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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Instilling knowledge through virtual libraries

Against the backdrop of the global new concept of the world as a global village, REMMY NWEKE examines the role of some ICT firms in redefining knowledge through virtual libraries.

In this day and age, libraries have evolved from the brick-and-mortar warehouse of physical books, journals and other such resources of yesteryears to today’s virtual store-house of information.

And being that the world has since emerged as a global village, Nigerian children stand little chance of competing with their counterparts from other parts of the world if not supported in terms of provision of fundamentals in the nation’s institutions and public enlightenment outlets like the libraries.

Notwithstanding the acute shortage of books in school libraries across the nation and where the books are available they are mutilated or stolen outright by desperate students who are unable to photocopy the parts they need for lack of money or unavailability of photocopiers in such public institutions. Hence, there is need to evolve a virtual means to make Nigerian schools and students globally competitive.

Virtual Library, thus, becomes an option for solution and has been defined by experts at wikipedia.org as the World Wide Web Virtual Library encapsulated as the first index of content on the World Wide Web (www) and still operates as a directory of e-texts and information sources on the web. Reputed to have been started by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML) used by the Web itself, in 1991 at CERN in Geneva, yet, for others, a digital library is a library in which collections are stored in digital formats as opposed to print, micro-form or other media and accessible from any part of the world at any time.

Equally of note is that years of neglect and financial starvation have left the nation’s public ivory towers on the brink of total collapse, with no luxury of time to bother about updating their stocks of books on most fields of learning. With a past as aforementioned and a future not assured of better funding, there is little or no hope Nigeria’s ivory towers could catch up with their peers across the world any time soon.

Recent reports by a London-based education magazine, the Time Higher Education (THE), noted that none of the tertiary institutions in Nigeria was among the first 500 institutions in the world ranking. That could not have been a surprise, when most of the institutions have their libraries stacked with books printed in the 60s even for such dynamic courses as computer science.

This is one reason parents who have the wherewithal prefer to send their children abroad for higher education. So, it was not surprising too that about 60,000 visa applications were reportedly received every month by the British High Commission in Nigeria from students wishing to study in the United Kingdom (UK). 

It is, for instance, doubtful if Philip Emeagwali, the Nigerian born ‘father of the Internet’ would have attained that height if he remained in Nigeria. There are thousands of other Emeagwalis in Nigeria’s institutions today who only need the right environment and facilities to bring out the best in them.

That is why the evolution to virtual libraries is a major advancement that all lovers of Nigeria should be very excited about. Virtual libraries remain the only way to bridge the wide gap between institutions in the country and those in the developed world.

Virtual libraries break down international boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge. From the remotest parts of Nigeria, through virtual libraries, students, lecturers and researchers could access books and other academic resources in libraries in the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, Japan or just about any country in the world in a matter of seconds.  

The question now is if funds were the major barrier against institutions keeping up to date books in their libraries, how would they manage to build virtual libraries? This becomes a big issue considering that the very essence of a virtual library lies in its connection to the limitless information beyond its four walls.

Basically, in a virtual library, there must be functional computers, broadband internet, constant power, photocopiers and other related accessories, in addition to having alliance with other virtual libraries around the globe and subscriptions have to be paid.

That is where the Public Private Partnership comes to play and to say the least, this kind of collaboration is already achieving wonders across the nation with the recent co-operation between some institutions and MTN Foundation (MTNF).

MTN Nigeria Communications Limited through this foundation is literally enthroning the concept of virtual library as a shortcut to revamping the nation’s educational system and through which MTN Foundation, has made substantial investment in the establishment of virtual libraries in three of Nigeria’s most notable public universities. 

The foundation has so far under its flagship project, UniversitiesConnect scheme, donated fully equipped virtual libraries to the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). While a fourth institution, the University of Benin (UNIBEN), has just been approved to benefit from the project. 

Based on MTNF outline, each virtual library is digitized laboratory made up of 128 networked personal computers, broadband internet access, three servers, two high capacity printers and a sound proof 100 KVA generating set.

Also, MTNF’s virtual library is linked to over 5,500 virtual libraries across the globe and cover courses including Arts, Law, Medicine, Architecture, Information Technology (IT), Communications, Business Management, Education to name a few.

While books, case studies and journals covering the various fields, including pictures and graphs come in Portable Document Formats (PDF) and are downloadable by students as well as lecturers from any of the virtual libraries, whereas the rights to these materials have been secured and paid for by the foundation.

The establishment of these libraries entails huge investment and tends to make equal difference in the existence of the benefitting institutions. Thus, during the formal commissioning of Phase 2 of the project in ABU Zaria, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of the institution, Prof. Abdulahi Shehu said that the library had increased the rating of the institution to 99 per cent by the National Universities Commission (NUC). 

In order to sustain the tempo around these virtual libraries, MTN Foundation came up with the plans to host regular workshops and interactive forum aimed at providing hands-on training for potential users of the libraries in the institutions where they have the facilities.

Speaking on this, the Corporate Services Executive, MTN Nigeria, Mr. Akinwale Goodluck, said, “it is MTN’s contribution to building a greater nation through the education of Nigerian youths.”

Some other companies have made commendable interventions in education in this country. For instance, MultiChoice Nigeria is providing resource centres in both secondary and tertiary institutions across the country. Cisco Systems Incorporated recently spent millions of Naira on its Cisco Network academy nationwide. The company provided free books and curriculum for students and also 75 per cent of the equipment and infrastructure used by the students.

At the moment, Cisco has full-fledged network academies in the University of Jos, University of Lagos, Lagos Business School and about 74 other institutions nationwide. Most of all, these are the kind of companies Nigeria needs to advance, especially the virtual library project by MTNF deserves commendation for the great promise it holds to literally bridge the divide between Nigerian institutions and those of the advanced countries of the world, even as more of this intervention is welcome anytime, any day.

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