarianship in 1963, offering an independent diploma. Not without considerable opposition
within Nigeria, this curriculum became a post-graduate Master's program offered by the Department of Library,
Information and Archival Studies. Graduates of Ibadan have played decisive roles in the Nigerian library
movement. The requirement of advanced university education for librarians is no longer in dispute.
With that said, it must also be acknowledged that in the face of recent economic hardships library growth
has halted, and indeed there is difficulty in sustaining existing libraries in the region. Economic policies,
set up in response to the foreign debt problem, have devastated currencies, impoverished most of the educated
middle class, and reduced the ordinary populace to a level of near destitution. For many elements of the
population, survival needs rank first. In the libraries, there has been a struggle to pay staff in the
past few years, and book funds have virtually disappeared.
It may be that the mission of public libraries in such circumstances needs to be reconsidered. I have examined
elsewhere  the need for African libraries to articulate their purposes, and other
writers have written of the need for library service to address the needs of large rural and non-literate
segments of African societies. However, it should not be supposed that Africa should ignore the technological
advances available to libraries in order to throw all resources into service to the rural population.
Africa needs information technology for development; library automation should facilitate access to knowledge
that may bring national economies out of their backward, primary-producer stage into healthy modern forms.
Both rural and urban populations have a stake in the success of that transformation. The underlying theme
of the Lancour report, that librarians should have the most advanced education so that their libraries
can keep pace with those in any part of the world, is to be cherished now, in times of recession, as much
as it was in periods of growth.
1. Harold Lancour, "Libraries in British West Africa: A Report of A Survey for the
Carnegie Corporation of New York, October-November 1957," Occasional Papers No. 53, University
of Illinois Library School, 1958.
2. Basil Amaeshi, "Public Library Purpose in Underdeveloped Countries: The Case of
Nigeria," Lihri 35-1 (1985): 62-69.
About the Author
Basil Amaeshi is Director of Library Studies, Imo State University, Okigew, Nigeria. He holds degrees
from the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife, and is an Associate of the Library Association
(UK). His publications have appeared in International Library Review, Libri, and Nigerian
Libraries. During 1989-90 he was at Rosary College, as a Visiting Scholar in the Graduate School of
Library and Information Science; he also served as Assistant Editor of TWL. In summer 1990 he was
a Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University.
© 1990 Basil Amaeshi
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