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Ellen Ndeshi Namhila: A viewpoint from Namibia

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Building a profession in a young country

Difficult though it may be to acquire adequate resources on a small budget (so what's new, many librarians elsewhere may say) perhaps an even greater challenge lies in finding the skilled staff.

A nation's history is reflected in its libraries. In China, many collections were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. In Namibia, it was not so much the collections that were destroyed, but the workforce disempowered.

When librarianship was introduced into the country, it was done so by the South African apartheid government, which "saw it as a service of whites for whites". If Africans worked in libraries it was as cleaners, and then, when the policy of apartheid softened in the 1980s, as library assistants. And when independence came in 1990, many of the skilled people running the service went back to South Africa – "We don't have many grandmothers whom we can go to for wisdom" – and with those who left, librarianship was seen as unfashionable, a "housewife's hobby".

And yet, the newly independent Namibia hit the ground running as far as libraries were concerned – the national library, the polytechnic and UNAM were all established. Contrary to popular belief, libraries cannot just be run by a few people handing out books as a hobby – they need people with first class management and information and communications technologies (ICT) skills, as well as knowledge of how to make a complex service run seamlessly and smoothly. In a country crying out for librarians, there were few skilled people.

Lack of a skilled workforce means that key posts remain unfilled, crucially that of ICT librarian, because of the lack of ICT professionals working in librarianship. The need for such a post is critical when so much of a modern library service depends on having the right technology, not only for now, but also the future. In addition, people lack generic skills, such as writing project proposals, which makes delegation difficult.

Ms Namhila developed a strategy for capacity building which was inclusive rather than selective: she could have picked out promising individuals, but decided that the criteria of what was meant by "promising" was too subjective. Instead, she relied on training and mentoring, as well as allowing people to take on new projects and learn from the experience.

Plans for next year include spending an hour a week on staff training, in subjects of direct relevance, for example those involved in digitization will attend training in metadata. Workshops are held internally and external training is cascaded back to the rest of the staff.

There are staff development fellowships for people to go away to study (Australia and Cape Town have proved popular destinations), but only one person can go at a time, and those who don't want to wait can study by distance learning, their books and fees also paid from the library's budget.

Librarians are also being trained closer to home: UNAM's Department for Information and Communication Studies offers a Bachelor of Arts in Library Science, as well as a two year diploma, from which 60 per cent of the library's professional staff are drawn. Ms Namhila works closely with the department to provide advice and practical experience for students.

Nevertheless, the need remains to go abroad for advanced studies, not least because of the need for students to be exposed to a highly developed library service to expand their horizon.