World Libraries

The Pioneers: Francis Otieno Pala, 1931-1987

The soft-spoken Francis Otieno Pala, who died in a road accident on 16 March 1987, was an articulate professional and one of Kenya's pioneer librarians. Pala participated in the creation of a firm foundation for librarianship in the country; in fact, his activities determined the development and character of Kenyan librarianship.

Pala was born 14 August, 1931, at Kombewa village of Seme Location, in Kisumu District. He received his early education in Seme Location (1943-1948) before proceeding to Maseno CMS High School (1949-1955), where he completed the Overseas Cambridge School Certificate. He then joined the Royal Technical College (the nucleus of the University of Nairobi) before proceeding to Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. Pala obtained an Arts Degree from the University of London in 1960. He was one of Kenya's few pre-Independence graduates.

Choosing librarianship as his future career, Pala joined Makerere University College as a trainee Assistant Librarian. He obtained a scholarship to the McGill University Graduate School of Librarianship, Canada, in 1962. After completing the master's programme there, he moved to the Graduate School of Librarianship at Columbia University, USA, for another master's, choosing as an emphasis information, documentation, and education. He returned to Makerere in late 1965, later joining the University College in Nairobi as an Assistant Librarian. During this time Kenya had gained her independence and decided, like so many other ex-British colonies, to establish a national library service. Pala was to play a role. The Kenya National Library Services (KNLS) Act was gazetted in 1967, and Pala was selected to be its first Chief Librarian. For the next 10 years, he worked tirelessly to set up an effective infrastructure. He succeeded in building a new central library in Nairobi and area libraries in Eldoret, Embu, Garissa, Kakamega, Kericho, Kisumu, Mombasa, and Nyeri, linked to mobile services. For the first time, the majority of Kenyans had access to public library services. In 1977, the Regional Centre for Surveying and Mapping was set up in Nairobi and Pala was appointed as its documentalist. He worked there until his death.

Pala's vision for librarianship brought him into direct conflict with expatriate librarians, who dominated the Kenyan scene in the years pre- and post-Independence. He frequently criticized the expatriates for using the East African Library Association (EALA) as an exclusive club. In his view, EALA enhanced personal friendships at the expense of the education and training of African librarians. His unpopularity with expatriates earned him a reputation amongst the African librarians. His visibility increased when he was elected Chairman of the Kenya branch of EALA in 1970. Pala also acted as Chairman of the Kenya Library Association (KLA) when this body was formed in 1972. He was instrumental in urging the formation of the Standing Conference of Eastern, Central, and Southern African Librarians (SCECSAL) at the Nairobi conference of 1972.

Pala was also a noted player on the international scene, representing the interests of Kenya and Africa as a whole. He attended most of the IFLA's annual conferences and was one of the librarians who pressured for the formation of the IFLA Division on Regional Activities in 1976. During the 1971 IFLA Conference in Liverpool, UK, he supported the formation of the Commonwealth Library Association (COMLA), and was one of the Commonwealth librarians who met in London immediately afterwards to approve the preliminary meeting.

The education of librarians remained a strong interest of Pala's throughout his life; He was a member of the Council for Library Training in East Africa, and advised and guided the management of the East African School of Librarianship at Makerere. While attending the 1973 UNESCO general conference in Paris, he succeeded in attracting UNESCO funding to establish a para-professional library assistants course at Kenya Polytechnic. The funding lasted from 1974-1976, and the course has since been continued with government funding. This was the first librarianship training programme in Kenya.

About the Author

J. S. Musisi retired recently from a long career in Kenyan libraries. His first work was in the library of the Ministry of Agriculture, after which he served in various special and academic libraries. He was Chairman of the Kenya Library Association, and arranged for teh IFLA conference in Nairobi in 1984. Mr. Musisi earned a master's degree in librarianship at the Loughborough University of Technology, UK. His publications have appeared in many journals, including Assistant Librarian, COMLA Newsletter, IFLA Journal, and Maktaba.

© 1995 J. S. Musisi


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