World Libraries

The Pioneers: William John Harris (1903-1980)

"The Father of Librarianship in Nigeria" William John Harris was born in Oamaru, New Zealand in 1903. He went to study in Britain, graduating from University College, Oxford, in 1929. From 1935 to 1948 he was librarian of the University of Otago in New Zealand. His appointment in 1948 to head the library of University College, Ibadan, laid the foundation for modern librarianship in Nigeria.

John Harris, as he was known, arrived on the scene when the Nigerian library profession was in its embryonic stage. Higher education was also new: the college in Ibadan was the first post-secondary institution in the country. Most of the population of Nigeria was engaged in farming. There was an acute shortage of skilled personnel. Without any library education facility, it was especially difficult to find professional staff for libraries. Nigeria lacked scholarly publishing, a national bibliography, a library association, and other elements of a publishing/library infrastructure. There was no concept of a specific type of tropical library building.

Within a few years, Harris had addressed many of the gaps in the library situation. He founded and directed the university press at Ibadan. He initiated Nigeria Publications, forerunner of the National Bibliography of Nigeria. The formation of the West African Libraries Association (WALA) was in large measure the result of his leadership; he was first president of WALA, and editor of its journal. WALA was later succeeded by local organizations, among them the Nigerian Library Association. From 1958 to 1968 Harris was chair of the board of directors of the University Bookshop, which remains today (under the nurturing management of his widow, Marguerite Harris) one of the largest in the country. University College Library performed some of the functions usually associated with national libraries. The Publications and Ordinance Law was passed in 1950, making it compulsory for publishers to deposit two copies of every book in the Ibadan University College Library. The National Library of Nigeria was not established until 1964.

At the core of such activities was the commitment of John Harris to elevating the status of libraries and librarians. Ade-Ajayi remembered that "it was central to his whole career that a university library must be not just a book store or book club incidental to the academic development of the university, but the very heart of that development. And to achieve this each university librarian must be fully integrated into that development, learned in a branch of knowledge, and participating fully along side academic staff in the faculty boards and senate." [1] A critical step toward the achievement of those goals was the creation of a library school. Following the seminal 1957 report of that other "pioneer," Harold Lancour, [2] funds were received from the Carnegie Corporation to establish such a school. Harris was in fact responsible for encouraging the Carnegie Corporation to undertake the survey that resulted in the Lancour recommendations. [3] He directed the new Institute of Librarianship (as it was named from 1963), and his library staff were the other teachers. Students prepared for the (British) Library Association registration examinations. In 1963 Harris successfully requested an additional grant from the Carnegie Corporation, $113,000 for the appointment of three full-time teachers. The program, now the Department of Library, Archival and Information Studies, has been the alma mater of many librarians in leadership roles throughout the country.

As an active member of the building committee in Ibadan, Harris was deeply involved in the planning and design of the permanent buildings on the campus. The library was at first housed in two prefabricated wooden structures; it moved into a six-story modern building in 1954. It was Harris who developed a vision of tropical library architecture and brought it to fruition in the Ibadan library, well before there was a useful literature on the subject to guide him. [4] The annex building, although completed after Harris had left Ibadan, also bears the stamp of his meticulous planning and foresight.

No better evidence of success in advancing the status of librarians could be given than the appointment of Harris, in 1964, to be deputy vice-chancellor of the university. Such a post had been perceived as the exclusive preserve of the professorial members of the university. It was through the efforts of John Harris that university librarians in Nigeria became recognized as academic staff on an equal footing with teaching staff.

During the civil war that broke out in 1966, Ibadan personnel of Eastern origin (including the vice-chancellor) had to leave their posts. Harris was appointed acting vice-chancellor, and proved to be a firm, competent administrator in a troubled time. He retired from the university in 1968, and was awarded its honorary degree Doctor of Letters in 1969.

Harris had two post-retirement positions. From 1968 to 1970 he was a professor of library studies at the University of Ghana. Then he returned to Nigeria as librarian of the Mid-West Institute of Technology, Benin (now the University of Benin). He repeated a number of his Ibadan initiatives in Benin, gaining recognition of the library as an academic department, and serving as acting vice-chancellor. Loughborough University of Technology, in Britain, honored Harris with the degree Doctor of Literature in 1974. University of Otago (New Zealand) awarded him the honorary Doctor of Laws in 1978. He died on 3 January 1980 at Baachus Marsh, Victoria, Australia.


[1] J. F. Ade-Ajayi, "Foreword," in University Libraries in Nigeria: A Festschrift for John Harris, edited by E. Bejide Bankole and T. Olabisi Odeinde (Lagos: Committee of University Librarians of Nigerian Universities, 1988), p. v.

[2] "The Pioneers," Third World Libraries 1-1 (Summer 1990): 5-8.

[3] O. G. Tamuno and B. O. Toye, "Ibadan University Library: From a Library to a Library System," in University Libraries, op. cit., p. 17.

[4] Betty I. Ifidon, "University Library Buildings in the Tropics," Third World Libraries 1-1 (Summer 1990): 34-39. The earliest literature noted by Ifidon dates from 1961.

About the Author

Maxwell A. Oyinloye is the Serials Librarian at Lagos State University, Lagos, Nigeria; he also teaches use of the library. He has a B.S. in physics from Usman Dan-Fodio University, Sokoto, Nigeria, and an M.L.S. from the University of Ibadan. His professional interests include library automation and international/comparative librarianship.

© 1992 Maxwell A. Oyinloye


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